The Fisk Jubilee Singers in Australia and New Zealand, 1886-1889
In early April, 1886, after nearly two years of performing in Great Britain, the Singers sailed to Melbourne, Australia aboard the steamship The Orient to begin the next portion of their global tour. Accompanied by their agents and Mrs. Harriet Loudin, the FJS consisted of contraltos Georgie Gibbons and Maggie Wilson; sopranos Maggie Carnes, Belle Gibbons, Mattie Lawrence, and Pattie Malone; tenors Robert Bradford Williams and John Lane; bassos Frederick Loudin and Orpheus McAdoo; and Leota Henson as pianist. According to Harriet Loudin, the FJS departed England “very reluctantly, for we had all learned to love London.” The Singers voyaged southwestward through the English Channel and Bay of Biscay, and then southward along the western coast of Spain and Portugal. The Orient sailed eastward past Gibraltar and into the Mediterranean Sea. When the steamship stopped briefly in Naples, Italy, the Loudins took advantage of this layover to visit the nearby ruins of Pompeii. Soon thereafter, the vessel reached the Suez Canal and traveled through the Red Sea. The Singers performed before their fellow passengers throughout the voyage. During these concerts, “several solos were sung, among them Misses Lawrence and Gibbons, and Messers Loudin and Williams, one recitation and several piano solos, of which Leota had one.”
On May 13th, The Orient pulled into port at Melbourne, Australia. The Fisk Jubilee Singers stayed in the Grand Hotel, the most luxurious lodgings in the city. After a few days, Leota Henson noted that “we are in a strange land and such a long way from home and still for all that I don’t feel any different than I would feel if we were in some large town in England.” However, “the people don’t stare at us and laugh like they do in England. They just go along and don’t seem to mind us at all.” As this page illuminates, throughout their three and a half years in Australia and New Zealand, the Fisk Jubilee Singers met with remarkable success as they traversed a raft of social circles and performed before diverse audiences. Indeed, while the FJS befriended prominent European persons, performed before full concert halls, and received praise in the press, they also desired to share their talents by giving free concerts to colonized persons.
Shortly after their arrival in Australia, the Singers received invitations to “numerous social gatherings” arranged “by leading citizens of Melbourne.” For two weeks the Singers rehearsed at the nearby YMCA Hall in preparation for their first performances in the Antipodes. However, several of the troupe members were ill, and Loudin feared that if their upcoming concerts did not go well, then “this [would be] about the last work for the Jubilees.” Nevertheless, these “social courtesies culminated in a grand reception and private concert at the Grand Hotel” in late May. This inaugural performance proved to be a great success and foreshadowed the acclaim that the FJS would receive by audiences throughout Australia and New Zealand. As Loudin would later reflect, “more than two hundred of the best people of this wonderful city were present. Gentle women and strong men grasped our hands in such a manner as to assure us that, though among strangers in that part of the earth farthest from our homes, we were yet in the midst of warm and true-hearted friends.” Leota Henson noted that Australian newspaper reporters gave a “fine account of the program and after that our concert dates came in thick and fast.” The following week, the Singers were overjoyed by the public’s response to their first concert at the Town Hall. In addition to the Governor of Melbourne, more than 3,200 persons flocked to see them perform. On June 8th, the Melbourne Daily Telegraph featured an article praising the Singers and detailing the virtues of their Spirituals. The author claimed that “anyone who wishes to have a splendid and almost perfect illustration of what ‘expression’ means in music should not fail to hear the Fisk Jubilee Singers.” Similarly positive reviews would follow the FJS’s dozens of public concerts held in Melbourne between June and August, 1886.
For the next three months, the Singers performed to crowds in Sydney. As an extant program from 1886 records, the troupe typically sang sixteen pieces during a concert. At the start of each performance, Loudin addressed the crowd to explain the importance of Spirituals and to raise global awareness of Fisk University. Throughout their time in Sydney, local newspapers extolled the virtues of the FJS and their distinctive vocal arrangements. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, “the Fisk Jubilee Singers have undoubtedly brought part singing to a very high pitch of perfection, and in addition to this the quaintness of their plantation ballads is striking and original. We have seldom seen an audience so unanimous in its applause, and the Jubilee Singers should do well in Sydney if plaudits are a fair criterion of success.”
Despite high praise and plentiful ticket sales, the Singers did meet with unjust treatment during their time in Sydney. As the Sydney Christian Monitor reported in October, 1886, “the cultured and talented and world-renowned Fisk Jubilee Singers… have, metaphorically, had the doors of the leading hotels in Sydney slammed in their faces, because of the colour of their skins.” Indeed, it was a disgrace to the city “that Sydney publicans have been able to offer such insult to persons of culture and refinement.” Conversely, as the FJS gained fame in Australia, they also received exquisite treatment when they attended theatrical performances. For instance, Leota Henson, Pattie Malone, and Maggie Wilson saw Shakespearean plays at the original Sydney opera house. According to Henson, when the manager realized that they were members of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, he “was very nice and gave us a private box.” After performing in Sydney for a few months, Harriet Loudin feared that public interest in the FJS was waning. She claimed that “while we have met with success, it has not been Melbourne, where on the first night we took nearly a thousand dollars. One thing is the hall is not so large, another [is that] the people are not so enthusiastic.” Thus, the Singers resolved to take their talents to New Zealand.
In November, 1886, the Singers began their seven-month tour of the North and South Islands of New Zealand. After performing in Auckland for two weeks, the FJS then traveled overland by train and horse-drawn carriage to concerts in Napier, Gisborne, Hastings, Waipawa, Waipukurau, and Woodville in December and January. While journeying between these cities, tenor Robert Williams marveled at the “rugged grandeur, steep cliffs, narrow and dangerous roads” of the North Island. According to Williams, during the first tour of New Zealand, the Singers gave concerts in cities and towns of all sizes. Yet, they almost always performed “to a full house.” In February, 1887, the troupe reached Wellington, where they gave ten exceedingly successful – and lucrative – concerts in the local opera house. The following month, the Singers reached the South Island. After giving a number of concerts at Christchurch, the New Zealand Referee reported that “Fisk’s Jubilee Singers can probably claim to have received the best all round patronage accorded to any kind of travelling company that has visited Christchurch for many months . . . our residents – from the aristocrat to the humble ‘working man’ – have flocked to the Theatre Royal in large numbers.”
The Singers also were delighted by their popularity among Māori audiences. According to Loudin, Māori persons “follow[ed] us from town to town simply to talk with us and hear us sing.” Loudin would later claim in an interview that missionaries in the Antipodes “could make more progress if they made more use of music and singing. The hearts of the people were touched. They came again and again, and when we asked them the reason, they indicated that they recognized a kinship…they were quite clear that Māoris were ‘same,’ pointing to our faces.” This rapport with Māori persons led the Singers to receive an invitation to be “present at a war dance in New Zealand.” Loudin would later reflect on how he “had many interesting conversations with the Māoris about the lives and hopes of colored people.” These experiences in New Zealand impelled the Singers to give free concerts to poor and colonized peoples throughout the Antipodes.
Upon their return to Australia in June, 1887, the Singers continued their tour of Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide, Tasmania, Newcastle, and several small towns in between. As the FJS gave several performances over the next year and a half, they also took short breaks to see more of the Australian landscape and to socialize with prominent persons. For instance, when the FJS were in Adelaide, the Loudins received an invitation to “the Rev. Dr. Craig’s…tennis party” at his home near Mount Gambier. Harriet Loudin claimed that she “never saw such abundance of flowers” as when she was in this part of the continent. She claimed that Dr. Craig’s “house is not so large but oh the gardens are perfectly delicious.” Moreover, “the tennis court is surrounded by trees under which benches are placed. We pass from this to the croquet lawn and enjoy a game there. While out a photographer brings his camera and we are photographed. The picture will probably be hideous but it will be a souvenir of a happy day.” Conversely, according to Frederick Loudin, “at Newcastle we met with a new experience for us in the colonies, and one that reminded us of our treatment in certain parts of America. The hotels would not take us in. The proprietors gave no reasons, but just refused to have us. This was all the better for us in the end, as the leading citizens of the place opened their houses to us, and we were far better off than if we had gone to a hotel.”
Between June, 1887 and December, 1888, the troupe socialized with prominent, wealthy persons and sang in large, urban concert halls brimming with ticket-holders, but they also made a point of holding free concerts for rural communities of Aboriginal Australians. Frederick Loudin found the Fisk Jubilee Singers’ visit to the Malonga Missionary Station to be particularly memorable. Although the residents of the Station initially “did not wish to have anything to do with” the Singers, those in attendance became transfixed when the troupe began to sing “Steal Away to Jesus.” According to Loudin, “the song ended, we sang another, and still others of ‘sweetly solemn, wildly sad’ old melodies…When we had finished, they gathered about us, and, with tears still flowing, they clasped our hands and said, ‘Oh! God bless you! we have never heard anything like that before!’” This concert at the Malonga Station, as well as similarly moving experiences performing to Aboriginal Australian and Māori persons, further encouraged the Singers to bring their music to colonized persons throughout the remainder of their travels in the Antipodes and Asia.
After a year and a half in Australia, the FJS began their second tour of New Zealand on the South Island in December, 1888. As Harriet Loudin recounted, “Leaving Melbourne, where it was so warm, you can imagine how we felt when on arriving at Dunedin - we found it cold and rainy. [Dunedin] is a beautiful city, if it only had better weather, it would be all one would wish.” Despite the ceaseless rain and oppressive, dreary cloud cover, the Loudins were struck by the South Island’s “finely contoured cliffs checkered with the light green of turf and the dark of the bush, a wilderness of pretty ferns, the grass dotted closely with marguerites all presenting a view not often seen.” Despite the “dreadful rain” in Dunedin, the Singers’ “concerts were well attended. People riding and driving from fifteen to thirty miles in the midst of storm.” Following two weeks performing in Dunedin, the FJS proceeded westward to Invercargill at the southern tip of New Zealand.  The Singers then traveled northward to Queenstown in the Lakes District, Christchurch, and several towns and cities in the northern part of the South Island. From February to April, 1889, the FJS performed in Wellington, Masterton, and small towns throughout the North Island. Local newspapers noted how the Singers attracted large audiences and continuously garnered the attention of Māori persons. For instance, the South Wairaraga Advocate reported how “a large number of the Papawai natives [Māoris], with a vivid recollection of the pleasant times spent with the company on a previous occasion, assembled at the Club Hotel, where they [the Jubilee Singers] were staying and paid their respects to them in a royal manner.” The following May, the Singers returned to southeastern Australia, where they continued to perform for several months. In the months leading up to their departure in late 1889, the Fisk Herald reported on the continued success of the FJS in the Antipodes. Throughout their time in Australia between 1886 and 1889, the Singers gave eighty public concerts in Melbourne, sixty in Sydney, forty in Adelaide, thirty in Brisbane, and countless others in smaller towns.