2015 marks the 20th anniversary of the founding of my theatre company Mountebanks. Throughout the year, I’ll be unleashing several activities to celebrate the theme of theatrical charlatanism. Case in point: March 27 & 28 I’ll be playing P.T. Barnum in UTC#61’s MoneyLab. On the run-up, this series of posts on some of Barnum’s most celebrated hoaxes.
This is an interesting hybrid of previously existing Barnum schemes. Barnum had been a pioneer in sponsoring beauty contests; he had also been at the forefront of (normally fake) ethnographical spectacle, i.e. exhibiting human beings as exotic, primitive foreigners.
The idea behind this particular one was that the Circassian people of the Northwest Caucasus, being the “purest” Caucasians (since they were close to the source) were the most perfect specimens of humanity, hence their women, the most beautiful. The women he presented were indeed all beautiful, dressed in revealing folk costumes, wore undeniably impressive frizzed up ‘fros, and had names with Zs in them like Zalumma Agra, Zuruby Hannum, Azela Pacha, Zribeda, and Zoledod. What none of them were, most likely, was Circassian.
This idea contains so many levels of wrongness (beyond the idea that one people might be more beautiful than another people, as well as the misrepresentation, which was just another day at the office for Barnum), it’s hard to sort them all out. Racism was (and is) often based in pseudo-science, even “positive” racism like this. The Circassians are fascinating — one of Europe’s few indigenous peoples (the Basques and Sami, a.k.a Lapps are some others). That is to say that the Circassians have lived in the Caucasus for thousands and thousands of years (most other Europeans settled in their present locations during the Middle Ages, which is relatively recent). Though it’s true that most Europeans and their descendants in places like America and Australia can trace their origins (eventually) to the Caucasus (hence the word “Caucasian” to describe them), it’s a vast oversimplification to say that the Circassians and the majority of other Europeans are even the same ethnic group. For one thing, the native languages of the Circassians are completely unrelated to the Indo-European tongues spoken by the vast majority of Europeans. The language families likely had completely different origins, implying the divergence of the two peoples at such an ancient date it hardly makes sense to regard the western Europeans as having descended from the ancestors of contemporary Caucasians.
Yet Barnum can hardly be said to have invented the myth of Circassian beauty. The Turks were said to have prized Circassian women above all others as slaves. The legend of their beauty was exported to the English speaking world by the Crimean War (1853-1856). Ironically, at the very time of Barnum’s stunt, the Russians were committing a semi-genocide against the Circassians, forcibly ejecting them from their recently conquered territory (which had formerly belonged to the Ottomans). Most of the Circassians later returned to their ancestral lands when things cooled down. But their plight was not on Barnum’s agenda.
At any rate, like we say, most (probably all) of these women weren’t even Circassian anyway. They were just local chicks, given exotic-sounding names, cute peasant costumes, and wild hairdos. There were dozens of them. Just google “Circassian beauty” and you will find an endless number of photographs of them.