Mark Twain once wrote that “There are many humorous things in the world; among them the white man’s notion that he is less savage than other savages.”
Throughout the history many races, peoples and civilizations have labored under the belief that they are superior to races that they have conquered or “liberated” and then placed on display for their own amusement. The Persians, Greeks, Egyptians, Romans, Chinese, Japanese and a host of European powers have done such things, as have we Americans. Sadly, in many cases the motives are evil, but sometimes there are shades of gray where one civilization, or certain representatives of it act in a manner of benevolent paternalism, while at the same time seeking to profit off of their superior place in life, whether they believe it is a mandate from God or the right of being biologically superior through the evolutionary process, and sometime a bit of both.
Award winning journalist Claire Prentice writes in her new book The Lost Tribe of Coney Island: Headhunters, Luna Park, and the Man Who Pulled Off the Spectacle of the Century (New Harvest, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston and New York October 2014) of the story of American physician, soldier, treasure seeker, colonial administrator and showman Dr. Truman Knight Hunt and his exploitation of a group of forty-nine members of the Igorrote tribe who it brought to the United States in 1905.
Prentice’s telling of this story is a highly readable yet sobering account of the morality, economics, racism, colonialism and belief in the superiority of the white man above the “non-Christian savage” of that time. Her ability to weave the complex humanity of Hunt, a man who went to the Philippines out of a sense of patriotism, stayed in search of fortune, put his life on the line for the healthcare of the Igorrote, gained their trust, became a colonial administrator and then, seeking profit attempted to use the people who trusted him for his own gain after seeing another American reap the spoils of creating a human zoo of Igorrote and other Filipino tribesmen at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis.
The story of how Hunt initially pulled this off amid the controversy evoked by the American war and occupation of the Philippines following the expulsion of the Spanish in 1898 is well told by Prentice. She is able to weave a story of complex motives, competing business interests to exploit people for the profit and entertainment of others into a highly readable tale.
The little known fact is that after evicting the Spanish from the Philippines the United States turned on the Filipino people and leaders who had helped us during the military campaign against the Spanish. The result was the 1899-1902 Philippine War, a brutal counter-insurgency campaign that was successfully concluded in a military sense, unlike most of the other counter-insurgency campaigns of he twentieth century, including Iraq and Afghanistan. The aftermath was a colonial administration of the new American Philippine Territory which only ended when the Japanese invaded the Philippines in 1941, after the liberation of the Philippines and following the Second World War, that country was finally granted its independence.
Hunt brought these forty-nine people to Luna Park on Coney Island, Hunt’s Igorrotes were basically, as other supposedly “savage” peoples had been before housed in what was little more than human zoo, for the amusement of Americans and the profit of Hunt and his partners. Prentice traces the roots of Hunt’s quest, the culture and history of the Igorrotes, and the greed, duplicity and the government quest that eventually brought Hunt to Justice and ended this spectacle.
If Hunt had abided by his deal with the Igorrote to allow them to be paid and to keep money they made from the sale of various items, the situation might have gone on without incident, but Hunt lied to his charges, he kept them in padlocked cages or “villages,” sometimes going days without food, Hunt attempted to keep their money from them claiming that he was “ordered by the government to do so.” Eventually, the man hired by Hunt as his interpreter turned evidence against him, and the charade fell apart. Confronted by a government agent, Hunt’s Igorrote contradicted Hunt’s claim that the were happy and wanted to remain a part of his show, which he moved from Coney Island, to Chicago and on to Milwaukee.
Hunt was finally arrested for embezzlement in 1906, his faithful Igorrote interpreter Julio had filed the complaint with federal authorities. Hunt had without over ten-thousand dollars from his Igorrote tribesmen. A judge allowed most of the Igorrote to return to be released from their “contract” with Hunt while some remained to testify against him. Despite the overwhelming evidence against him a judge in Memphis declared a mistrial and despite attempts by the investigator to bring Hunt to justice, Hunt eluded it and with the great cost of the investigation, trial, the care of the Igorrote, and the massive and controversial costs of administering the Philippines, the government eventually dropped the case. Hunt lived what seemed to be an accursed life, continuing his less than honest living selling sham cures to diseases and leading a bigamous life after his release from jail. Misfortune followed misfortune and Hunt died, ten years later and was buried in an unmarked grave in Cedar Rapids Iowa.
Despite the end of the relationship with Truman Hunt, other Igorrote remained on display and toured the United States and world for a number of years, though they appear to have fared better than those who Hunt defrauded and mistreated.
The story told by Prentice is remarkable because it shows us that despite the mythology of supposedly beneficent American masters, that American colonialism and profiting by what we would now call human trafficking was not as benevolent. It makes one wonder just who the real savages are, but then it appears that Mark Twain was right.
This is an outstanding and well written account by Prentice that humanizes a forgotten and shameful part of our American colonial past.