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Chief of a Strange Tribe

by Samora Chapman / 10.08.2012

The circus has been visiting Durban for many years. I’ve always been intrigued when they arrive in town… the band of strangers dragging their ramshackle life, their ‘wild’ animals, tents and trailers in tow. There is something so surreal about seeing two giant elephants parking under a palm tree on the side of the road, in the midst of the concrete jungle every morning. It just doesn’t seem right.

Every year the humans flock in droves to salivate over the candy-floss and animal entertainment. But this year something changed. The opposition arrived with picket signs. To save the shackled beasts from the circus freaks.

At the forefront of the protester was a tall man with golden-grey hair like a hyena’s main. He was striding up and down the line of protestors with gleaming eyes, giving charismatic speeches to the media. Steve Smit of Animal Rights Africa is no stranger to this fight. “I’ve been battling Boswell for 27 years. I’m gonna go over there right now and make him nervous,” he says with vicious energy.

I walked up and down the frontline listening to opinions: “You see how the elephants are swaying?” Explained the timid Jaryd Sage. “That’s a sign that they are in distress. Those are two unhappy elephants.” Jaryd is responsible for organising the weekly pickets outside Boswell’s. “The aim is to raise public awareness, generate support and eventually challenge the laws that protect Boswell,” he tells me.

I stalk off to talk to Brian Boswell as he stands on the other side of the fence… swaying too, like an animal in distress. But I’m intercepted and turned away: “Come back another time,” says his daughter Georgina Boswell. “Things are very stressful right now.”

It takes almost two weeks of phone calls and emails to acquire an interview with old man Boswell. Eventually I find myself following the tired old Ringmaster with his bad limp into a hidden fold of his circus tent. I’m under strict orders: no discussing the animal rights protests, no pictures and no animal abuse accusations.

I try to make small talk: “I’m sorry to hear about your hip replacement Mr Boswell. How did it go? My mother’s had two knee replacements, so I know it’s a very painful experience.”

Boswell eases into an old plastic chair and waves his hand dismissing the question. “I’ve already had three hip replacements. I’ve got no time to rest. I’ve got things to do. People to see. I make four or five overseas trips a year to see circuses and attend conferences. I’ve been to China, Hungary, Germany, Peru, Paris, Rome, Italy…” the list goes on.

I’m in the Ringmaster’s domain now. The tired body is a guise. His mind is a wild pony. “I’m pretty astonished,” I say, “I thought the circus was a thing of a past. How many circuses are there in South Africa… and do they all have animals?”

“There are more circuses now than there have ever been,” he says. “There are five in South Africa. They all have animals. Circuses without animals always close.”

“What about Cirque du Soleil? Isn’t it one of the most successful circuses in history?” I probe.

“I actually have a letter from Cirque du Soleil stating that they are not opposed to circus animals. Yes, they run an incredible show… but it’s not my cup of tea. Cirque du Soleil is a factory. They produce a new circus every year. I saw them in Paris… I met them. I know them.”

Old Man Boswell is a fifth generation Ringmaster. The circus and its history flows through his veins. These are Carny folk. It’s etched on his leathery red face. Nomads. He’s travelled many miles with his band of performers and animals. Dragging tents, hounds, children, beasts, gymnasts and daredevils from town to town. Setting up camp on vacant thorny field… no place to call home. Always under the big starry sky.

“We travel 12 months of the year. We’ve closed three times in 30 years. We travel South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique… but it always gets harder. It gets harder to cross borders and harder to acquire animals. There are many permits you need, which there never was before.”

Boswell is drowned out by a baby and a pack of poodles howling in unison from the caravan across the way. “It’s a nomadic way of life,” he says like a chief of a strange tribe. An old lady in uniform comes and offers us drinks. “Cream Soda,” says Boswell. I go for water. He sips the green juice and delves into the annals of time.

“My ancestors can be traced back to 1752 and the birth of the modern circus. The first actual Boswell’s Circus was formed in 1848 in England. In 1911 my grandfather and his four sons came to South Africa and started Boswell’s here. But in the 60s the circus was sold to African Theatres, which then joined with Wilkies to form The Boswell Wilkies Circus.”

When his father’s circus was sold off Boswell was a youth in his 20s, and all he’d ever known was the circus life. Disillusioned by the loss of the family circus, young Boswell headed for England. He literally ran away from his circus to join another. The renowned Chipperfields Circus.
“I was working the lions, tigers, bears,” he explains like he’s talking about the cool breeze. “I soon became Ringmaster. My father had taught me everything about the circus.”

A few years later Boswell toured South Africa with the Chipperfields Circus. He ended up marrying one of the “Chipperfields girls” as he puts it, and stayed in SA to resurrect his great grandfather’s beloved Boswell’s Circus.

“I started Brian’s Circus in 1982… since my father had sold off to African Theatres and we’d lost our name to Wilkie. Wilkie died in ‘98 and their show closed in 2001, which is when we finally got our name back.”

Has the circus changed over time?

“No, the circus has always been quite similar. Always lions, Asian elephants, zebras, monkeys, baboons, dogs. It’s a ‘traditional circus’. Human performances are always the same. Everything’s been done.”

Have you ever considered a circus without animals?

“When people come to the circus, they expect to see animals. We are here to entertain the public and you have to give people what they want. We are inspected by our audience and by animal welfare societies. They can come whenever they want.”

Boswell checks his old gold watch and announces that it’s time for the show. Our interview ends abruptly and I try sneak in a last question on our way to the main tent: “One last question Mr Boswell… do you ever get kids arriving at your gate. Like kids who’ve run away to join the circus?”

“Oh yes of course.” He says. “You see Jimmy over there? Him and his four brothers all joined the circus that way. And Richie too. He’s been fired 13 times and he just keeps coming back. Hey Richie! How many times you been fired?”

The rough cat manning the roundabout just shrugs and smiles.

“The circus becomes your family. My daughter Georgina is slowly taking over. She’ll be working the lions today.”

As we enter the arena a scary looking clown shows me to my seat and tells me that no photographs are allowed during the show… but that it’s okay if I take photographs. “Shit, I never brought my camera,” I say frustrated, looking around for Mr Boswell in an attempt to validate the clown’s orders. I’m left wondering if it’s a trick. Why had the clown delivered the message? Luckily I’ve got a kak two megapixel camera on my Blackboerie. It’ll have to do.

Dance Money - Clown Act

The show finally commences with an announcement by a man in a starry cape: “Welcome to Boswell’s International Circus! First up we have the amazing Georgina Boswell and the lionesses!” He says in a horrible radio voice. He forces a pained mannequin grin.

Dance Monkey - Opening Image

Georgina chases the beautiful lions around with a whip. They pad around as fluid as water. Subservient, but proud. Awesome up close. Next up is trapeze followed by Mongolian looking cats juggling, a soulless skit by the sad clowns, horses trotting in circles, feisty pigs doing tricks and some much needed comic relief from the poodles, which drove the crowd wild.

Dance Monkey - Acrobats

The episode ends with Georgina dancing with an incredible galloping wild horse. Its coat was like that of an Nguni cow, and its eyes shone and flashed. The horse galloped explosively around the ring as Georgina snapped her whip, guiding the animal this way and that. There was something in the horse’s eyes that spoke to me… like it had transcended its captivity. It was caged, but its spirit was still wild. It was the most beautiful horse I have ever seen.

Dance Monkey - Horse

I left at the interval. I couldn’t face the elephant show.

The people of Boswells did not come across as cruel or mean-hearted as many of the ‘progressive’ people across the road might think. I have my reservations about the animal show. But there are far greater evils than Boswell’s Circus. Evils that have been totally normalised in modern society.

For instance, why did a hundred people come out to protest against a small independent circus when Mcdonalds is spreading around the country like an epidemic? What about the hunting industry? What about the mass industrialised slaughter and cruelty inherent in the meat and poultry business? What is the difference between eating KFC, dog or dolphin? Why do thousands of brilliantly trendy socialites attend the Durban July without a flinch… but when a little family run circus comes to town everyone gets outraged?

Don’t get me wrong; I think the protests are necessary. They will help build awareness… but Boswell is operating fully within the law. For anything to change, the animal rights groups must lobby their issue with government and challenge the laws pertaining to animals in entertainment.

Maybe the next generation of Boswells will see that the circus can succeed without exotic animals, as Cirque de Soleil has proved. But for me, the circus only sheds light on a much deeper issue… we are so far removed from nature that it has become almost impossible to tell right from wrong.

Two hundred years ago Saartjie Baartman was put in a cage and exported to Europe as the star of a freak show. She was dubbed the ‘Hottentot Venus’. Fifty years ago the great Madiba was put in a cage for 27 years; a freedom fighter charged with treason. Today, women are put in cages and stoned to death for falling in love with the wrong man.

Lets hope one day humans will start treating each other like humans… then maybe the animals will get a better deal.

*All images © Samora Chapman.

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