# 41953

BONAPARTE, Prince Roland (1858-1924)

Billy, one of the last three survivors of R. A. Cunningham’s touring company of Aborigines from North Queensland. Paris, November 1885.

$12,000.00 AUD

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BONAPARTE, Prince Roland (1858-1924)

Billy, one of 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 large 220 x 170 mm format; 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; the prints are strong and with excellent clarity; some light foxing to both.

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 sitter is Billy, who by this time was one of only three 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, Billy, Jenny and young Toby – who were photographed together by Prince Bonaparte in Paris at the same time he took this remarkable pair of individual portraits of Billy – would be the only three members of the group to return to Australia alive.

Billy was the eldest of the three men from Hinchinbrook Island who were part of the original group of nine. ‘Reputedly a “medicine man”, Billy’s powerful presence is evident throughout their travels and he emerges as the central protagonist in the story of their journey….’ (Poignant, p. 4)

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. (The Prince’s front and profile portraits of Billy typify this obsession with anthropometry). 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 (where these photographs of Billy were taken) and the Colonial Exposition in Amsterdam. He compiled and published numerous portfolios (or albums) of these photographs of indigenous subjects from 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.

Bibliography: Roslyn Poignant. Professional Savages : Captive Lives and Western Spectacle. Sydney : University of New South Wales Press, 2004. 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 of Billy on the portfolio mount offered here, which are illustrated as plates 58 and 66.