The Pygmies who visited Edwardian England

By Trevor Gibbons
BBC News, Yorkshire

Image source, Unknown
Image caption, The African visitors attracted a lot of interest in Edwardian England

The extraordinary story of how a group of African Pygmies came to spend time on an East Yorkshire estate more than 100 years ago has been told by a county archive celebrating its 60th anniversary. The East Riding public archive recently tweeted a picture of the Pygmies' little-known visit to Edwardian England.

Colonel James Harrison of Brandesburton Hall, in East Yorkshire, was a soldier, traveller and big game hunter.

While travelling through the Congo River basin in 1904 he met the indigenous Pygmy tribe of the Ituri Forest.

Colonel Harrison apparently saw nothing unusual in arranging for a group of six "little pygmie friends" all between 3ft 10in (1.2m) and 4ft 5in (1.4m) to be brought back to England with him.

The group spent 30 months in England appearing at the London Hippodrome, Olympia and the House of Commons, said Ian Mason, archives manager for the East Riding Archive.

Made arrowheads

In between trips they stayed in the grounds of Colonel Harrison's ancestral seat at Brandesburton Hall and wandered freely around the area.

They spent their free time walking around the East Yorkshire village and hunted birds and rabbits in the surrounding parkland.

Image source, W & D Downey
Image caption, Postcards of the group were produced to commemorate the visit

It appears the Pygmies became a familiar sight in the area.

They even made arrowheads at the local blacksmiths and joined in the Sunday school singing, said Mr Mason.

The group used a combination of broken English and sign language to communicate.

Colonel Harrison wrote a book about his experiences among the Pygmies of Ituri Forest and explained in it how he made assurances the travelling group were volunteers, who would be well treated and returned to their homes.

And that is how the 22-year-old "Chief" Bokane, and the "Princess" Quarke, 22, along with Mogonga, 18, Masutiminga, 22, Matuka, 23, and Amurape, the oldest at 31, arrived in London in June 1905 via Egypt.

Not everyone was as keen as the colonel to bring the party to the country.

Human rights organisation the Aborigines' Protection Society apparently lobbied the Foreign Office hoping to stop the visit but Colonel Harrison was able to bring the group into the country because they were not English citizens.

The society, founded in 1837, was designed to protect the rights of indigenous peoples. It merged with the Anti-Slavery Society in 1909.

Celebrity attention

Mr Mason explained the episode is remembered by a collection of photographs in the East Riding Archive.

He said: "The papers on the visit were collected by a local historian.

"This unusual story is why we keep things in archives - it helps to tell us about social attitudes of the time.

"The Pygmies were probably considered 'primitive' by the people who saw them, although there is no evidence they were badly treated."

The unusual visitors attracted a kind of celebrity and with it a lot of attention.

A gramophone recording was even made of the Pygmies speaking in their native language.

Image source, Scott Series
Image caption, Colonel Harrison said the group volunteered for the trip

In August 1905 when they went on show in Brandesburton it was said about 3,000 people paid to see them.

They also appeared around East Yorkshire including at Londesborough Hall, Market Weighton and the assembly rooms in Beverley, Withernsea and Hornsea.

In November 1907 the group left the country having sailed from Hull and were returned by 1908 to their home in an area now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo.

All six had survived their European odyssey.

'Displayed disgustingly'

Professor Jane Plastow, director of the Leeds University Centre for African Studies (LUCAS), said: "There are lots of examples of people being exhibited and toured as freak shows.

"At least this was a more humane example. The Brandesburton Pygmies would appear to be the last gasp of a history of much more dishonourable displays.

"The so-called Hottentot Venus was brought over to this country and displayed disgustingly."

South African Saartjie Baartman, who was known as the Hottentot Venus, was born in around 1780, brought to London in 1810, and put on display where she attracted much prurient public attention for her protuberant buttocks.

She later went to Paris where she died in poverty and her skeleton was displayed.

It remained on show in the city's Museum of Mankind until 1974. In 2002, her remains were repatriated and buried in South Africa.

Prof Plastow added: "There was a fascination with people with physical differences that seems bizarre to us.

"We have people like us and 'the others', by displaying them as other they are an 'out-group' and we don't have to think of them."

LUCAS currently organises visits by postgraduate African students into Leeds primary schools.

"Even now primary school children often have a extremely stereotypical view of Africa, even in multi-cultural schools," added Prof Plastow.

She said it was hoped the visits would improve the children's understanding of African life.

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