The real story behind The Greatest Showman is one of exploitation. It’s time we told it | Rhoda Roberts | Film


The character of PT Barnum – the founder of the Barnum & Bailey Circus, billed since 1919 as The Greatest Show On Earth – has been enjoying a pop culture resurgence with the recent blockbuster film The Greatest Showman and current Melbourne live show Barnum: The Circus Musical. Together, they celebrate him as both a visionary, and a scammer.

I wonder if the world would consider this self-professed “humbug” light, innocuous entertainment if they knew he sent henchmen to the colonies to kidnap and coerce Aboriginal men, women and children, before casting them as “human oddities” in Barnum & Bailey’s “show-stopping” exhibition The Ethnological Congress of Strange Tribes?

In truth, Barnum tore apart families, denying them the ability to practice their culture, all the while exploiting the western world’s voyeuristic curiosity about the colonies.

Tightrope walker Con Colleano performing on a slack wire, 1936. He was the first to successfully do a forward somersault on a tightrope.



Few know that the world famous tightrope walker Con Colleano was an Indigenous Australian born in Lismore. Photograph: Underwood Archives/Getty Images

Many Aboriginal people who were kidnapped or lured to join Barnum’s circus understood this to be their new lot in life, and some even embraced it as a vehicle to lead a new secret existence away from the missions.

To escape the Aboriginal Protection Board, which governed where Aboriginal people could live or work and quarantined all their wages, many performers hid their identity to get ahead. Several “Spanish” or “wild Indian” performers went on to become some of the greatest circus acts in the world. When tightrope walker Con Colleano, one of the highest paid vaudeville performers ever, died in Miami in 1973, not one Australian newspaper mentioned him. Yet across the Americas he was widely celebrated as “the Wizard of the Wire”.

Colleano possessed enormous skill; no one has perfected a forward somersault on a highwire since. But he had to change his name and identity at huge personal sacrifice to achieve what he did.

To learn that Con Colleano was an Aboriginal man from Lismore brings an enormous sense of pride and inspiration to First Nations communities, showing them that they too can excel against all odds. Colleano lived between two worlds, and has left us an incredible legacy – along with other notable Aboriginal circus performers.

Consider too the story of Tambo. Tambo was kidnapped along with 17 Indigenous men, women and children from the Hinchenbrook and Palm Island communities, and became a “star” attraction of Barnham’s circus in the late 1800s. When he died, his remains were embalmed and exhibited in Drew’s Dime Museum. His wife and other members of his family were unable to perform the customary death rituals necessary for him to go off to The Dreaming. His remains were only repatriated to Palm Island in 1994, where the rightful ceremony was conducted.

Aboriginals “removed” from Mungalla Station.



In the 1880s and 1890s Barnum & Bailey persuaded groups of Aboriginal people to take part in shows portraying them as ‘the Australian Cannibals and Boomerang Throwers’. One of these groups came from the Mungalla Station workforce, pictured here. Photograph: Mungulla Station

It’s important that stories like Tambo’s and Colleano’s are told. That’s why we are excited for Natives Go Wild, the Sydney Opera House’s new First Nations cabaret, which shines a light on the dark underbelly of Barnum & Bailey.

Fundamentally, the show is about resilience. It inverts the story of Barnham and his “Greatest Show” through song, dance, and, of course, humour, which is so often used to deal with intergenerational trauma in Aboriginal culture.

But while humour has a long history in Aboriginal theatre, Indigenous productions these days can sometimes move into ‘“worthy” or serious territory. Yes, there was a moment in history when we needed those stories, but I think we’ve moved on from there – and I’ve been interested in the fun aspect of cabaret and vaudeville for a long time. We want to engage audiences in all facets of First Nations culture, not just the serious dance or theatre shows.

L-R back: Mika Haka, Waangenga Blanco L-R front: Josephine Mailisi, Seini F. Taumoepeau, Samuela Taukave, Beau James



Natives Go Wild features Josephine Mailisi, Mika Haka, Waangenga Blanco, Seini F Taumoepeau, Samuela Taukave and Beau James. Photograph: Daniel Boud

It’s important to share a global First Nations story too – one that spans the Pacific, as we’re all connected. While fewer Fijians were kidnapped (access to them was more limited), some Polynesian women were taken to join Barnum’s “Human Zoo” in London, alongside Asian, Aboriginal, Pacific Islander, African, Canadian and American performers. Within six months, almost half of them had died from pneumonia. When Barnum’s money spinning “Fijian Mermaid” passed away, he crudely grafted a monkey with a fish, which people travelled the world to marvel at. It’s still on display at Coney Island, although the monkey has now lost all its hair.

For me, Natives Go Wild is about honouring the pain and resilience of First Nations people. We are incredibly adaptable. We can encounter the worst situations and wake up to tackle the next day with optimism and hope, to fulfil our inherited cultural legacy. The next generation of First Nations artists are sticking it to the establishment and having some fun in the process.

Natives Go Wild makes its world premiere at Sydney Opera House on 19 October 2019

Rhoda Roberts is the head of First Nations programming at Sydney Opera House



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