They were performed to a packed audience at the London Hippodrome and were described by critics as a “revelation of strange humanity”.
The year was 1904 and the so-called actors were six members of the Bambuti tribe.
They had been shipped from their homeland – the Congo region of Africa – by British explorer Colonel James Harrison so that they could be displayed to crowds in England.
Pictures of them can be seen in the Channel 4 documentary Britain’s Human Zoos.
The show, hosted by Somali-born author Nadifa Mohamed, detailed how hundreds of Africans were brought to Britain from the mid-19th to early 20th centuries and used as a form of traveling entertainment.
The broadcast revealed footage from 1899 that showed a large group of Africans taking part in a mock battle that took place several times a day in front of paying spectators at London’s Earl’s Court.
They were recruited from the Zulu and Swazi tribes by English circus impresario Frank Fillis to recreate the British defeat of the Matabele people in the 1890s.
Six members of the Bambuti tribe – from the Congo region of Africa – are seen dressed in western clothing during their time in the UK, where they performed across the country
The year was 1904 and the so-called actors were six members of the Bambuti tribe. They had been shipped from their homeland – the Congo region of Africa – by British explorer Colonel James Harrison so that they could be displayed to crowds in England
The fight scenes were part of a show called Savage South Africa.
Ms Mohamed said: “They put a lot of effort into making it seem realistic, but all that happens is the Zulus run towards the English and then run away again.”
“It reinforces the idea that Britain is destined to have this huge empire.”
Spectators – 16,000 of whom attended during the duration of the exhibition – were also able to wander through Kaffir Kraal, a replica of a Matabele village.
There they would see the same actors living out their lives for the benefit of prying eyes.
English women are said to have been overwhelmed by the sight of half-naked African men.
Ms Mohamed described that there was a “national moral panic” on the issue.
The documentary features a news report that states, “Some of these women are using all their arts of allure to please these sons of the African wilderness.”
It added that the exhibition at Earl’s Court had “degenerated into an exhibition of white female visitors, and that is a very vile exhibition.”
Among those in attendance was Peter Lobengula, the 25-year-old grandson of the King of Matabele, whose forces were defeated in the 1890s in battle in what is now Zimbabwe.
He had come to Britain after mining magnate and politician Cecil Rhodes and the British South Africa Company founded Rhodesia at the end of the Second Matabele War.
After independence in 1980, the country was renamed Zimbabwe.
Colonel James Harrison is seen on one of his expeditions in Africa. The explorer returned with six members of the Bambuti tribe
The broadcast revealed footage from 1899 that showed a large group of Africans taking part in a mock battle that took place several times a day in front of paying spectators at London’s Earl’s Court
They were seen being defeated by soldiers armed with rifles and machine guns
Lobengula caused a stir when he fell in love with 23-year-old Cornish woman Kitty Jewell.
The couple tied the knot in 1899 despite heavy criticism in the press.
The prince’s relationship with Jewell caused a stir. An article in the now-defunct Evening News said: “There is something unspeakably disgusting about the idea of the white girl mating with the dark savage.”
A vicar refused to marry her at her local church, St Mathias, in Earls Court.
However, they received a special license and were married on August 11, 1899 at the Holborn registry office.
When the union broke up two years later, Kitty moved to America and Lobengula worked as a miner in Salford, Greater Manchester.
Lobengula left the show after his marriage but had no choice but to return after his divorce as he was penniless.
He tried to take part in a rival show in Vienna, but was arrested for stealing his native costume.
Soon afterwards the show was permanently canceled and Lobengula moved to Greater Manchester to work as a miner.
Members of the Bambuti tribe can be seen in images taken during Colonel Harrison’s expedition
Five members of the Bambuti tribe pose for photos in their homeland
Members of the tribe were also photographed as part of scientific research
Footage unearthed by the documentary filmmakers shows him laughing with his colleagues as they left Pendlebury Colliery.
He then married an Irish woman named Lily. The couple had six children: Alexandra in 1902, Kitty in 1904, Peter in 1906, Dollina in 1909, Eva in 1911 and Vincent in 1913.
Tragically, only two of the children survived to adulthood.
Lobengula died at the age of 38 on the eve of the First World War as a result of tuberculosis.
His wife died seven years later at the age of 39.
The six Bambutis performed at the Hippodrome for 14 weeks and were then sent on tour by Fillis across Britain and Europe.
More than a million spectators saw the performances. They were also invited to the House of Commons and Buckingham Palace to meet the royal family.
The group even released a record, the first recorded by Africans in Britain.
Between performances they stayed at Brandesburton Hall, Colonel Harrison’s country house.
Letters and even gifts were sent to citizens.
However, members of the group were also photographed naked. Ms Mohamed described the images as “really disturbing”.
Ms Mohamed also told that the remains of a stillborn Bambuti baby, dissected by anatomist Sir Arthur Keith, are still kept at the Royal College of Surgeons’ Hunterian Museum in London.
The organization responded last week to criticism that the baby’s remains had been removed from a catalog of items that could be viewed for medical research purposes.
The baby was the daughter of one of the two Bambuti women brought to Britain as part of the group of six.
She gave birth in Bedford, but the child died soon afterwards.
Ms Mohamed said she was “disgusted” and had spoken to members of what is now the Bambuti tribe in the Democratic Republic of Congo about the issue.
Little did they know that the stillborn child was in the possession of a museum in Britain.
In 1908 the Bambuti finally returned to their homeland
Although they ceased earlier in Britain, human zoos finally died out in Europe in the mid-20th century.
Africans pose for a photo in Earl’s Court during the Savage South Africa expedition
A news advertisement telling how the Bambuti people met King Edward VI. and entertained Queen Alexandra
Mohamed added: “I have long wanted to learn more about the history of human zoos, but wasn’t sure if I would ever get the opportunity to go beyond the surface of what was already known.”
“Taking part in this trip gave me the chance to leave behind some mysteries and find stories that were touching and upsetting, but also at odds with my own prejudices.”
“Giving light, agency and dignity to the members of these human zoos who came here in a very different time is a real privilege.”
Shaminder Nahal, Channel 4’s head of factual programming, said: “This is a story that needed to be told and Nadifa brings the power of a master storyteller to these shocking, buried tales.”
“As she explores a love story that sparked scandal, a cast of fascinating lost characters, and the disturbing realities of imperialist fantasies disguised as anthropology, we are confronted with difficult questions about the past that resonate into the present.”