In this photograph taken by American photographer Jessie Tarbox Beals (1870-1942), are eight Negrito young men at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis with a statue of King Louis XIV in the background. As they are in an open field, this photograph could have been taken during the “Anthropology Day” games held by the fair committee to show off the indigenous Filipinos’ skills in various sports games to the public. In this case, the boys would have shown off their skills with a bow and arrow, whose straps can be seen over their shoulders. They are wearing loincloths and various Western-style hats while holding bows and arrows, with two of the young men (the first and fourth from the left) carrying some kind of blade (most likely a bolo). One particular young man (tallest of them) stands out in having a top hat as well as wearing full body clothing in the form of a shirt and pants. They were most likely not wearing these hats & clothes as part of their showcase as they would have gotten in the way of their shooting, and would possibly have received them afterward. The young men have a range of expressions, with some of the boys smiling, some holding a neutral expression, and others being more serious and apprehensive. They are all directly looking at the camera lens, which means that they knew that they were being photographed, and the posed nature of the smiling boys, would indicate some familiarity with photographs in general. This could be due to the popularity of the Negritos at the fair or as part of the game day festivities.
Negritos were considered (along with the Igorots) to be the least civilized of the indigenous Filipinos brought to the fair and were often described as simple-minded and completely subservient to the arriving American civilizing efforts. The St. Louis Dispatch newspaper when covering the Negritos’ presence at the fair, described them as such:
Their native costumes are curious, their religion is spirit-worship, they climb trees like monkeys – They admire white men and serve them gladly.
Narratives like this were common for all the indigenous peoples at the fair and are where I believe photographs can be used to challenge these assertions and assign some sort of agency back to the Negritos. What was presented by the fair organizers & news media was not necessarily what occurred in practice. While the article mentions the Negritos’ curious costumes and subservient nature, it is important to note that clothing is considered an important part of their culture, to the point that Negrito children often refused to attend the onsite American model school, as they did not like wearing the uniforms. Not only that, newspapers also mentioned that the Negritos would sometimes reject similar civilizing initiatives and return to their own native customs rather than participate.
With that knowledge in mind, this photograph can provide us with a visual recontextualization of this pro-imperialist narrative. Within the game day photograph, these boys had possibly just finished presenting their skills with the bow & arrow, and were attempting to relax when they were photographed. The hats and clothes may have been given to show them off in “civilized” clothing, which they do not appear to be too happy about. While we may not truly know what occurred before or after, in a small way these young boys show through their expressions a level of influence over how they were presented, and that the relationship between the Negritos and the fair’s committee was not as one-sided as was presented to the American public.
Credits / copyrights
Photograph Title: Group portrait, outdoors, of eight Negrito men and youths standing side-by-side on a lawn near a fair statue depicting King Louis (St. Louis).
Author: Jessie Tarbox Beals (1870-1942)
Newspaper Title: Mysterious Negritos at the Fair
Publication: St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Date: June 12, 1904