By Juliana Adelman
Every once in a while the historian experiences a series of coincidences which makes her take a second look at something and maybe file it under ‘interesting lead to pursue in future’. While reading through the minute books of the Dublin Zoological Society I came across a tantilizing reference to the visitation of a tribe of American Indians to the gardens in the 1840s. I assumed it was another example of the distasteful nineteenth-century practice of human displays: public exhibitions of ‘savages’ from all continents were popular attractions and sometimes they were placed alongside animal exhibits. Soon after, I came across an article on the visiting Indians in a Dublin newspaper. The coverage surprised me. There was certainly an element of condescension and titilation, but the Indians were treated as a mixture of visiting foreign dignitaries and actors. Far from the seedy sideshow in native flesh that I had imagined. The tribe was described as making a visit to the zoological gardens, rather than being on display there, and all the gate receipts for the day were donated to them. Hmmm, so much for a historian’s assumptions.
I didn’t think much more of it until a few months later I was reading William Cronon’s book Nature’s metropolis: Chicago and the great west (heartily recommended). Cronon referred repeatedly to George Catlin’s doomed campaigns to save both American Indian tribes and buffalo habitats in the west. Catlin, one of America’s early environmental campaigners, documented the demise of the buffalo in the face of expanding American cattle grazing. Catlin sounded familiar. A quick search in the National Library’s online catalogue revealed the presence of one of Catlin’s pamphlets advertising his American Indian show in London. The penny dropped.
On a summer visit to Washington DC I took the opportunity to visit the Smithsonian Institution’s American Indian museum. There, in the midst of an impressive series of galleries, were George Catlin’s paintings of Indians. Among them were some of the very same people who had visited Dublin. The above image is of Chief White Cloud who was certainly on parts of the tour, but I cannot find confirmation of his being in Dublin. The paintings are worth a visit to the museum on their own. They are beautiful formal portraits, their subjects posed in the style of any nineteenth-century gentleman or woman. I am sure they are stylized, but they are clearly paintings of individual people executed by someone who knew them.
Catlin visited Ireland in May of 1843, where he delivered a series of lectures in the Rotunda (yes, same as the hospital). Admission was a relatively pricy 2s/1s and the lectures included ‘tableux vivants’ of the Indians themselves, dressed in costume and performing traditional dances and songs. They seem to have spent time in Britain both before and after their tour of Ireland. In December of 1843, the Indians were introduced to Queen Victoria. The Indians met with a very enthusiastic reception most places that they went and, according to Catlin, very much enjoyed their adventure (particularly the discovery of champagne).
Catlin was certainly no saint and his European tour with the American Indians did no harm to his career as a writer and painter. His book on this tour is well worth a read, even just for the section on Dublin. Catlin’s principle book on the ‘manners and customs’ of the Indians whom he travelled amongst reads something like a natural history. Catlin’s view of the Indians, while more sympathetic than most, leaned towards the ‘noble savage’. Although he called the Indians his friends, he referred to them in the contemporary paternalistic language as savages and simpletons.
I have so far not managed to find any substantial responses to the Indians’ visit in Ireland. One of their retinue throughout much of the tour in Europe was an Irishman called Daniel. I think there is an interesting story here still waiting to be told.