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Helen English
The University of Newcastle
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Blackface at Work and Play: Amateur Minstrel Troupes in Colonial Newcastle, NSW

This project looks at the description ‘blackface’ in terms of a form of entertainment in the coalmining region of Newcastle, NSW. The term ‘blackface’ therefore may refer to both the sooty-faced miners (often depicted as a separate race in government and newspaper reporting) and the burnt cork faces of the local minstrel performers.

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In the nineteenth century, minstrel entertainment was hugely popular and adopted across the colonial world. The craze that began in the US spread west to Australia and east to Britain from whence an English and somewhat gentrified version of minstrelsy travelled back to the colonies. The song and dance act Jim Crow that was a precursor to minstrel shows was heard in Melbourne in 1838. Touring minstrel companies came to the antipodean colonies from 1849 with the first touring minstrel troupe visiting Newcastle in 1850.

The research draws on local and Sydney newspaper reporting to investigate the significance and impact of amateur minstrelsy in the Newcastle district from early beginnings as Ethiopian novelties to the establishment of three regular amateur minstrel troupes in the 1870s. The project seeks to go beyond historical discovery to ask questions about the effect on colonial coalmining communities of an entertainment form based on the grotesque body and racist wit contrasted with the beauty of harmonious singing. In order to understand the effects on body, mind and emotions, research draws on a theoretical framework that combines affordance as a tool with social and cultural theory. Research into minstrelsy is part of a larger project on the amateur music-making in colonial Newcastle.


Image: Advertisement from the Newcastle Morning Herald, 19 December 1876; Maitland Mercury, 10 May 1866; Newcastle Pilot, 23 December 1876.