Of all the different circus disciplines, the one that appears to have been seen as the most ‘exotic’ was that of the lion-tamer. This was man triumphing over nature, and travelling menageries, in which these lion-tamers initially worked, were an embodiment of British imperialism, showing how Britain had dominion over its empire and all that was in it. Big cat shows were also intended to thrill and excite, as the lion-tamer faced nature red in tooth and claw. It fed Victorian audiences’ desire for potentially bloody spectacle. This was the era of the courageous explorer displaying heroism in far flung corners of the empire. The audience wanted visceral sensation, and daring was valued more than skill. To make lion-taming performances more exotic and primeval, many black performers began to appear. These were not portrayed as heroic British explorers, rather they were often shown as the ‘noble savage’. In this period, lion-taming was the only circus discipline where ethnicity was often specified in advertising for performers:
Wanted for Buff Bill’s Menagerie. Lion Tamer, Black or White. Black Man preferred (The Era 28 October 1893)
Wanted, for Sedgwick’s Menagerie … also, Lion Tamer, to work Untameable Lion. A Coloured Man preferred (The Era 1 June 1895)
It is often said that the American-born Isaac Van Amburgh introduced the thrill of lion-taming to the British public when he arrived in Liverpool in August 1838.1 By the end of the month he was appearing at the famous Astley’s in London and soon became known as the ‘Lion King’.2
Although there were undoubtedly lion-tamers working in Britain before the arrival of Van Amburgh, it is not recorded if any of these were black. The earliest record of a black lion-tamer was for a man named Maccomo (sometimes also Macomo). On 15 July 1853, the Scottish Guardian carried this piece:
Maccomo, the Lion Hunter, in Jeopardy – On Monday last, a boy in Hylton’s extensive collection of wild animal on the Green, was teasing the African lion, and punctured his nose with a needle … Maccomo, who was not aware of what had occurred, now entered the den for the purpose of exhibiting the animal’s performances.
By February 1854 he was working with Manders’ Royal Menagerie on its tour of Ireland.3 Here he was often advertised as the ‘Lion King’ or the ‘Lion Hunter’. Where he came from and how he came to work as a lion-tamer has never been verified. The nearest contemporary that we have is in Circus Life and Circus Celebrities (Frost T, 1876:133-134). He writes:
One day, when the menagerie was at Greenwich fair, a powerful-looking negro accosted one of the musicians, saying that he was a sailor, just returned from a voyage, and would like to get employment about the beasts … Manders liked the man’s appearance, and at once agreed to give him an opportunity to display his qualifications for the leonine regality to which he aspired. The negro entered the lions’ cage, and displayed so much courage and address in putting the animals through their performances that he was engaged forthwith … This black sailor was the performer who afterwards became famous far and wide by the name of Macomo [sic].
This was written in 1876, and Frost states that this incident happened some twenty years previously. His memory is a little askew as we know Maccomo was working with Hylton’s Menagerie in 1853. At the time that Maccomo was working with Hylton, Manders was also there as an assistant manager and he would later take over the running of the menagerie, taking Maccomo with him. Some sources suggest that his name may have been Arthur Williams, and that he came from the West Indies.4 A piece in the Newcastle Journal of 21 January 1858 specifically places him in Sierra Leone, and the 1861 Census returns for Bath and Wells gives his place of birth as ‘Africa Angola’.5 In this record he is a ‘servant’ in the household of William and Rosina Manders, although his occupation is as a ‘performer of lions and tigers’. In most of the advertising he is referred to as the ‘African Lion Hunter’ or the ‘African Lion King’, or simply as an ‘African’. In the Liverpool Mercury of 18 January 1861, he is billed as ‘Sable Maccomo – the African Lion Hunter’, emphasising his ethnicity.
Maccomo is strangely absent from any advertising during 1855 and 1856. He appears to have left Manders after the 1854 tour and he re-appears in Chesterfield in October 1857 with his own outfit:
FOR ONE DAY ONLY – MARTINA [sic] MACOMO the African Lion Slayer’s Encampment and Monster Zoological Establishment of Wild Beasts, Birds, Reptiles, and Monsters of the Deep … The Lion Slayer begs to inform that [he has] just arrived from Africa, where he has spent many years in hunting those wild and ferocious animals (Derbyshire Times and Chesterfield Herald 31 October 1857)
A lot of this is ‘puffery’ but it might explain his two-year absence from the media. Did he spend those missing years in Africa sourcing animals for his own menagerie? A possibility. He also seems to have changed his style of performance. In 1854, although billed as the Lion Hunter, he
[f]earless of danger, will enter the den of the Noble African Beast and cause him (forgetful of his savage nature) in playful gambols, to leap and bound and, as the tender Lamb, to crouch and fondle with his keeper; then, ever and anon, with a Mysterious Performance, will prove to the astonishment of all spectators his strength, sagacity, and highly trained endowments (Waterford Mail 8 February 1854)
By the 1857 tour he was advertising
FAMILY OF LIONS of all grades, from the monster African King of Beasts to the tiny Cubs scarce a span in length accompanied by their sire and dam, the Tawny Twin Lions of the South, captured by the Lion Slayer, who in person will attend and fight his battles o’er again. Within the enclosure a circle will be formed, well secured by bolts and bars. The Lions will be loosened, and the Hunt, Attack, Defence, Capture, and Reconciliation will take place between the Monsters and the Man (Leeds Times 31 October 1857)
He had moved from being merely the Lion Hunter to the Lion Slayer! His 1854 act had seemed quite ‘cosy’ and ‘cuddly’, but now it was dynamic, dangerous, and heroic. There was a thought at the time that ‘it was riskier for him [Maccomo] than for a white man, if it be true as they say, that the beasts can nose a black man and are mad after the flavour of his flesh’ (Monmouthshire Beacon 13 January 1872).
His costume reflected a European image of the ‘noble savage’. An 1860 poster image shows him dressed in a Grecian style belted tunic, over which appears to be a leopard skin cloak.6 This is topped off with a feathered head-dress. In his belt is a pistol and he wields a rifle as a club. A report in the Cork Examiner of 9 January 1862 also refers to him wearing a ‘spangled dress’. This appears to have been his style of costume throughout his career. Unlike other white European lion-tamers, who tended to wear military style costumes reflecting imperial might, Maccomo chose (or was maybe instructed?) to wear an outfit that romanticised the ‘noble savage’ concept.
Maccomo’s life as a lion-tamer was not without mishap. In a tour of the north-east he had a run-in with one of his lions:
Unfortunately, on the evening of Saturday last, he [Maccomo] met with an accident, which at one time, assumed a serious aspect. It appears, whilst exhibiting the lions and lionesses, one of the latter sprang upon him, and lacerated his right arm and cheek in a severe manner … It may be stated that he is now recovering (Newcastle Journal 2 January 1858)
A few years later, in 1862, a similar incident took place while he was performing in Norwich.7 He was attacked by a young lion and dragged to the ground. The lion seized his left hand in its jaws and when Maccomo was eventually freed it was found that part of the forefinger had been bitten off. The newspaper commented that he had also been attacked by a lion in a performance in Norwich two years earlier. Such encounters excited and thrilled audiences who, if truth be known, went to such exhibitions with an anticipation of something ‘bloody’ happening. In 1861 he was in Liverpool, where again he was bitten on the hand, this time by a tigress. When the audience realised what had happened, ‘The truth of his dangerous position flashed through the minds of those present, and created great excitement – one lady fainting, others running from the painful sight’ (Illustrated London News 19 January 1861).
Other occurrences happened, seemingly much of an occupational hazard for Maccomo, and not only with big cats. In one instance in Portobello, Edinburgh, Maccomo was seized by an enraged dromedary and had to be rescued by other keepers.8 Outside of the cage he was a mild-mannered man who drank nothing but coffee. But once inside with his animals his courage could never be denied. For all this, it is a wonder that he was not actually killed in the pursuit of his profession.
Maccomo remained with Manders for the rest of his career, touring widely throughout Britain to much acclaim. At some point in his life it is inferred that he married a Henrietta Bent.9 However, there is no record extant for Maccomo (or variant) being married during his time in Britain. It is of course possible that he married before arriving in Britain or that his relationship with Henrietta was simply a common-law marriage. There is certainly no record of children being born.
Maccomo took to his bed with rheumatic fever and died on Wednesday 11 January 1871, somewhere around thirty years of age. Although he appears to have been ill for two weeks, he was still being billed to appear with Manders’ Menagerie even on the day of his death. The first notice of his passing was given in the Morning Advertiser on 13 January:
On Wednesday morning Maccomo, who was accompanying the tour through the north with Manders’ Menagerie of wild animals, died at the Palatine Hotel, Borough Road, Sunderland, from epilepsy. Deceased had been ill for nearly a fortnight.
The Era of 15 January gave a fuller obituary, although slightly incorrect in places:
He was born in the year 1839, at Angola, in the South West of Africa … At the age of sixteen Martini longed to distinguish himself as a tamer of wild beasts. He accordingly made an appearance as a lion tamer at the Circus of Messrs. Stone and McCollum, New York, in 1855, when he achieved a triumphant success. After a successful tour through the States he came to England, when he was engaged by Mr. William Manders … He made his first appearance in England at Deptford in 1857, and since that time had travelled with Mr. Manders as the ‘African Lion King’ … on the 2nd inst. He was attacked with rheumatic fever in the legs, which, extending upwards, caused his death after a week’s illness.
I am not entirely convinced about the accuracy of this account of his early life. Stone and McCollum’s Great Western Circus was only in operation from 1846 until 1850, after which time Thomas Stone went to England.10 I can find no reference for Manders’ Menagerie being in Deptford during 1857, although many for other venues around Britain during that year, and we have also seen that Maccomo was working in Britain as early as 1853. Martini Maccomo was buried in the Bishopswearmouth cemetery and his headstone was commissioned by his long standing employer, William Manders. Whatever the truth about his early life, there can be no doubt that Maccomo was an iconic figure in the black cultural history of Britain, and he paved the way for many others to follow him.
Steve Ward is a researcher, author, and speaker. He has a PhD for his research and writing on the social and cultural history of the circus. His published books are; Beneath the Big Top; A Social History of the Circus in Britain (2014); Sawdust Sisterhood; How Circus Empowered Women (2016); Circus Notes & Jottings (2017); The Father of the Modern Circus; Billy Buttons; the life & times of Philip Astley (2018); Nineteenth Century Circus Poster Art (2018); Artistes of Colour; Ethnic Diversity and Representation in the Victorian Circus (2021).
Notes & references
- Sun (London) 7 August 1838
- London Courier and Evening Gazette 23 August 1838
- Waterford Mail 8 February 1854
- This suggestion appears in an article entitled Black lion tamers in Hull and East Yorkshire as part of the African stories in Hull and East Yorkshire Project. This can be accessed online at https://www.africansinyorkshireproject.com/black-lion-tamers/
- 1861 England Census. Online at; https://www.ancestry.co.uk/interactive/8767/SOMRG9_1682_1687-0604?pid=19184942&backurl=https://search.ancestry.co.uk/cgi-bin/sse.dll?indiv%3D1%26dbid%3D8767%26h%3D19184942%26tid%3D%26pid%3D%26usePUB%3Dtrue%26_phsrc%3DAnq79%26_phstart%3DsuccessSource&treeid=&personid=&hintid=&usePUB=true&_phsrc=Anq79&_phstart=successSource&usePUBJs=true&_ga=2.185567209.1342941343.1587630165-8519783.1584367827
- Poster for Manders Royal Menagerie of 9 July 1860 at the Cattle Market, Leeds. An original copy is held by the Leeds City Library. Not available online.
- The Times 6 January 1862
- Cork Examiner 4 March 1863
- Liverpool Daily Post 19 May 1877
- Olympians of the Sawdust Circle Mac-Mc on the Circus Historical Society website. Online at; http://www.classic.circushistory.org/Olympians/OlympiansMc.htm