"Professional Savages" by Roslyn Poignant

Professional Savages Captive Lives and Western Spectacle Roslyn Poignant

Publication date:
14 Jan 2014
Yale University Press
320 pages: 235 x 190mm
86 b-w illus.
Sales territories:
World excluding Australia and New Zealand


In August 1882 the circus impresario P. T. Barnum called for examples of “all the uncivilized races in existence.” In response, the showman R. A. Cunningham shipped two groups of Australian Aborigines to the United States. They were displayed as “cannibals” in circuses, dime museums, fairgrounds, and other showplaces in America and Europe and examined and photographed by anthropologists.

Roslyn Poignant tells the fascinating and often searing story of the transformation of the Aboriginal travelers into accomplished performers, professional savages who survived at least for a short time by virtue of the strengths they drew from their own culture and their individual adaptability. Most died somewhere on tour. A century later, the mummified body of Tambo, the first to die, was discovered in the basement of a recently closed funeral home in Cleveland, Ohio. Poignant recounts how Tambo’s posthumous repatriation stimulated a cultural renewal within the community from which he came, exposing the roots of present social and economic injustices experienced by indigenous Australians.

Roslyn Poignant is the author, with Axel Poignant, of Encounter at Nagalarramba and curator of Captive Lives: Looking for Tambo and His Companions, an exhibition for the National Library of Australia. She is an honorary research fellow in the Department of Anthropology at University College, London, and member of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies.

Shortlisted in the New South Wales Premier's History Awards 2005 for the State Records NSW John & Patricia Ward Prize.

Finalist for the 2004 George Freedley Memorial Award given by the Theatre Library Association