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Peoples on Parade

Exhibitions, Empire, and Anthropology in Nineteenth-Century Britain

In May 1853, Charles Dickens paid a visit to the “savages at Hyde Park Corner,” an exhibition of thirteen imported Zulus performing cultural rites ranging from songs and dances to a “witch-hunt” and marriage ceremony. Dickens was not the only Londoner intrigued by these “living curiosities”: displayed foreign peoples provided some of the most popular public entertainments of their day. At first, such shows tended to be small-scale entrepreneurial speculations of just a single person or a small group. By the end of the century, performers were being imported by the hundreds and housed in purpose-built “native” villages for months at a time, delighting the crowds and allowing scientists and journalists the opportunity to reflect on racial difference, foreign policy, slavery, missionary work, and empire.
Peoples on Parade provides the first substantial overview of these human exhibitions in nineteenth-century Britain. Sadiah Qureshi considers these shows in their entirety—their production, promotion, management, and performance—to understand why they proved so commercially successful, how they shaped performers’ lives, how they were interpreted by their audiences, and what kinds of lasting influence they may have had on notions of race and empire. Qureshi supports her analysis with diverse visual materials, including promotional ephemera, travel paintings, theatrical scenery, art prints, and photography, and thus contributes to the wider understanding of the relationship between science and visual culture in the nineteenth century.
Through Qureshi’s vibrant telling and stunning images, readers will see how human exhibitions have left behind a lasting legacy both in the formation of early anthropological inquiry and in the creation of broader public attitudes toward racial difference.

392 pages | 18 color plates, 117 halftones | 7 x 10 | © 2011

Anthropology: Cultural and Social Anthropology

History: European History

History of Science


“[E]ntertaining and instructive. . . . [T]he vividness, humour, poignancy and humanity of the relationships between showmen, public, and the participants on parade make for irresistible reading.”

Felipe Fernández-Armesto | Literary Review

“Expertly researched and academically stimulating, . . [t]his book contributes to a growing body of literature that succeeds in providing an in-depth, interdisciplinary approach to the history of science through the lens of visual culture. Highly recommended.”

D. M. Digrius | Choice

“[This] interesting, informative, and quite beautiful book is a great service to anthropology.”

Jack David Eller | Anthropology Review Database

“[H]ighly informative and closely argued. . . . [A] valuable read.”

Philip McEvansoneya | Journal of Victorian Culture

“[A] fascinating argument, a dizzying tour of the ethnic entrepreneurship of Victorian London supported by the brilliant visual evidence of posters, playbills, postcards and ephemera. As a decisive statement of how entertainment and ethnography coalesced in the fertile Petri dish of Victorian popular culture, resulting in far more subtle and contingent consequences than is permitted by reductionist assumptions of endemic nineteenth-century racism, Peoples on Parade is a brave, stimulating and important book.”

Geoffrey A. C. Ginn, University of Queensland | Australian Journal of Politics and History

“[An] impressive new book.”

Los Angeles Review of Books

“Beautifully written, and rich in detail. . . . The work will appeal to scholars interested in imperialism, history of race, Victorian popularizers of science and nineteenth-century visual culture. There can be little doubt that it will feature on most course reading lists relating to the history of nineteenth-century science.”

Efram Sera-Shriar, York University, Canada | British Journal for the History of Science

“The originality of this book and the importance of its contribution lies in the way Qureshi brings together various strands of nineteenth-century British history: the changing social landscape of the metropole, the networks of empire, and the diffuse origins of scientific ideas.”

Radhika Natrajan, University of California, Berkeley | Invisible Culture

“A lavish, beautifully produced, and exotically illustrated spectacle. . . . This is an excellent and compelling book with a wide appeal: essential reading for those with a scholarly interest in the history of anthropology, race, and metropolitan cultures of empire but highly rewarding for those with a more casual interest in Victorian Britain and popular entertainment.”


Peoples on Parade is an important book that maps shifting perceptions of the relationships among spectacle, science, and race and reveals the ways in which exhibitions of non-Western peoples contributed to dynamic and contentious debates about human variation. Qureshi contributes to the vibrant scholarship on the relationship between popular culture and the cultures of nineteenth-century science, as well as consolidating arguments about the nature of Britain’s metropolitan imperial culture.”

Cultural and Social History

“Sadiah Qureshi’s sensitive and wide-ranging exploration of the troubled and freighted history of displayed peoples in nineteenth-century Britain richly complicates our understanding of the intersections between natural science, racial theories, and popular culture. Attending both to the forms of production and promotion of the shows and to the showmen, the audiences, the ethnologists, and the anthropologists who sought to define their meanings, she carefully illuminates the ways in which debates about human variety were produced on multiple sites and were subject to contestation, not least from the performers, who intervened, demonstrating their own, albeit constrained, agency.”

Catherine Hall, University College London

“In vivid prose and with striking images, Peoples on Parade overturns conventional accounts of nineteenth-century ethnographic performances as naive encounters across an absolute imperial divide. Sadiah Qureshi reveals the productive interactions of performers, impresarios, audiences, and anthropologists in an imperial metropole already traversed by cultural, racial, and ethnic differences. This book will be of interest to students of empire, popular culture, and the history of science.”

Andrew Zimmerman, George Washington University

Peoples on Parade is a major contribution to the cultural history of Victorian Britain. Sadiah Qureshi offers a new perspective on the domestic imaginative life of the British Empire, deftly poised between the ‘high’ and popular cultures of race, science, religion, debates about foreign and colonial policy, and a vast commercial world which marketed exotic peoples through spectacular shows and sensational imprints. She offers an elegant rebuttal of those who still think imperialism was ‘absent minded’ or that it, or science, was merely the concern of an ‘official mind.’”

Richard Drayton, King’s College London

Peoples on Parade breaks new ground in two increasingly prominent fields in the history of science: popularization and race. Dissolving the traditional dichotomy between the making and the popularization of knowledge, Sadiah Qureshi shows that science was made as well as staged in the shows she analyzes. Her book also transcends simple equations between exotic human displays and racist oppression, unpacking the complex social, political, and personal negotiations which made these shows such an important part of nineteenth-century public culture.”

Ralph O’Connor, University of Aberdeen

Table of Contents

Introduction: Ladies and Gentlemen, I Bring You . . .

Part One: Street Spectacles

Chapter One: Glimpsing Urban Savages

Chapter Two: Artful Promotion

Part Two. Metropolitan Encounters

Chapter Three: Managing Performance

Chapter Four: Recruiting Entertainers

Chapter Five: Interpreting Exhibitions

Part Three: The Natural History of Race

Chapter Six: Transforming "Unfruitful Wonder"

Chapter Seven: The End of an Affair

Conclusion: Afterlives


Appendix: Terminology





Northeast Victorian Studies Association: Sonya Rudikoff Award

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