217 : Somalis in London in 1895

Towards the end of April 1895 sixty-six Somalis arrived on the Clan Ross at Tilbury. The Era stated they were to ‘people the East African village’ at the Crystal Palace ‘during the next few months. The Africans are of a very fine type, some of the men almost handsome, with gleaming white teeth, and skins like burnished copper’. There were six children, and a menagerie of animals including lions, cheetahs, racing dromedaries and ostriches as well as materials for them to assemble the huts in which they would live that summer. The venture was by German impresario Carl Hagenbeck. ‘A complete picture of African life’ would be presented on the grassy slopes of Sydenham Hill. There were over three hundred animals including 24 lions and 250 sheep, and giant pythons. It was claimed Somalis had never before been in England [The Era (London), 4 May 1895; Morning Post (London), 6 May 1895 p 1]. It opened on 18 May – and had competition from Imre Kiralfy’s Empire of India Exhibition at Earl’s Court in London, which promised magicians, fakirs, jugglers, snake charmers, elephants and camels, and a Burmese theatre. The Duke and Duchess of York visited the Somalis at Crystal Palace [Morning Post, 16 May 1895 p 1; Standard (London), 20 May 1895 p 3]. Advertising claimed over 42,000 people attended on the opening day, and quoted from press reviews – ‘nothing to equal’ it (Westminster Gazette), ‘most interesting’ (Standard) and ‘the Somalis are quite natural’ (Graphic [London], 1 June 1895). The Penny Illustrated Newspaper (29 June 1895) thought it was interesting from a geographical and a spectacular point of view, suggesting that the Royal Geographical Society should be invited to visit the Somalis.
In mid-June the Somalis (said to number sixty-one) were taken to the zoo where they were astonished by the bears, upset the lions, and were very interested in the giraffes which had been hunted out in Somalia. How much faith can be placed in the text of an alleged September interview is uncertain, but the Somalis were reported as stating that they had been very content but now had had enough of their life in Sydenham. Presents had been received (mainly from women), Hagenbeck’s son had taught two to ride bicycles given by a manufacturer, and they preferred the cycle track at nearby Catford to the grass of Sydenham. They had only been to the zoo and to Hyde Park, the English weather having been bad. Fourteen had been ill in May, some ‘in great peril’. The first reports noted they were Muslim, and this interviewer questioned Hagenbeck if Christian missionaries had visited the Somalis (they had). They had their own priest with them. The group which included five women liked the famous firework displays and the music at the Palace. The animals were to be sold off [Daily News (London), 24 September 1895]. The Somalis departed from Gravesend in early October [Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper (London), 13 October 1895]. Hundreds of thousands of Britons had seen them during the summer months of 1895.

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