Captain John Dillingham.
Curiosity is seldom entirely innocent, and so much is certainly true of an extraordinary project of 1860, fleetingly recounted in the newspaper of July that year.

It emerges that among a certain Captain Dillingham’s collection of “African curiosities” for display and examination at a “scientific institution lately established at Boston” in the US were five men from southern Africa, “all fine specimens of their distinct races”.

The fuller, poignant and, in part, tragic, story of the five has been retold more recently in a compelling 2011 honours thesis by Matthew Smith Miller, fittingly titled “Surely his mother mourns for him: Africans on Exhibition in Boston and New York, 1860-1861”.

From this work, we learn that 35-year-old master mariner Captain John Dillingham “had been hired by the proprietors of a well-respected local aquarium and museum, the Boston Aquarial and Zoological Gardens, to travel to South Africa and return with attractions for their establishment”.

He had succeeded: “in addition to a variety of plants and minerals and an “African tiger”, he had brought with him five South African men “fresh from savage life”, whom he had contracted to perform their “native customs” on stage.

From the start, the idea was that the five would be returned to their homes and hearths, and they were, except one.

The “Hottentot” Steaurma Jantjes stayed behind one evening when his compatriots went off to a church service hosted by a missionary who had once been stationed in southern Africa. Returning to their lodgings later, the four others found 17-year-old Jantjes had hanged himself (his body later being subjected to dissection, in the interest of scientific enquiry).

Steaurma’s death was the end of the “exhibition”, and the four others were soon despatched home on the Arabia. Here is how Cape readers learnt of the project as it unfolded:

“July 21, 1860 Africans for America

Capt. Dillingham, who lately arrived in this colony for African curiosities for a scientific institution lately established at Boston, US, has returned from the frontier, in the steamer Sir George Grey, bringing with him, in addition to a very large collection of mineral and vegetable curiosities, a Bushman, Kafir, Zulu, Hottentot, and Fingo, all fine specimens of their distinct races

“Capt. Dillingham, who is highly pleased with the result of his visit, is of opinion that nothing ever introduced into America has excited more curiosity nor given more gratification to the professors of science than his collection will do on its arrival.”