Anyone who went to school in Sunderland is likely to recognise the crooked smile of Wallace, a crude taxidermy lion and a mainstay of the Sunderland Museum since its acquisition in 1879.
What is lesser known today, even in Sunderland, is the story of the man closely associated with the iconic lion, probably the first Black lion tamer in England, Martini Maccomo.
Manders’ travelling menagerie
From the 1850s onwards, it became fashionable in travelling menageries to have Black and Asian lion tamers and handlers. Travelling menageries were touring shows featuring showpeople, animal handlers and ‘exotic’ animals.
Maccomo was recruited by William Manders, the owner of Mander’s ‘Grand National Star Menagerie’ in 1857. It’s likely he was the first Black lion tamer in England. He was billed as being from Angola in South West Africa, but it’s more likely he was born in Liverpool in 1836 and was from a Caribbean background.
There is little record of his life before he was recruited by Manders. He was likely named Arthur Williams and was working as a sailor in the London docks when he approached Manders at the Greenwich Fair and impressed him with his command over lions. It is unclear where he gained these skills.
Unlike many performers in menageries, especially those who were Black, he was not coerced into performing but joined voluntarily. Maccomo is named on the 1861 census as a resident of Manders’ home in Bath, Somerset. His occupation is listed as ‘performer of lions and tigers’, but his relationship with Manders is noted as ‘servant’. This may have been an error or an incorrect assumption on the part of the census taker.
As one of the leading attractions in Manders’ Menagerie, Maccomo travelled the country and achieved national fame. In his performances, he would face around twenty lions and tigers, often simulating apparent traditional Angolan hunting techniques with staged lion hunts. In 1865 one writer for the Nottinghamshire Guardian noted that he interacted with the big cats as if they were ‘household tabbies’.
In 1866, Maccomo was awarded a gold medal ‘as a reward for bravery, courtesy and integrity’. It was presented to him by William Manders, whose name also appeared on the inscription, which might suggest the gesture was little more than a publicity stunt or perhaps a condescending recognition of his performance of African-ness for a white audience.
Either way, while Manders’ name featured prominently on his reward, on the posters advertising Maccomo’s performances, and later on Maccomo’s gravestone, we know even less about Manders than his star attraction.
The risks of being a lion tamer in the Victorian times
Maccomo’s story is a complicated one. His skin colour was used in marketing for the menagerie, and he performed in deliberately ‘exotic’ costumes, but it’s believed he had control over his own image.
Victorian menageries were an opportunity for people of all social classes to witness ‘wild’ and ‘exotic’ animals, but menagerie exhibitors exploited the perceived ‘exoticism’ of Black performers, which re-enforced colonial stereotypes of people of colour.
Even at the time, lion taming was a contentious profession. The RSPCA was established in 1824, and while it was mainly concerned with native species, by the late 19th century, it had publicly criticised lion taming as merely an ‘exhibition of successful cruelty’.
It was also, unsurprisingly, a risky pursuit. During a performance in Great Yarmouth, Maccomo fired a pistol as part of his act, and paper wadding was shot into the eye of a carpenter in the audience. He lost the use of his eye and was awarded £150 in compensation from Manders (the equivalent of over two years’ salary for a carpenter).
Maccomo himself suffered injuries in Liverpool when a tiger bit him. Such was his professionalism, he stood with his hand clamped in her mouth for four minutes, with onlookers believing it was part of the act. The tiger only let go of her grip when burnt with a heated iron.
A few years later, Maccomo was attacked again, this time in Sunderland by Wallace the lion, who was known as a particularly angry lion. Maccomo’s injuries were described as severe, but he made a full recovery and continued to perform.
A final resting place
Travelling menageries, and by extension, those who worked in them, were itinerant, seemingly without a strong connection to place. Maccomo had a strong connection to Sunderland, though. As well as his alarming encounter with Wallace, the lion, he also died in Sunderland.
On 11 January 1871, he died in the Palatine Hotel on the corner of Borough Road and Toward Road, likely from epileptic convulsions caused by rheumatic fever. His death certificate used his stage name and listed his age as just 35. The Palatine Hotel sat directly next door to the Sunderland Museum, where Wallace the lion still resides.
Maccomo is buried in Bishopwearmouth Cemetery. The cemetery was initially built with distinct plots for Catholics, Quakers and Jewish people, and Maccomo’s grave would likely have stood alone on the outskirts of the cemetery.
The cemetery later expanded, and today Maccomo’s grave sits amongst those cared for by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. While the Commission is not officially responsible for its maintenance they do take very good care of it. The cemetery is rich in heritage with four tombs, three chapels, a lodge building, and the north and south entrance gates, piers and railings all listed at Grade II.
Today Maccomo’s grave is important material evidence of the North East’s fascinating and diverse Black history. Martini Maccomo achieved significant fame in his all too short life and experienced the success that was rarely afforded to Black people in England in the 19th century.