Exhibiting foreigners: The case of performing ‘prince’ Lobengula

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Newspaper article about Peter 'Prince' Lobengula from British illustrated newspaper, The Graphic, in August 1899 (Courtesy of Dr Sadiah Qureshi)
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This source is an article from an illustrated newspaper called The Graphic published in August 1899. This article tells us many important things about the performer Peter Lobengula’s early life in Britain. It confirms that he came to Britain to appear in a show called 'Savage South Africa' and the show’s name is evidence that the African performers in it were portrayed in a deeply negative light, as ’savage'. Lobengula himself attracted great interest and controversy right away. At first the public was not convinced he was real African royalty but the attention soon shifted to his love life. The article also tells us that Lobengula tried to marry Florence Kate Jewell in August 1899. It confirms that the couple’s plans were abandoned when the parish priest refused to marry them and their marriage license was revoked. The article notes that Jewell, better known as ‘Kitty’, still intended to marry Lobengula and that the negative press was not enough to end the relationship. 

This article is important because it provides rare pictures of Kitty and Lobengula. From them, we can see the difference between how Lobengula dressed for performances and when he was off-stage. From Lobengula’s costume, we can see that he was presented as a great African warrior, but in his other posed portrait he looked very different indeed. This helps us to understand how shows like Lobengula’s presented images of foreign peoples to the British public.

Image copyright: Dr Sadiah Qureshi

Peoples on parade: a history

It is difficult to know when people from outside Europe were first displayed for entertainment for commercial gain. We do know that Christopher Columbus returned from the Americas with two Amerindians who were displayed at the Spanish Royal Court. William Shakespeare is also said to have based the character of Caliban, from the play The Tempest, on an exhibition of Native Americans. Many of these early exhibitions were of individuals either in private spaces, such as royal courts, or in annual fairs. Up until the mid-1800s, entrepreneurs and missionaries occasionally brought individuals or small groups to be displayed in cities such as London, Glasgow, Dublin, Paris, Berlin, Chicago and New York. For a shilling or more, the public could see groups of Africans, Arabs, Australian Aborigines, Indians, Sámi, South Americans, Inuit, Native Americans, Pacific Islanders, Japanese and Chinese. These men, women, and children performed songs, dances, and ceremonies for the public. These shows were advertised as educational opportunities to meet individuals from vastly different societies and proved enormously popular. People from all over the world were brought to Europe but the most common pattern was for people to travel to Britain from overseas colonies or places where there was ongoing military activity. For instance, South Africa became a British colony in 1806 and witnessed ongoing warfare between the British government, settlers and Africans such as in the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879. Throughout the nineteenth century most Africans exhibited in Britain came from South Africa including the Zulus and San. However, in France, most exhibited Africans were from West Africa where France held colonies such as Senegal.

International exhibitions and world fairs in Britain 

In 1851, the Great Exhibition was held in the Crystal Palace in London. It was the first international exhibition and was soon followed by many world fairs. The fair created a new and highly popular way of exhibiting foreign peoples.  These fairs usually lasted only a few months and usually had millions of visitors. Foreign peoples were displayed at international fairs right from the beginning. Visitors to the Crystal Palace could see a Turkish Man in the Middle Eastern sections. Later in the 1870s and 1880s, world fairs started to include dozens of foreign peoples working in model villages. Famous world fairs that included displayed peoples were held in London 1851, 1886 and 1924, Paris in 1867 and 1889, Chicago in 1893 and St Louis in 1904. In the early nineteenth century, the shows were often quite expensive. This usually meant that only wealthier people had opportunities to see displayed peoples unless it was during an annual fair. However, by the end of the nineteenth century, the shows had become much cheaper and significantly more accessible to the working class. Before the Second World War, thousands of foreign peoples had travelled from their homelands to work in exhibitions. Performing in the shows may seem a strange job to us but for many performers, it became a profession.

African performers in Britain: the case of Peter Lobengula

One of the performers from such exhibitions was Peter Kushana Lobengula who claimed to be African royalty and performed across Britain. Lobengula’s life is an interesting example of how people migrated to Britain for a job but ended up settling permanently. Like many displayed peoples and other migrants, Lobengula came to Britain in search of employment. The show he starred in was set up by the circus owner Frank Fillis. The show was easily the largest African exhibition ever held in London. Over two hundred Africans and dozens of Afrikaners were brought to London to re-enact battles, songs and dances in front of paying crowds. A film was made of the Africans arriving at Southampton docks and features dozens of Zulus in dance showing their military agility. This film from 1899 is one of the earliest to show Africans. At Earl’s Court, the performers worked in a vast mock village that was deliberately made to look like an African kraal. Fillis also imported animals, props such as shields and spears and costumes for all of the performers. This attention to detail was intended to make anyone going to the show feel as if they had been transported to Africa without ever leaving London. When the show opened, Peter said: ‘My first thought was that the whole world was white men, and that they had all come to England to meet me!’ At first the show was a huge hit with around 16,000 visitors a day. Later on, public interest waned with the outbreak of the Anglo-Boer War on 11 October 1899 between the British and Dutch settlers. In January 1900, the show was cancelled due to poor takings. By April, Fillis had begun touring Britain with only a few dozen Africans, including Peter, and, once again, the show proved popular.

King Lobengula and the British South Africa Company

Peter, whom reporters described as handsome, fluent in English, well-mannered and a Christian, claimed to be the son of the Ndebele King Lobengula Khumalo (1845–1894). King Lobengula was the second and last ruler of the Ndebele Kingdom. The kingdom was founded as a breakaway group from the Zulu Kingdom in the 1820s. The Ndebele lived in Matabeleland and within 30 years became a powerful kingdom ruling over a large territory. In 1888 the colonialist Cecil Rhodes falsely claimed to have won exclusive rights to mine minerals from the King’s entire kingdom. Rhodes was looking for gold. He was already rich from diamond mining and founded the De Beers diamond company that still exists today. The King tried to stop Rhodes but failed. In 1889 the newly established British South Africa Company was granted a royal charter to start mining. Rhodes and his company’s activities caused considerable conflict between the British and Ndebele. The first Matabele War took place between 1893 and 1894. The Ndebele lost and the British thought that they had conquered the region. But the British underestimated the lasting resentment that they had created and the Second Matabele War took place between 1896 and 1897. The Ndebele lost, and their homeland became Rhodesia, now modern day Zimbabwe. Peter claimed that he had fought in some of the most important battles of the Matabele Wars and re-enacted them for the show.

Love, marriage and divorce

Peter met Kitty in Bloemfontein, South Africa, but no one knows exactly how or where. They probably met while they were working in the town. Nobody knows exactly when their relationship started. If it began in South Africa, they were taking an enormous risk because of the racial segregation between black and white people in the country at the time. It is known that by 1899 Kitty had returned to London and lived at 8 Kempsford Gardens, SW5, not far from Earl’s Court. Peter lived with Kitty and they made plans to get married in mid-August 1899 but, as this source confirms, that did not happen. Rumours of the marriage reached the press and attracted considerable hostility partly because Kitty had been living with Peter before they were married. Many newspapers featured sensationalist reports of the relationship and expressed shock that Kitty was even considering marrying an African. Kitty’s mother was against the marriage and claimed that her daughter was insane. Such responses show us how difficult it could be for African men to create an ordinary life in Britain. However, the negative reactions did not make it impossible. Peter and Kitty were eventually married on 28 February 1900 in Holborn without any mention of the marriage in the press. The couple’s relationship was troubled. Kitty was physically abused by her husband and she accused Peter of committing adultery. Kitty successfully sought a divorce on the grounds of adultery and cruelty in 1902. No one knows what Kitty did after the divorce.

By 1900, Peter was in a relationship with Maud Wilson and this was mentioned as evidence of his adultery in the divorce case. By 1901, Lobengula had also begun a relationship with Lily Magowan, a Belfast-born redhead. The couple married and settled in Salford, where Lobengula worked as a miner, and five children followed. From the birth certificates of his children, we know that Peter initially worked in local theatres, then as a labourer in a colliery, in an iron foundry and finally as a coal miner. 

Prince Peter?

In September 1913, Peter appeared in Salford Revision Court. He argued that as the son of King Lobengula he had the right to vote in local elections. Despite objections, the court ruled in his favour. Unfortunately, Peter was already ill from consumption, which we now call tuberculosis. His family was left with little financial support and a press campaign was begun to offer help. It emerged that, two years earlier, Peter had applied to the Colonial Office for a pension. They had refused saying that Peter was not the son of King Lobengula. The claim was passed to the British South Africa Company. The company conducted research and went to great lengths to refute Peter’s claims to be a royal descendent. On his deathbed Peter continued to insist that he had told the truth about his royal connections.  Peter died on 24 November 1913 and was buried in Salford on 27 November 1913 aged 38. Following Peter’s death there was further speculation about his ancestry but no one has been able to prove or disprove his claim to be King Lobengula’s son.

Peter Lobengula's legacy

Lily Lobengula and her children continued to live in Salford, but she and all but one of her children passed away between 1916 and 1920 and were buried next to Peter. The second son, Peter Leslie Lobengula, survived. Peter Leslie married Norah Hart in 1935 but was divorced by 1947. He was married again in 1962 to Eva Brooksbank, and lived in Moss Side, Manchester until his death in 1977, aged 70.

Peter and Kitty faced considerable pressure to end their relationship. Their initial refusal, alongside that of so many other couples, is an example of the resolve often needed in the face of daily discrimination. The end of the troubled relationship also reminds us that we should be careful not to romanticise the lives of migrants.

Peter's story also reminds us of how important it is for historians to write about the everyday lives of migrants. If we only knew about Peter’s job as a performer, we would miss the importance of his marriages to Kitty and Lily and know nothing of his children. By paying attention to his family, we can see how migrants often overcame challenges build a life abroad. We also see, through the campaign to provide for his family, that migrants were met with genuine concern and interest for their welfare. Piecing together the lives of individuals is crucial to understanding the personal experiences of migration. Without such a personal dimension, we might easily miss some of the most interesting aspects of our history.

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Questions and Student Activities
  • Peter Lobengula's life was filled with difficulty and he was far from a model man. Should these facts influence the way we feel about his and Kitty’s struggles to marry and find acceptance?
  • In 2014, there was an organised protest against the attempt to show the South African artist Brett Bailey’s installation, ‘Exhibit B’ in the Barbican Centre in London. The exhibit was written about in the New York Times and in the Guardian (there is more information on the Barbican website). Using what you know now about the history of displayed peoples, write an argument either for or against the exhibition.
  • The articles above use the phrase 'human zoos' to refer to the practice of displaying foreign peoples. Based on Peter's story, why might this terminology be problematic?