First contacts, first exhibits from 1492 to the Enlightenment

“From the Renaissance and the conquest of the Americas on, racism is to be found everywhere. In the colonized regions of the world, it serves to discredit the majority, whereas among the colonizers, it marginalizes minorities.”

Eduardo Galeano (2005)

Knowledge about the world changed dramatically around 1492 when Europe discovered the figure of the “savage” in the guise of the Amerindian. Christopher Columbus returned from one of his earliest expeditions and presented six Amerindians to the Spanish royal court, thereby triggering widespread fascination for everything that was considered remote. In 1528, Hernán Cortés exhibited Aztec performers at the court of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. In 1550, a royal procession in Rouen before the French King Henry II featured Tupinamba Indians from Brazil. It was at this time that the Valladolid debatetook place concerning the treatment of natives from the New World. Hierarchies based on skin color became commonplace and the transatlantic slave trade would later impact millions of Africans. “Monsters” such as Antonietta Gonsalvus (who suffered from Hypertrichosis, a condition characterized by excessive hair growth) were also exhibited, just like her father Petrus had been when he was offered at age ten to King Henry II.

Alongside these humans, exotica displayed in cabinets of curiosities were also coveted by monarchs and aristocrats throughout the sixteenth century. In 1654, three female and one male Eskimo, abducted in Greenland, were exhibited in Denmark (where they would die five years later) and introduced to King Frederick III, thereby reinvigorating a newfound “passion for exotica”. A clash between two types would emerge during the following century, that of the “noble savage” and the “bloodthirsty savage”, curiosity for human exhibits displayed in taverns and at fairs continued to grow, and by the end of the eighteenth century to capture the attention of learned scientists. By this time, some “human specimens” had achieved celebrity status, such as the Polynesian Aotourouv who was brought to Paris in 1769 to meet King Louis XV. A similar fate awaited the Polynesian Omaï in London 1774. The entertainment and scientific world thus intersected, and the nineteenth century would gradually yield a hierarchized view of these questions. The increasing popularity and prevalence of “ethnic shows” thus played an important role in disseminating these views.



The Polynesian Omaï (1774-1776)

In 1774, a young Pacific islander named Omaï arrived in Great Britain for a two year stay. He was outfitted with a velvet overcoat, silk waistcoat and satin breeches, and coached in court etiquette in anticipation of his presentation to King George III. He was embraced by England’s social elite and treated with great respect. His elegance was extensively discussed and confirmed his audience’s belief that he was an emissary from the court of “Otaheite”. He rapidly became a celebrity and his presence was recorded in several works of literature, theatrical performances, and portraits.


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