Thursday, September 10, 2009


Box asks Cox if he has "seen the Bosjesmans?" This Afrikaans word for Bushmen refers to an indigenous people of South Africa, the Hottentots. In 1847, there was an exhibit at the Egyptian Hall in Picadilly of two men, two women, and an infant, as a sort of ethnographic show.

The Bosjesmans, or Bushmen, appear to be the remains of Hottentot hordes, who have been driven, by the gradual encroachments of the European colonists, to seek for refuge among the inaccessible rocks and sterile desert of the interior of Africa. Most of the hordes known in the colony by the name of Bushmen are now entirely destitute of flocks or herds, and subsist partly by the chase, partly on the wild roots of the wilderness, and in times of scarcity on reptiles, grasshoppers, and the larvae of ants, or by plundering their hereditary foes and oppressors, the frontier Boers. In seasons when every green herb is devoured by swarms of locusts, and when the wild game in consequence desert the pastures of the wilderness, the Bushman finds a resource in the very calamity which would overwhelm an agricultural or civilized community. He lives by devouring the devourers; he subsists for weeks and months on locusts alone, and also preserves a stock of this food dried, as we do herrings or pilchards, for future consumption.
The Bushman retains the ancient arms of the Hottentot race, namely, a javelin or assagai, similar to that of the Caffres, and a bow and arrows. The latter, which are his principal weapons both for war and the chase, are small in size and formed of slight materials; but, owing to the deadly poison with which the arrows are imbued, and the dexterity with which they are launched, they are missiles truly formidable. One of these arrows, formed merely of a piece of slender reed tipped with bone or iron, is sufficient to destroy the most powerful animal. But, although the colonists very much dread the effects of the Bushman's arrow, they know how to elude its range; and it is after all but a very unequal match for the fire-lock, as the persecuted natives by sad experience have found. The arrows are usually kept in a quiver, formed of the hollow stalk of a species of aloe, and slung over the shoulder; but a few, for immediate use, are often stuck in a band round the head.
A group of Bosjesmans, comprising two men, two women, and a child, were recently brought to this country and exhibited at the Egyptian Hall, in Piccadilly. The women wore mantles and conical caps of hide, and gold ornaments in their ears. The men also wore a sort of skin cloak, which hung down to their knees, over a close tunic: the legs and feet were bare in both. Their sheep-skin mantles, sewed together with threads of sinew, and rendered soft and pliable by friction, sufficed for a garment by day and a blanket by night. These Bosjesmans exhibited a variety of the customs of their native country. Their whoops were sometimes so loud as to be startling, and they occasionally seemed to consider the attention of the spectators as an affront.

From The Illustrated London News

They were a huge draw at the Egyptian Hall, but their combination of familiar human form with outlandish customs sometimes caused as much repulsion and disgust as fascination. Charles Dickens wrote:

Think of the Bushmen. Think of the two men and the two women who have been exhibited about England for some years. Are the majority of persons - who remember the horrid little leader of that party in his festering bundle of hides, with his filth and his antipathy to water, and his straddled legs, and his odious eyes shaded by his brutal hand, and his cry of 'Qu-u-u-u-aaa!' (Bosjesman for something desperately insulting I have no doubt) - conscious of an affectionate yearning towards that noble savage, or is it idiosyncratic in me to abhor, detest, abominate, and abjure him? I have no reserve on this subject, and will frankly state that, setting aside that stage of the entertainment when he counterfeited the death of some creature he had shot, by laying his head on his hand and shaking his left leg - at which time I think it would have been justifiable homicide to slay him - I have never seen that group sleeping, smoking, and expectorating round their brazier, but I have sincerely desired that something might happen to the charcoal smouldering therein, which would cause the immediate suffocation of the whole of the noble strangers.

All in all, not the type of comfortable relaxation a conservative Victorian might prefer. Uncouth habits and scanty dress might well lead a strong-minded fiancee to forbid the sight to her intended.

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