What is unique about this year is that on Sept. 9, 1863 — 150 years ago — George Lewis’ Australian Hippodrome company opened its Asian tour at Batavia’s Koningsplein, then a large open square surrounded by the mansions of the wealthier classes. In the middle of this square was a tall column inscribed “To commemorate the Battle of Waterloo, won by the Dutch”, but in 1963, at the request of founding president Sukarno, Indonesia’s symbol of independence the National Monument (Monas) was built.
Leaving Melbourne on the Maori under William Ashby on Aug. 10, 1863, with a cargo of eleven horses, 15 tons of fodder, 50 drums of oil (for lighting) and a circus, the Australian Hippodrome company of twenty equestrians and musicians sailed to Batavia on Sept. 4. Their debut on King’s Plain came five days later.
For the first week (Sept. 5-11), they stayed at Hotel der Nederlanden, next to the governor-general’s residence, and, until they left for Semarang on Oct. 7, at Hotel Java. They toured in the east for two months, much to the satisfaction of the crowds. Lewis’ company included “two accomplished lady riders, two celebrated ‘star’ riders, two clowns, one renowned rope dancer and a number of acrobats, gymnasts, etc”.
I want to talk to Annie and Ned Yeamans, who were accompanied in Batavia by their baby daughter, Jennie Yeamans. Their two other daughters, Lydia, 5, and Emily, 3, were left behind in Sydney with their grandparents. The Yeamans did not expect to be away long, but things turned out rather differently. From Yokohama, Japan, Annie, Ned and Jennie traveled to San Francisco, and never returned to Australia and did not meet up with Lydia and Emily again for almost a decade!
At 14, Lewis joined Ducrow’s circus in the UK and later worked in various circuses and pantomimes. He arrived in Melbourne on Jan. 1, 1854, determined to build an establishment modeled on London’s famous Astley’s Amphitheatre, the premiere circus arena in England. At his own expense, he brought to Australia the cream of the European circus crop.
We might describe him as the “father of the Asian circus and theatrical circuit”; between 1859 and 1875, this Australian entrepreneur took circus or dramatic companies to Asia on many occasions; they were all risky, dangerous and expensive, while Asiatic cholera and smallpox posed serious concerns. During his first visits (1859-1860, 1861-1862 and 1863-1864), while he was the head of the circus companies, he invariably visited Batavia and also to the thriving north coastal-port cities of Java like Semarang, Surabaya and Pasuruan.
After Annie and Ned Yeamans’ sojourn in Batavia, Semarang, Surabaya, Pasuruan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Yokohama, Manila and then San Francisco, they ended up in New York in July of 1866. Ned died of cholera in 1867 in the US mid-west.
The final word in this story is reserved for Jane and Reuben Cousins from that first show at the Koningsplein in September 1863. Jane was an amazing character; she remained in the circus as a performer, manager, proprietress, in Australia and the Asia-Pacific, for 30 years after that Batavia season.
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