BONAPARTE, Prince Roland (1858-1924)
Billy, Jenny and her son Toby: the last three survivors of R. A. Cunningham’s touring company of Aborigines from North Queensland. Paris, November 1885.
Two albumen print photographs, in identical 160 x 117 mm format (approximately cabinet card size); laid down side-by-side on their original mount of thin card, 310 x 405 mm, lower margin of the mount with a calligraphic caption in ink: Collection anthropologique du Prince Roland Bonaparte; both prints with some loss of contrast, scattered pale foxing to the prints and mount.
There are very few known photographic images of Australian Aborigines taken outside Australia in the nineteenth century. The two offered here are studio portraits taken in Paris in November 1885 by amateur ethnographer and photographer Prince Roland Bonaparte. The sitters are Billy, Jenny and Toby (posing with what is likely to be the Prince’s dog): by this date these three were the last survivors of Canadian promoter R. A. Cunningham’s international touring company of Aborigines who had been taken from North Queensland and ‘exhibited’ in North America, London and Europe in 1883-85.
Acting as an agent for P. T. Barnum, Cunningham had originally visited Australia in 1882 and ‘enticed’ nine Australian Aborigines from North Queensland to travel with him to North America as part of a special troupe which Barnum had formed. They were exhibited as ethnological curiosities and were coerced into performing acts such as boomerang-throwing on stage, producing an exotic spectacle for the amusement of an ignorant public and the benefit of the promoter’s pocket.
At the beginning of 1884, having assumed control of the group – now reduced to seven with the death of two of its members – Cunningham took them to Europe. They were photographed by Negretti & Zambra at the Crystal Palace, London, in April of that year. Several examples of images from this photographic session are known, which feature all seven members of the troupe in various combinations of personnel and pose.
By the time the group was photographed by Julius Schaar in Düsseldorf just a year later, it had been reduced to four surviving members: only Jenny, Toby (her son), Toby (her husband) and Billy remained alive, as three of their companions – Bob, Sussy and Jimmy – had died during 1885. Toby senior would die of tuberculosis a short time afterwards, early in November that year, in Paris.
Ultimately, Jenny, young Toby and Billy – all pictured in this pair of photographs taken by Prince Roland Bonaparte – would be the only three members of the group to return to Australia alive.
French aristocrat Roland Napoléon Bonaparte, 6th Prince of Canino and Musignano (1858-1924) was a dilettante with a keen interest in ethnology and photography. In 1884 – only a year before these photographs were taken – he had taken part in an expedition that had photographed and anatomically measured the Sámi inhabitants of Northern Norway. During later life he served as president of the Société de Géographie for fifteen years.
Between around 1883 and 1889 the Prince took many photographs of non-European visitors to Europe at venues such as the Jardin d’Acclimatation in Paris and the Colonial Exposition in Amsterdam. He compiled and published numerous portfolios (or albums) of these photographs of indigenous subjects from the around the world under the general title Collection Anthropologique du Prince Roland Bonaparte. These portfolios included photographic portraits of various peoples of North America; Africa; South, Southeast, and East Asia; and Australia. It is not clear exactly how many individual portfolios were produced by the Prince; they were probably not put together for commercial sale but rather to be given to friends, scientific colleagues and selected institutions (including the Royal Anthropological Institute in London). It is evident that over the last century or more, many of the portfolios that might otherwise have survived intact have been split; the mount offered here, for example, originated from one such portfolio.
Very rare. No examples of either of the two photographs offered here are held in Australian institutional collections.
Reference: Roslyn Poignant. Professional Savages : Captive Lives and Western Spectacle. Sydney : University of New South Wales Press, 2004. Royal Anthropological Institute, London. Poignant’s work reproduces a number of Bonaparte’s Paris portraits of Billy, Jenny and young Toby from originals in the collection of the Royal Anthropological Institute, London, including both portraits on the portfolio mount offered here, which are illustrated as plates 3 and 60.