Wednesday 21 December 2011

Men in Black 2: Blame it on the Bogie.

My first thoughts on looking for a folk festival which could explain Oookbarloo's testimony was to turn to the accounts of Arctic whalers. My reasoning being that, as many of the crew came from the Northern parts of Britain, at least some would have been familiar with whaling traditions. Sure enough there are several reports of May-day festivities on the ice, involving garlands of ribbons and a ceremony with King Neptune similar to the more familiar crossing-the-line rituals. Nothing about blacked up men though.

Next I turned to land-based festivals, and sure enough, the May-Day festival of the London chimney sweeps has blacked up men in abundence.

Here's an account from Charles Dickens dated 1836. He laments:

"This gradual decay and disuse of the practice of leading noble youths into captivity, and compelling them to ascend chimneys, was a severe blow, if we may so speak to the romance of chimney sweeping"

- and one from Fraser's magazine dated 1842

All the Year Round from 1893 reports:

"the Mayday celebration, with its barbaric music, and its mysterious Jack-in-the-green, when, with other strange figures, some grinning black fellow would represent the foul fiend and drive lads and lasses screaming before him, was a thing to move the stoutest heart.

The Children's magazine from 1893 informs: "They are not real black-a-moors, but they seem to be nearly as black in their skins as if they were Africans born"

A good proportion of the ships' crew came from the London region and so would have been perfectly familiar with these festivities.

The looks and behaviour of the "black men" in Oookbarloo's report seem to fit perfectly with the descriptions of the contempory May-day festivities of the sweeps. The date of May 1, 1847 (six weeks before Franklin's death) would allow for the dog-sledge driver's second visit to have been "when the sun was high, that is, it was well into spring or summer" .

So, I'd say that Charles Francis Hall was absolutely spot-on when he mused that the native had interrupted some kind of pantomime or entertainment.

Referring to the picture at the top of this page, Andrew Graham-Dixon's article begins:

"In anticipation of May 1 and its traditional festivities, this week’s picture is Thomas Sevestre’s watercolour of a curious but now-defunct ritual". 

He's not quite right there because the festvities dipicted were revived about thirty years ago and are now a major event in several places, including my home town. 

I have to say I'm completely amazed by this connection!


Original: 21/12/2011
Update: 15/04/2012
I no longer think that the above is a plausible explanation for the black-faced, black-clad men who frightened the inuit dog-sled driver. One reason is that, in contrast to other folk celebrations which are attested on Arctic expeditions, the sweeps' festival had a commercial motivation - the coins collected from the crowd. Another reason is that I've had a better idea.


  1. This is fascinating social history -- but I don't think it makes a compelling case. The account of the Inuit's visits does not, to me, seem to make any precise claim about how long after the summer visit the one on which the "black men" was seen -- so there's no reason I can think of not to suppose it was a "Guy Fawkes" observance. We don't have any records of RN sailors observing May Day festivities on board ship, but we do have records of sailors observing Guy Fawkes, and blackening their faces, aboard Arctic ships of the period. So no need to extrapolate another reason.

    I notice on re-reading the account that the Inuk also noted the men had very small noses!! Perhaps that was just because, once blackened, theu seemed smaller.

    And, quite aside from May Day, Franklin's men could have been aware of blackface minstrelsy, an American entertainment introduced in London not long before they sailed. There's a hilarious account in Hall's first narrative of a minstrel show staged by the men of the "George Henry" -- the Inuit guests fled the room, convinced that these men were evil spirits!

  2. I certainly wouldn't claim the case as compelling - merely a reasonable fit. If it was Guy Fawkes night and the kindly Captain who pointed out the Tupik was Franklin then the only plausible date would be November 5, 1846, just two months after besetment. This would not allow much time for initial contact to be made nor a visit when the sun was high in the sky. Alternatively the kindly Captain may have been Crozier or Fitzjames and the date after Franklin's death.

    Blackface minstrelry is certainly a possibility and particularly interesting is the reaction of Jennie the angeko "believing the apparition to be an evil spirit". Group performances seem to have very much in their infancy though (from Mr Wiki). In contrast a proportion of the crew would have grown up with memories the sweeps' May-day antics.

    Perhaps the biggest weakness of the case is that it does require an entertainment of a type never recorded in the Royal Navy's Arctic history. However a unique event can not ruled out.

  3. Peter: quick thought but did the account say anything about the number of ships - 1 or 2?

  4. Peter thanks for your reply. Well, boisterousness, whatever the occasion, seems to fit better than the older idea that the men were in distress. But if we accept Woodman's thesis of the ships being remanned later, a date later than 1846 is possible, and we'd have some insight into the spirits of the men not being completely low at that time.

  5. This is excellent! Thanks to all for elaborating on the mysterious "Men in Black".

  6. William: The old lady couldn't remember! The reference in the text "when the sun was high" etc. links to a preview of Woodman's text.

    Jaeschylus: Thanks for your appreciation. I think that batting ideas around like this is a great way to test out and develop ideas to help understand this mystery.

  7. The Minstrel Show was certainly a "hit" with the Japanese when Commodore Perry arrived in Japan (in the sense that it was an amazing cultural artifact to the Japanese as a goole-image search will show). I think that the dates though are awfully early for a minstrel show, they were just coalescing as an art form in this period 1842-44, and I think it unlikely they would have been picked up in the RN, in a fashion that might have been possible 10 years later.

  8. Thanks for the tip. It seems the the first minstrel troupe to visit England was the "Ethiopean Serenaders" in 1846 - the year after Franklin sailed. However the solo performer T D Rice was already a proto-megastar with his hugely popular "Jim Crow" song and dance act. In September 1842, when Crozier was setting up a magnetic observatory on Hermite Island near Cape Horn, during one of several encounters with Fugian natives, it was recorded that "One of our officers danced and sung Jim Crow to a set of them". It was likely still in the repertiore during the 1845 expedition but, in my opinion, not a good fit for the display which frightened the Inuk. It's truly fascinating to read of the influence of these pioneers on later music genres, from jazz to hip-hop. As for the tiny noses, my best attempt at an explanation is that the performers wore masks of black silk "crape" cloth which had been supplied as protection against snow-blindness.

  9. Indeed, "Jim Crow" dates to circa 1828, and the use of black face for theatrical song and dance interludes or episodes within drama can be traced into the late 18th century and a few scattered instances beforehand; but the standard form of the American minstrel show didn't quite exist yet, as of the Franklin sailing, and would arrive in England with the Ethiopian Serenaders and Christy's Minstrels other ensembles in the period 1846-52, so too late for Franklin, fascinating that the isolated song "Jim Crow" was aboard ship so to speak in 1842, although it would have been an old chestnut, a standard by then, and the exchange between English and American popular music in the period is often under appreciated. I wonder if it was done in full black-face etc., or just sung and danced "to a set of them" is interesting, I wonder what exactly was meant by that - a set of dances, a set of men, etc. can you elucidate? The tune itself is probably more Anglo-Irish in origin, and has very few African influences, although there is a possible trace of African musical tradition in the chorus. The same could be said for most of the music of the minstrel shows, although the increased use of syncopation was likely a borrow from actual slave and free-African Americans, although seen via a white Eurocentric musical lens, and the use of the bones and banjo.

  10. I agree about the lack of authentic African content in the Jim Crow tune - My (tin) ear doesn't detect any. I believe it can be found in only a small proportion of Rice's tunes.

    When I use a quotation I've invariably found it on google books so the best thing is for you to have a look yourself and make your own mind up. These may be of interest:

    "One of our officers danced and sung Jim Crow to a set of them"

    "Jim Crow was the first piece, and well personated, both in appearance and song, by Oliver, the ship's tailor"

    "When the bell began to toll immediately previous to his being brought out, he commenced singing Jim Crow"

    On Google web search:
    "Shipboard entertainment for the Japanese featured a minstrel show with crewmen in blackface"

    The Wiki article on "Boz's Juba" is also worth reading and these links may be of interest:

  11. Thanks for the additional information and links.


Stephan Goldner and the Billion Dollar Corporation

  I was amazed to discover recently that it is now ten years ago, in November 2012, that I had the privilege to travel to Nelson Mandela Rd,...