These Africans were shown as exotic savages, and when they got tired of it, they cursed their showman and he died.

Kane Khanh | History
May 11, 2024

These Africans were shown as exotic savages, and when they got tired of it, they cursed their showman and he died.

At the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, circus performances were very common in the United States; it was the main form of entertainment for regions far from large cities.

Circus creators have always tried to find something new that will surprise people and make them come to see the performances. And the more exotic and grotesque it was, the better.

Circuses often showed all sorts of “freaks”: people with extra arms and legs or no limbs at all, Siamese twins, bearded women, extremely obese or emaciated people, microcephalics (born without the frontal lobes of the brain) and so on.

Also very successful were the so-called “savages” – representatives of primitive tribes brought from Africa or Oceania. Their unusual appearance and bodies, often covered with intricate tattoos or decorations made of feathers and beads, attracted large crowds of curious spectators.

In 1924, naturalist explorer Dr. Eugene Bergonier came to Africa, to a region called the Sahel, which ran south of the Sahara Desert. He came there not in search of exotic tribes, but in fact with the French automaker Citroen-Peugeot to explore the possibility of traveling in Africa by car.

But when Bergonier encountered the Sara Kaba tribe, he was completely fascinated by its unusualness and uniqueness. People of the Sara Kaba tribe considered the most important decoration of their body to be their exorbitantly stretched lips, into which they inserted wooden discs. With the disks inserted, their mouth resembled more like a bird’s beak or the mouth of some animal.

Bergonier thought that people from Western countries had never seen such a tribe and for them it would be a great curiosity. Next, he persuaded the Sara Kaba group to go on a world tour with him.

These Africans were shown as exotic savages, and when they got tired of it, they cursed their showman and he died.

First, Bargonier brought the “savages” to Montevideo. Uruguay, and from there he took them to Paris, where the public received them with great enthusiasm. In those years, the so-called “human zoo” was often shown in Europe, for which a variety of nationalities were brought from Asia and Africa and exhibited for public viewing in pavilions, dressed in national costumes.

The “savages” sang, danced, or simply walked around the pavilion with bows and arrows, demonstrating their “primitive savage” nature to the “civilized” Europeans.

After Paris, Bergonier took Sara Kaba to the USA and here they became an absolute sensation. They immediately attracted the attention of the largest American circuses, Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus, which hired Bergonier and began to show the Sara Kaba tribe in a show called “African Village”.

It was a large tent-tent, inside of which everything was decorated like a jungle and thatched huts. Representatives of various African tribes lived in the huts, including Sara Kaba. For Americans they looked extremely exotic.

These Africans were shown as exotic savages, and when they got tired of it, they cursed their showman and he died.

The natives were often declared “brutal savages” or even “the missing links in human evolution” and were specifically ordered to behave as ferociously and primitively as possible for the amusement of the audience. One of the most popular ideas was an “attack” on white “explorers”, followed by a battle, capture, and then “cooking” them in large cauldrons.

To fit the Sara Kaba tribe into all this, they first of all changed their name, now they were called the “Ubangi Tribe”, as it sounded “more African”. And then on the posters they began to write “Savages of Ubangi with duck mouths” and draw the natives in the form of aggressive warriors.

In fact, the Sara Kaba were a very peaceful tribe of herders who rarely fought with anyone. But who cared about the truth.

For several years this show toured throughout America, performing with consistently great success, and then they were taken to England and Germany. In 1932, the Sara Kaba natives were transferred to the ownership of the Al G. Barnes Circus, but their owner was still Bergonier, who made huge money from the Sara Kaba.

Sara Kaba themselves were not stupid people, and they long ago realized that they were simply being exploited, paying them only a very small share of what the circus owners received. Every year their discontent grew, and when Bergonier sent them to Barnes’s circus and their salaries became even less, the patience of the natives snapped.

Sarah Kaba began to directly accuse Bergonier of being a fraudster and taking their money, and when he brushed aside their accusations, they threatened him with an ancient curse, which their sorcerers supposedly mastered.

Bergonier had seen enough in his life to accept the threat as real, but instead of trying to resolve the conflict with the natives, he left everything to his assistant and moved away from the circus to Sarasota, Florida.

However, already in Florida, he continued to be in great fear and said that he was sure that he had already been cursed. Soon he fell ill and became seriously ill. Doctors could not recognize his illness and Bergonier soon died.

When doctors carefully examined his corpse, they found a small inflamed pimple on his leg and concluded that Bergonier died of septic pneumonia. This seemed a very unusual cause of death and, coupled with Bergonier’s words about the curse, rumors soon spread that he had really been killed by the machinations of a native sorcerer.

These Africans were shown as exotic savages, and when they got tired of it, they cursed their showman and he died.

When members of the Sara Kaba tribe found out that their “master” had died suddenly, they immediately said with satisfaction that yes, their black magic was to blame. After this, their circus career was, of course, over.

It’s amazing to think that in that era this was all so normal, the exploitation and objectification of these people was a completely legitimate form of entertainment. These were the days of so-called “human zoos” and today even the thought of such things is shocking.

Maybe Bergonier bit off more than he could chew and angered the wrong people? We will probably never know the real reason.