Who was ‘The African Blondin’?
At the end of May, Bristol Beacon plays host to ‘A Fine Balance – In Carlos’ Footsteps’, an exhibition which celebrates the remarkable story of Carlos Trower – a man who escaped slavery to become one of the world’s greatest tight-rope walkers, who performed in front of thousands at what was then Colston Hall and for a time, lived just a stone’s throw away from us at Christmas Steps.
Ahead of the exhibition, historian and Carlos Trower expert Dr. Paul Green gives us a vivid insight into how Carlos Trower came by the moniker ‘The African Blondin’, and recounts an episode in his life which shows just one of the incredible feats which earned him his reputation.
At the age of 28, Carlos Trower and his young Family were living in Bristol, England, at 7 Christmas Steps. In the year 1878, Carlos was a famous high-rope performer and self-proclaimed ‘Prince of the Air,’ but ‘The King of the Tightrope, The Lord of the Hempen Realm, The Emperor of All Manila’ was a man named Charles Blondin (1). Few attempted the feats Charles Blondin demonstrated on the high-rope. Some died trying. Time and time again, Carlos showed large Audiences what he was capable of. He did what Audiences thought impossible and changed their minds.
The Public crowded into trains away from the smoke and industry of Manchester and the Potteries to the leaf-lined lake under a clear blue sky. Their tickets included entry to the ‘Grand Fete’ hosted by the railway company and their hotel at Rudyard Lake.
In the summer of 1878, advertisements described how Carlos Trower, known as ‘The African Blondin’ would perform twice a day on a rope 100 above Rudyard Lake (2). Crowds of over 10,000 filled every space along the dam and jetty from boathouses to deep in the cool damp of the shady banks. All desperate to see what the posters had promised: Acts to rival the Great Blondin – the man who first crossed Niagara Falls on a rope.
Charles Blondin inspired many imitators, the best taking the mantle ‘Blondin.’ Selina Powell was known as ‘The Female Blondin,’ Henri L’Estrange as ‘The Australian Blondin,’ and Carlos Trower as ‘The African Blondin.’
A Newspaper Reporter in 1876 described a ‘Blondin’ performance as ‘something unique, and, to use a homely phrase as different from that of the ordinary tight-rope walker as chalk is from cheese.’ (3)
Carlos Trower lifted his wooden balancing pole tipped with lead weights and stepped off the platform onto the rope 100 feet in the air. Victorian audiences of Rich, Poor, Urban and Rural shouted, whistled or forgot to exhale as his first short steps cued the Brass Band to start belting out ‘See The Conquering Hero Comes.’ (4)
On the grand stand, the Ladies were laced and draped into fashionable shapes. The Gentlemen flattered themselves with suits and hats. Their Servants pushed through the Crowd to bring them wine, sharp spirits, warm ales, and dark cigars from the hotel on the lake (5). The mask of gallantry slipped in the summer heat. The tempers of High Society struggled to live up to their own standards of refinement. He no longer held her hand like a delicate bird. She no longer an angel smudged by his touch.
In front of them, a Black Man walked across the lake 100 feet in the air (6). His strong leg covered by white tights. Red satin shorts with a gold star on each hip. The lace of his sleeveless shirt fluttered in the wind.
Those with good eyes could make out a frowning moustache on his lip. He stepped forward confidently, but with an unseen caution fractured into his bones from when the rope had broken beneath him. The story of his terrible fall 10 years earlier had reached New Zealand. (7)
Over 4 days, Carlos and his Team erected the 2 high towers and joined them by a thick manila rope that still sagged in the middle despite tons of tension running through the pulley blocks. Thinner ropes named cavaletti fanned out every 6 feet to steady the main rope. The Team anchored them to anything they could find, including tree trunks and stakes hammered into the shore. They weighted other cavaletti with sandbags and poles lashed together floating on the lake’s smooth surface. Noises from shore muffled as the warm breeze that softly strummed the ropes like the strings an Aeolian harp.
When Carlos reached the half-way point, he stopped to balance on one foot so a Photographer
on the far bank would have the time required to take the picture. The rope swayed beneath him.
Uphill from the middle of the rope, his calves stretched and thighs started to strain. Holding the balancing pole in front, each correction required painful effort. Sounds became clearer closer the other side and individual voices distinct. Some wanted him to succeed. Some hoped he would fail. In keeping with tradition, both sides placed a bet.
At the small perch of the far tower Carlos immediately turned around. No money exchanged hands, the wager still on. No relief from their fixed attention. Returning to his starting point, an Assistant shackled him in heavy chains, blindfolded him and sent him back onto the rope to shuffle across in dangerous discomfort.
The stunt on the high-rope thrilled his Audiences, but the blindfold, shackles and chains also represented the many obstacles overcome by People like Carlos in the struggle for emancipation.
copyright © 2021 Paul Phillip Green.
Main picture: Bray, Rachel Hemming., ‘Portrait of Carlos.’ (Reproduced with permission of the Artist)
Background banner image: Willis, J. of Manor Road, ‘African Blondin at Rosherville Gardens,’ Gravesend, Kent, 1881-1882. (Reproduced with permission of the local studies collection at the Gravesend Library)
A Fine Balance – In Carlos’ Footsteps opens on Wed 26 May at Bristol Beacon and runs until Sat 5 Jun. The exhibition is free, advanced booking is required. Click here for more information and tickets.
1. ‘Blondin at the Crystal Palace,’ Durham Chronicle. May 31, 1861, pg. 3.
2. ‘Advertisement,’ Staffordshire Sentinel. July 2, 1878, pg .1.
3. ‘Blondin,’ Evening Post (Wellington, New Zealand). February 28, 1876, pg. 3.
4. ‘Blondin at Rudyard,’ Staffordshire Sentinel. June 25, 1878, pg. 2.
5. ‘Railway Inn, Rudyard,’ Staffordshire Sentinel. July 5, 1878, pg. 1.
6. ‘Macclesfield,’ The Era. June 30, 1878, pg. 9.
7. ‘A Man of Color,’ Nelson Evening Mail, September 26, 1868, pg. 2.