In January 1856 rave reviews began filling pages of Hobart’s newspapers. The Backus minstrel show was on tour. After playing shows in Sydney and Melbourne, the ‘Black face’ troupe had arrived in Hobart. The Courier Newspaper proudly declared on 1 January:
THIS famous corps of minstrels, whose performances
have been so highly spoken of by the Press of the
Atlantic and Southern States of America, of New
South Wales and Victoria, commence a series of their
popular Entertainments in this city at the Royal Victoria
Theatre to-morrow evening-the Regatta
night. Placing the utmost reliance upon the state-
ments of some of our colonists who have been
delighted with their efforts in the neighbouring colo-
nies, we anticipate a treat of no ordinary musical
character, and have very little doubt, after the
aquatic sports, instituted in commemoration of the
discovery of the colony are over, that crowds of our
fellow-citizens will report to the Temple of Melody
upon this occasion.
The Royal Victorian Theatre (later known as the Theatre Royal) had been built in a ‘rough, foul-smelling’ part of town by convict labour and the wealth of convict-cum-entepeneur and founder of Cascades brewery Peter Degraves. Early performances at the theatre featured cockfights, boxing, amateur performance nights and of course religious meetings. Performers were regularly subjected to drunken and disruptive interactions with the locals. By the time the minstrel show arrived in town, it must have seemed quite a treat.
Minstrel shows had been popular in Australia for quite some time. Hobart even had its own amateur minstrel bands, but the Backus minstrel show was the real deal. Originating in San Francisco in the summer of 1854, they toured America delivering performances with a “degree of success unparalleled in the history of the profession”, before heading abroad for a tour of Australia.
Considering the deeply racist origins of black face minstrelsy it is unsurprising that it was received with such popularity in Australia. In many ways it allowed colonists to reinforce notions of racial superiority whilst poking fun at the colonial administration. [*] At the time that the Backus minstrel show played in Hobart, memories of the brutal frontier war which had raged across Van Diemen’s Land were still fresh.
Amongst the performers who arrived with the Backus minstrel show was a banjo player by the name of Dan F Boley. The Courier newspaper advertised on the 30th Jan 1856 that a;
Grand Banjo Solo (in which the characteristic musical
tones of this instrument will ‘ be fully developed for the
first time in the colonies) by D. F. Boley.
Boley, it seems developed a liking for Tasmania. When the Backus Minstrel show packed up after a successful series of shows and returned to San Francisco, Boley stayed. He married a wealthy widow named Matilda Watkins in Sydney and penned the song ‘We met by chance’ in her honour:
Boley went on to establish his own minstrel troop ‘Boley’s Minstrels’ and toured Australia playing regular shows in Melbourne and Tasmania. In 1858, when Backus’ newly formed San Francisco Minstrels returned to Australia, Boley joined his old friends and again they performed at the Theatre Royal in Hobart, however it seems for some reason or another, the show was not well attended. Boley’s Minstrels continued to perform after the San Francisco Minstrels returned home and in late 1861, Boley decided he would take his show on an international tour. In 1862, some months after they had left, tragic news reached home:
Most of the habitues of the concert halls of Melbourne will
remember ‘ Boley’s Minstrels,’ who about twelve months since
left Australia on a professional visit to Mauritius. After playing a
far from successful engagement at Port Louis, they embarked
on board a schooner for the Cape of Good Hope,and, we regret
to add, were wrecked off Cape St. Mary. The passengers,
including the troupe, with Mrs. Boley and children, were fourteen
in number, and have all perished, with the exception of Mr. Robson,
who with three sailors succeeded in returning to Port Louis. Two
other passengers reached the shore but died shortly afterwards of
the fever. The sufferings of the four who survived during the three
months they were on shore at Cape St. Mary were distressing,
and their pitiful appearance on arrival moved the compassion
of the wharf, the Customs, and the Post-office clerks.
Boley’s popularity and success in Tasmania highlights an interesting period in our history. The influence of ‘black face mistrelsy’ had a lasting impact on Australian music and can still be heard today. The Racist nature of the shows highlights the often dark and ongoing legacy of Australian colonial culture. ‘Black face’ minstrelsy continued as a popular form of entertainment in Tasmania well into the 20th century. Banjos, for better or worse, are here to stay.
[*] The reasons for the popularity of minstrel shows in Australia are many and varied, for an in depth look at the legacy minstrel shows had on Australian culture, look up Richard Waterhouse ‘The Minstrel show and Australian Culture’ in Journal of Popular Culture, 1990, vol 24.