University of Cambridge > > Cabinet of Natural History > Isaac Van Amburgh the lion tamer: spectacle, education and natural history in Britain, 1825–1872

Isaac Van Amburgh the lion tamer: spectacle, education and natural history in Britain, 1825–1872

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In August 1838, an enigmatic American showman by the name of Isaac Van Amburgh arrived in London with a troupe of performing lions. He exhibited daring feats of control over these creatures and helped establish lion taming as a popular and profitable act in theatres and circuses. He toured Europe until 1845 and inspired numerous imitators. His shows were the first dedicated exclusively to lion taming and attracted various sections of society, ranging from members of the working classes to Queen Victoria. The question of how Van Amburgh tamed his lions sparked widespread discussion. He was secretive about his training methods and papers speculated on whether rational instruction, brute strength or special knowledge of animal behaviour explained his powers. This talk explores the marketing and press coverage of Van Amburgh’s shows. It considers the complex imagery spun around his performances. Newspaper reports often claimed that the acts revealed social and scientific lessons. They were tied in with Lord Brougham’s attempts to reform working class education and debates on behavioural studies of animals. Van Amburgh’s show was not merely dismissed as a vulgar spectacle or violent entertainment. I argue that the press transformed it into an illustration of the improvability of nature and the value of practical, experiential knowledge of animals. These interpretations influenced the development of lion taming in the second half of the 19th century and help explain the persistence of the practice.

This talk is part of the Cabinet of Natural History series.

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