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Wild Australia Show

by Michael Aird, Lindy Allen, Chantal Knowles, Paul Memmott, Maria Nugent, Tim O'Rourke and Jonathan Richards

Wild Australia Show performers, Sydney, 1892, by Charles H. Kerry

Wild Australia Show performers, Sydney, 1892, by Charles H. Kerry

University of Queensland Library, 2493d40

The Wild Australia Show (1892–1893) was a travelling troupe of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people that performed in Brisbane, Sydney, and Melbourne from late 1892 until mid-1893. The show comprised twenty-one men, five women, and one child. There is considerable variation in the rendering of their names. This reflects the difficulties that colonisers had in hearing Aboriginal pronunciation and voice expression, and the fact that Aboriginal people often carried multiple names and identity labels. Therefore, in most cases, two names are offered here: contemporary linguistically derived spellings followed by the most common spellings of their names at the time of the troupe’s existence. Commonly accepted contemporary spellings of their ancestral or language groups are also provided.

Dangakura/Tungagora, Kudajarnd/Cootajandra, Kulindab/Koolindaboo, Langinkab/Langingubble, and Narimbu were Wakaya speakers; Yangala/Yungulla spoke Kalkadungu/Kalkatungu; Kularinga/Cullaringo was a member of Mayikulan/Mayi-Kulan language group; Jerang, Kuthanta/Coothundah, and Yungkwa/Yungquah were Kuthant/Gkuthaarn speakers; Arilda/Arillddah, Jerrakul/Jerracool, Juwanju/Juanju, Najindin/Nudgindin, and Werdbura/Werboora were members of the Walangama language group; Ambirrtha/Umbertha, Kungarra/Coongarra, and Kungkardi/Ookathunda spoke Kurtjar; Nerrthu/Nerdtho was from the Dungulla/Mitchell River area; Madila/Madillah spoke Goinchilla; Bula, Dugum/Diam, Gida/Geedah, Kawara/Cowra, and Kemaliya/Camaleea were Kaurareg; Ramura/Ramoorah spoke Ariba/Areba; and Yamurra was Kabi Kabi/Gubi Gubi.

The troupe emerged in a period when ethnological exhibitions and human displays were a popular form of entertainment. The Wild Australia Show was conceived by Archibald Meston and his junior business partner Brabazon Purcell in response to a call for representatives of all cultures to appear at the World’s Columbian Exposition to be held in Chicago in 1893. Meston’s intention, as he explained it:

Was to make a tour of the world delivering a series of ethnological lectures … to dispel prevailing ideas with regard to [the] natives of this continent. For that purpose I went to considerable trouble and expense to select representative men from the wild tribes of the West and North of Queensland, where they, so far, have not been contaminated by civilisation. (Brisbane Courier 1893, 6)

As mentioned, Meston also recruited some women and a child. Recruitment took nearly a year to complete. The five Wakaya people from the Lake Nash region were the first to join when they encountered Purcell in late 1891 on a reconnaissance trip in the Queensland border regions. The last to sign on was Kabi Kabi man Yamurra (aka Bob), who joined when the troupe was already in rehearsal in Brisbane in late 1892. Some of the younger men and the women who accompanied them were recruited from town camps in the Gulf of Carpentaria on the colonial Queensland frontier. It is likely that some had experience working for pastoralists or as native police before joining the Wild Australia Show. Gida, also known as King Gida, was from Muralag (Prince of Wales Island), but he joined from Waiben (Thursday Island). He was accompanied by his wife, Kemaliya, and child, Kawara, along with two other Kaurareg dancers, Bula and Dugum.

Without their own accounts it is difficult to plumb what motivated the performers to join a speculative enterprise that would take them a long way from home for an indefinite period of time, and to know what hopes they carried with them as they embarked for the journey south. While there were accusations against Purcell that he had used coercion and force, it also seems that some of the young men chose to join the troupe with the expectation of an extended journey and recompense for their accomplished dances and ceremonies. When the troupe members joined the show, they understood they would be away for about two years or ‘24 moons’ (QSA ITM847483). Although an extensive tour through Australia, New Zealand, Europe, and North America had been anticipated, ultimately the troupe travelled no further than Australia’s eastern seaboard and the entire tour only lasted nine months. A combination of factors, including financial mismanagement, contractual issues, audience response, and market conditions, particularly the 1890s depression that hit Melbourne just as the troupe arrived there, as well as New South Wales government interference, contributed to the show’s premature demise.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the challenges they faced as they travelled to unfamiliar environments, the troupe members bonded together to form a supportive and cohesive group as they moved from place to place, performing before sometimes fickle metropolitan audiences. Three men appear to have assumed leadership and authority within the group: Gida from Muralug; Kudajarnd, a Wakaya man; and Kabi Kabi man, Yamurra. Gida and Kudajarnd possessed personal authority among the other performers due to their age, life experience, cultural knowledge, and personal charisma. Kudajarnd in particular was a highly initiated man. English-speaking Yamurra, the only one to come from southern Queensland, appears to have been invited by Meston to join the tour and to act as an intermediary between the performers and the impresarios as well as government officials, police, photographers, audiences, agents, and various others with whom they came in contact. As the partnership between Meston and Purcell gradually eroded and then fell apart, the performers’ commitment to each other only strengthened. The twenty-seven troupe members remained together for the entire nine months they spent on a demanding three-city tour.

The Wild Australia Show’s repertoire was composed of a combination of displays of skills, such as spear and boomerang throwing and fire-making, and of dances and ceremonies that were modified for the stage and made more spectacular by light and sound. In these ways, the show conformed to the conventions of live ethnographic and ‘exotic’ performances of the period. However, a distinctive feature of its repertoire was that it showcased dances and ceremonies that were particular to the regions and clans of the performers. For instance, after witnessing a Torres Strait Islander dance performed by the three Kaurereg men wearing distinctive masks and playing drums, audiences were shown a Wakaya dance performed by men adorned with feathers on their bodies and wearing conical headdresses. This regional specificity was often underlined in publicity materials, interviews with Meston, and other press reports. It was further reinforced during performances that were accompanied by an explanatory lecture, or monologue, delivered by Meston, who assumed the mantle of ethnographic expert and sought to explain to audiences the particular ceremonies and beliefs of the nine different cultural groups represented by the performers.

The show’s repertoire also drew inspiration from ethnographic acts outside Australia, especially the hugely popular Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, the similarity in names being no coincidence. In particular, it borrowed from Cody the performance of a historical tableau or mini drama as the final act. In the Wild West Show, this was usually an attack on a homestead; in the Wild Australia Show, it was a murderous assault on a swagman’s camp followed by violent retribution by the native police. In this drama, all the violence was committed by Aboriginal people. The settler characters were portrayed as innocent and undeserving victims, reinforcing the myths of Queensland’s violent frontier and eclipsing the lived realities of the times, from which it is likely that some of the Wild Australia Show performers were seeking escape.

Opening at the Brisbane Opera House, the Wild Australia Show commenced its official season of public performances in December 1892. Its performances were well received and highly praised in the local press. Evening shows were complemented by open-air performances at the city’s showgrounds. Booked to perform at the Royal Aquarium and Pleasure Grounds (Bondi Aquarium) on Boxing Day, the troupe travelled by steamer to Sydney, where they stayed at cottages near the grounds. The troupe immediately came to the attention of the zealous New South Wales Aborigines Protection Board, which was pursuing a policy of segregation and containment. A police report on the troupe and its activities was prepared, and the New South Wales authorities communicated with their counterparts in Queensland, asking how it was that the troupe had been allowed to leave that colony.

Despite the government’s meddling, the troupe enjoyed a successful summer season in Sydney, attracting large crowds and good reviews. It was extensively photographed by Charles Kerry of Kerry & Co., one of the leading photographic studios in Sydney. The new open-air venue allowed some innovation in the programming, and the mock fights and demonstrations of boomerang and spear-throwing and fire-making were taken onto the lawns where Meston could not intervene with his monologue. As the displays outside became freer and more demonstrative they departed in style and atmosphere from the more stilted and staged show in the hall. Newspaper reports suggest that the Torres Strait Islander men had proposed to wrestle with sharks in an aquarium, but since the spectacle was called off by ‘the authorities’ (Sydney Morning Herald 1893, 9) it is impossible to tell if it was a publicity stunt or a serious prospect. Whatever the case, it is clear from press coverage that the Wild Australia Show was differently received in Sydney, where the violent frontier had passed into memory, compared with Brisbane, where the violence in the colony’s north was daily fodder in the local press.

Following its Sydney season, the Wild Australia Show was booked to perform at the Australian Natives’ Association fete at the Exhibition Building in Melbourne on 26 January 1893. The show had been contracted to demonstrate boomerang and spear-throwing in the grounds. This performance was not a success, perhaps due to the fatigue that the performers were feeling or as an effect of a rift that was opening up between the impresarios. The ANA, a patriotic organisation representing white native-born Australians, claimed that the troupe had not fulfilled its contractual responsibilities, adding to its already precarious financial position. At this point, Archibald Meston abandoned the show, hurrying to Sydney to finalise a sale of artefacts to the Australian Museum and trying to free himself from any further financial involvement in a scheme that was unravelling. His business partner, Purcell, remained with the troupe in Melbourne, taking over the role of providing lectures, and endeavoured to make it viable through booking performances whenever and wherever possible. The troupe performed at the Rotunda Hall in Bourke Street for eight weeks from mid-March to May 1893 and also appeared at the Grand National Baby Show at the Exhibition Building. An ‘unfortunate incident’ (Argus 1893, 6) occurred at the latter event when a spear rebounded, piercing a visitor’s ankle; the wounded man was taken to hospital, but his injury proved not to be serious.

In contrast to the New South Wales Aborigines Protection Board’s overweening interest in the Wild Australia Show’s activities, the Victorian Board for the Protection of Aborigines washed its administrative hands of it. The Victorian government’s position was that it supported only Victorian Aboriginal people, and then only minimally, as it vigorously pursued an assimilationist agenda. In Melbourne, select troupe members were photographed by John William Lindt, a leading photographer, and an album of these ethnographic photographs is held in the British Museum.

The troupe returned to Sydney in May 1893 and again Purcell sought opportunities to cover costs and provide for the performers but with little success. A request to perform in The Domain was denied. It had a contract, though, to perform in George Rignold’s production of the play It’s Never Too Late to Mend (based on the novel by Charles Reade) at Her Majesty’s Theatre, seemingly performing elements of the Wild Australia Show at various points in the staged drama. One press report noted that:

[Of] the remarkable doings of the Queensland aborigines in the bush scenes, and … the weird wonders of the attack on the hut, the whizzing of flame-tipped spears, the strange dances, the fire lighting by means of friction, and the many other things that these people bring to us from the wilderness, we may say that this portion of the performance evoked the wildest enthusiasm, and in each instance the curtain had to be raised several times. (Australian Star 1893, 3)

The troupe was invited to appear at Government House for Lord and Lady Duff and guests after their daughters had seen them in the play. According to one report: ‘A corroboree on a small scale was given, and the natives also showed their prowess in boomerang and womerah [sic] spear-throwing. At the conclusion of the display the Governor was made the recipient of several souvenirs of the occasion’ (Evening News, 1893, 3). While in Sydney on this second occasion, troupe members were again photographed, this time by Henry King. King and Kerry’s photographs were sold as souvenirs to a public that quickly forgot the specific context of the show, the photographs joining a retinue of generic images of Aboriginal people.

Soon the machinations of intercolonial governance turned against the Wild Australia Show. With much pressure applied by the New South Wales authorities on the Queensland colonial secretary to disband the troupe and return the performers to their homes, the Wild Australia Show departed Sydney by steamer on 13 July 1893, travelling to the northern Queensland ports via Brisbane. The venture had captured audiences’ attention and booked an impressive number of shows that must have been exhausting for the performers. Yet, despite its popularity, it was not financially successful. Meston’s lack of business acumen, the challenges posed by inclement weather in outdoor settings, and pressure from protection boards combined to bring the show to an early close. The archival record does not reveal the troupe members’ thoughts and feelings about this forced and premature conclusion to their tour, although the fact that one performer, either Dugum or Bula, remained behind in Sydney for a short time longer might suggest that not all were ready or willing to go. Very little is known of the lives of performers after their return home, apart from the Kaurareg man Gida.

Although the Wild Australia Show never left Australia, it nevertheless belongs to a larger global history of popular performance. In telling the story of these performance troupes, the challenge is to keep the individual performers in view while also understanding the wider contexts in which they performed, and that influenced their choices and experiences. The powerful effect of restoring personal names—and thus identities and biographies—to the individuals who constitute the collective is beautifully conveyed through a single early photograph of the troupe. Taken in Brisbane in October 1892 on the occasion of the troupe’s first public performance, it has since been overlaid with handwritten annotations that identify each person by name. This works to transform the generic Wild Australia Show into a picture of twenty-seven individuals whose lives and fates were shaped for a short time by the experience of publicly performing one’s self and culture for the entertainment, enjoyment, and edification of many, and for the financial gain of a few. In 2017 a banner exhibition toured north and north-west Queensland to share the forgotten story of the Wild Australia Show and to capture family and community memories that might further help to bring both the show and its performers into view. 

This piece was authored collaboratively by Michael Aird, Lindy Allen, Chantal Knowles, Paul Memmott, Maria Nugent, Tim O’Rourke, and Jonathan Richards. It was written on the lands of the Ngunnawal and Ngambri (Walgalu) peoples at the Australian National University, Canberra, and on Yagara (Yuggera) and Turrbal lands at the University of Queensland, Brisbane. Acknowledgments to Alex Bond, Charles Passi, and Milton Savage for contributions to research.

References 

Aird, Michael, Mandana Mapar, and Paul Memmott. Wild Australia, Meston’s Wild Australia Show 1892–1893. St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Anthropology Museum, 2015. Exhibition catalogue. 

Aird, Michael, and Paul Memmott. ‘Photographic Identification of the Troupe Members of the Wild Australia Show.’ Memoirs of the Queensland Museum—Culture 12 (2021): 7–26. 

Argus (Melbourne). ‘The Baby Show.’ 17 February 1893, 6. 

Australian Star. ‘Stage, Song and Show.’ 29 May 1893, 3. 

Brisbane Courier. ‘Wild Australia.’ 11 January 1893, 6. 

Evening News (Sydney). ‘The Governor and Aborigines.’ 22 June 1893, 3. 

Nugent, Maria. ‘“Protection Talk” and Popular Performance: The Wild Australia Show on Tour, 1892–1893.’ In Aboriginal Protection and Its Intermediaries in Britain’s Antipodean Colonies, edited by Samuel Furphy and Amanda Nettelbeck, 229–47. New York: Routledge, 2020. 

Queensland State Archives. Item ID ITM847483, 1893/5901. 

Sydney Morning Herald. ‘Bondi Aquarium.’ 2 January 1893, 9.

Original publication

  • Indigenous Australian Dictionary of Biography , 2022

Additional Resources

Citation details

Michael Aird, Lindy Allen, Chantal Knowles, Paul Memmott, Maria Nugent, Tim O'Rourke and Jonathan Richards, 'Wild Australia Show', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/essay/30/text41244, originally published 23 January 2023, accessed 20 April 2024.

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