This story is based on an excerpt from John Zubrzycki’s forthcoming book: Jadoowallahs. Jugglers and Jinns: A Magical History of India, which will be published by Picador on 30 June.
On 7 November 1889 an unusual procession marched down the main street of Melbourne. Watched by thousands of curious onlookers, the troupe of Indian magicians wearing turbans and brightly coloured flowing robes, accompanied by a trio of 'nautch dancers' and a pair of 'monkey boys' made their way to the city's court house demanding their wages and a passage home.
The ‘jugglers' mutiny' as it became known, was perhaps the most unusual protest the colony of Victoria had ever seen. Six months earlier a man named Charles Bastard, the manager of a Calcutta skating rink, had recruited the troupe to perform in his 'Museum of Indian Curiosities’.
It was not the first time Indian magicians or ‘jugglers’ had been brought to Australia. On 21 May 1853, Rowe’s American Circus presented as part of its show in Melbourne ‘a company of five most deservedly celebrated Indian jugglers’.
‘Of all the professors of sleight of hand, legerdemain, etc, none pretend to equal, much less to excel, the Chinese and Indian jugglers,’
one newspaper reported.
‘And of all the extraordinary performers, those of this Company by far exceed anything of the kind which has ever been witnessed outside of India!. They are truly the Wonder of Wonders.’
The next large troupe to visit Australia was ‘Afghan Museum and Oriental Curiosity Bazaar,’ with its company of ‘Cabul jugglers and East Indian Magicians’ which arrived in 1880. Aside from Goolum Abdullah Ghos, who was billed as the ‘Great Cabul Juggler, Necromancer and Royal Magician to the ex-Ameer of Cabul, Mahomet Yakob Khan’, the rest of the troupe were from India.
No doubt inspired by the success of the ‘Cabul jugglers’, Charles Bastard went into partnership with an American named Henry Washburn and recruited a dozen Indian magicians and show people from around Lucknow.
The ‘Museum of Indian Curiosities’ opened in Adelaide in June 1889. The Evening Journal reported such a large crowd attending the opening night that temporary platforms had to be erected. The curiosities included a five-legged cow, weapons, musical instruments, shoes, trays, inlaid marble work, idols, toys, ornaments, armour, and a brass model of the Golden Temple at Banaras.
The performers consisted of ‘three pretty young women, said to be Queens of the late King of Oude, who sat in a canopied apartment smoking an Indian hookah’; Hunisraj,‘a chief from Gwalior’ who had a beard ‘of extraordinary length’; the ‘monkey boys’, described as ‘novel specimens of humanity’; and a contortionist who moved like a snake.
There was also Painee Pindarrum,‘a juggler of high order’ who demonstrated the cups and balls trick, produced fire from his mouth and spat out dozens of two-inch-long nails, and Galip Sahib who executed the Basket Trick with a young girl named Giddy.
The greatest curiosity was a fifteen-year-old boy from Banaras named Murshy Samee who in addition to having a deformed body and legs, had a head more than a three feet in circumference. According to press reports, the Royal Museum enjoyed steady patronage with the ‘native queens’ and the ‘monkey boys’ being particularly popular.
Within a few weeks of their arrival in Melbourne, however, police were called to investigate allegations of mistreatment. One of the jugglers allegedly bit the show’s manager, Harry Friedman, after he tried to stop his allowance of two glasses of whiskey between evening performances.
Things took a turn for the worse in late October when a juggler committed suicide. At a coroner’s inquest into his death, Bastard blamed the suicide on the man’s heavy drinking. Another member of the troupe, however, accused Bastard of threatening to imprison the juggler after a disturbance among the Indians a week earlier. The evidence was dismissed by the jury, which found alcoholism to have been the cause.
During the course of the inquest it emerged that the troupe was housed eight people to a room. One of the police inspectors recommended that instead of being exhibited, the ‘monkey boys’ should be put into an insane asylum.
Minus one of their jugglers, the troupe resumed performances at the Grand Palace of Amusement. But their return to the stage was short-lived. Bastard and Washburn were charged with embezzlement, leaving the Indians without a salary and contracts that were worthless.
On 7 November 1889, the troupe staged what the local press described as a ‘mutiny’ and marched down Melbourne Swanston Street. According to the Melbourne Herald, members of the public stood aghast at the spectacle, particularly the ‘monkey boys’ who ‘squealed and kicked and romped around like little puppy dogs’ when they were refused entry into the court.
Eventually they were allowed to appear before the presiding magistrate and demanded their return passages to India now that their contracts had expired. Although the two men who had recruited them were clearly at fault, the judge showed little sympathy for the plight of the Indians, focusing instead on the potential inconvenience they posed. He gave Bastard until the following Monday to arrange for return passages.
The passing of the deadline without a resolution brought matters to a head. Once again, the troupe marched through Melbourne, taking up position in a yard adjacent to court and refused to move. After the police arrested one of the men, the chief juggler started gesticulating wildly to the others. When the crowd grew to such an extent that the traffic was interrupted, the police locked all the Indians up on a charge of insulting behaviour.
‘They resisted violently,’
The Argus reported.
‘The idiots, known as the Monkey Boys, fighting with teeth and nails.’
At the court appearance the following day, an interpreter explained to the judge that the ‘Queens of Oude’ were in fact low caste women from Madras and the ‘monkey boys’ were the offspring of a leprous mother.
With no prospect of their contracts being honored and the conduct of the case reflecting poorly on the governance and policing of the state, the Victorian government decided to repatriate the group at the cost of £11 per person. They arrived in Madras on 31 December 1889.
This was not the first time Indian show people had been abandoned by their impresarios. On the streets of cities such as London, Brussels and Berlin, hundreds of magicians, snake charmers, sword swallowers, dancers and musicians could be found begging for their next meal.
Fuelled by the craze for exotic displays to satisfy the curiosity of millions of people visiting international exhibitions and world fairs in the late nineteenth century, there were huge profits to be made from recruiting impoverished Indian performers. It was not until the 1920s that the practice was finally stopped.
John Zubrzycki is a Sydney-based author. His forthcoming book - Jadoowallahs, Jugglers and Jinns: A Magical History of India will be published by Picador in June.
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