In Paris Savages, Katherine Johnson revisits the disturbing history of Indigenous Australians who were placed on show in European museums

A detail from the cover image of Paris Savages, by Katherine Johnson.

A detail from the cover image of Paris Savages, by Katherine Johnson.

I've never been a big fan of zoos. I prefer to see creatures where they belong, doing what they normally do. That's why, years ago, as a wildlife veterinarian, I chose to work with biologists studying native animals in their natural habitat. Viewing animals in enclosures, or watching seals and dolphins putting on a show to entertain humans, has never really appealed to me.

Zoos today are certainly better than they used to be - conditions have much improved for captive animals. But how many of us are aware that from 1800 - 1958 Indigenous peoples from relatively unknown cultures around the world were also shown as exhibits in zoos? Katherine Johnson's new novel, Paris Savages, explores the impact on "native" people who were displayed in human zoos and ethnographic exhibitions.

Based on a true story, the narrative follows the journey of three members of the Australian Indigenous Badtjala tribe who were taken (or removed) from their home on Fraser Island in 1882 by German engineer Louis Muller, to be shown to the European public.

These three Indigenous people - Bonangera (Bonny), Jurano and Dorondera were required to perform for crowds in various zoological gardens and museums in Germany and France. They had to re-enact their lives by constructing shelters, cooking over a fire, and participating in mock hunts and fights to convey aspects of their culture to the watching crowds.

They were also subjected to numerous humiliating physical examinations by so-called "scientists" to determine whether they were different from white people. This included, on occasion, making plaster casts of their faces and bodies. It is known that sometimes the plaster used was contaminated by lime, causing painful burns to the skin.

Prior to reading this novel, I had little awareness of ethnographic exhibitions and the ways in which Indigenous people were exploited by money-grabbing showmen to attract crowds at zoos in Europe and the USA.

It appears there was little consideration given to the potential negative impacts of this contact on the Indigenous people themselves, such as exposure to alcohol and diseases, corruption, and loss of identity and culture.

We still have a long way to go, but veils are slowly being lifted from Australian colonising history. We are hearing more about the truth of the past.

Johnson presents this story in a creative, humanist way. She does not attempt to describe the experiences of Indigenous people from a first person perspective. Instead, she uses the viewpoint of a fictional character - Hilda, Muller's daughter - who befriends the Badtjala people on Fraser Island and accompanies them, with her father, on their tour of Europe.

Although Hilda often seems rather naive about her father's motives for displaying the Indigenous people, her empathetic perspective offers a believable view of how this journey may have unfolded. It also allows us to imagine how Europe may have appeared to the ingenuous eyes of both Hilda and the Badtjala people.

This is a disturbing story, rendered even more upsetting by the fact that it's based on truth. In developing this novel as part of a PhD in creative writing, Johnson meticulously researched available archives, sourcing letters, journals and newspaper articles.

She also delved into Indigenous research and had discussions with Badtjala people. Fiction often requires writing in the gaps to discover hidden stories, and Johnson has done this convincingly, conveying sympathy, sadness and outrage.

As Australians, it is increasingly important to reflect on our past actions and wrongdoings, and acknowledge them so we can work towards reconciliation with the Indigenous people of this country. Our colonising past is still shrouded in silence, and my school education during the 1970s and 80s perpetuated this silence.

At primary school, we were taught that Aboriginal Australians were hunter-gatherers who killed kangaroos and goannas for food using spears and boomerangs. Even at high school, Australian history was very white-centric. We learned nothing of the impacts of colonisation on Indigenous people. And there was no mention of massacres or displacement.

Fortunately, this has been changing in recent years. We still have a long way to go, but veils are slowly being lifted from Australian colonising history. We are hearing more about the truth of the past. We are hearing more essential Indigenous voices in literature. Stories like Johnson's Paris Savages are important as they help to expose the disrespectful and exploitative treatment of Indigenous people that litters our history.

This novel is a sad tale of humiliation, misunderstanding and disrespect. It effectively conveys the impact of poor treatment, misguided "science" and disease on the Indigenous people used in human zoos. In sensitive, thoughtful and respectful prose, Johnson encourages us to consider how it must have felt for those displaced Badtjala people to be exhibited to white Europeans who often judged them as primitive, lesser humans.

In the end, the key question Johnson asks is "who were the real savages"? Her beautifully written, heart-wrenching novel goes a long way to answering this question for us.

  • Karen Viggers is Canberra author. Her latest novel is The Orchardist's Daughter.
  • Paris Savages, by Katherine Johnson. Ventura Press, $32.99.
This story A tragic tale of misunderstanding first appeared on The Canberra Times.