Henry Pepys, Bishop of Worcester since 1840, performed a baptism in the ancient cathedral on 27 January 1851. This was unusual, for previous baptisms had been in April 1850 and October 1847 and because as entry 32 of the register recorded, the parents were ‘Natives of South Africa’. The baby girl had been born in Leicester on 21 December 1850, her father being a Zulu and her mother from the Amaponda people of South Africa. They, with a third African, had reached London on the Jane on 8 August 1850 and worked as fairground attractions for the Tylers. Bishop Pepys seems to have had no associations with Africa and we do not know why he agreed to the baptism. The baby was christened Leicester England Macomba (or Macomper).
The newspapers reported the event, noting that ‘hundreds of women and children’ followed the carriage to the cathedral where the parents were ‘immediately surrounded by a most impudent rabble, composed of the very dregs of the Worcester population’. Berrow’s Worcester Journal of 30 January noted the ‘shameful behaviour of a mob’ and suggested that some had never been in a church before and the ‘noise and confusion’ were so great that the Bishop had to stop more than once until some order had been restored. Bells were rung and a brass band led the parade down the High Street. The Worcester Chronicle commented the language used by the mob would have ‘disgraced a gin-palace’ and that the ‘absurd name’ should have been rejected. Some of the women were hatless, a rare sight in a house of worship in Victorian times; and some men did not wear jackets. The Africans (the father ‘the Zoolu chief’ may not have been present) later left for Nottingham.
They had been exhibited at the Ethnological Society in London on 15 January and were to appear in Worcester in early February. In Manchester at Easter 1852 the Africans appeared at the Knott Mill Fair (according to the Manchester Guardian, 14 April 1852).
Human zoos such as this one were part of British fairground and theatrical presentations, and soon were to expand to number dozens as ‘Somali villages’ and ‘Dahomey Warriors’ toured. Several such African groups had members from regions of Africa far from those claimed by promoters but all presented an image of black people that certainly attracted attention.
How Bishop Pepys and the cathedral’s officials became involved in this ceremony remains unknown.
Thanks to Maureen Hines for investigating in Worcester
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