In the 1870s there was some discussion in British newspapers and medical journals about Georgious Constantine, or ‘the Tattooed Man from Burmah’, who had appeared in Vienna much to the interest of Europe’s anthropologists. He was covered head-to-toe with elaborate tattoos. Constantine claimed to have been of Greek descent and to have been a pirate and mercenary in Asia before being captured by the Burmese government. He claimed further that as a punishment for his crimes he was subjected to torture by tattooing, a processes that took three months, was excruciatingly painful, and proved lethal to one of his fellow prisoners.
The Burmese origin of the tattoos were confirmed by none other than famed German Orientalist scholar Max Muller. But Constantine’s story did not add up. This highly embellished, stylised and extensive tattooing was not used as a punishment by the Burmese state, although penal tattooing was applied by them as well as by the British colonial authorities to the south. Instead it appeared that Constantine commissioned the artwork to be done. And, on returning to Europe, he made a career from touring with travelling shows displaying the impressive body art.
The fascination with Constantine’s body and story tell us a number of things about imperial cultures at the end of the nineteenth century. Firstly, it shows us that anthropologists across different empires shared ideas and knowledge. Photographs of Constantine were posted between interested scholars in Vienna and London. Secondly, it reveals the blurred borders of who was identified as a ‘European’. Constantine’s background was a matter of some investigation, and the status of Eastern Europeans was problematic for colonial states in Asia. Furthermore, by modifying his body with Burmese tattoos his status as ‘White’ was compromised. Thirdly, the story he concocted reveals a market for stories of people being taken captive by Asian governments. Constantine’s story about his ordeal in Burma emerged shortly after the publication of Henry Gouger’s account of his two years spent in a Burmese prison in the early nineteenth century. At a time when Britain and other European powers were starting to colonize Africa and Asia in earnest, there was evidently an Imperial audience for stories in which that power relationship was reversed. There was a desire to read about Europeans who had been subjugated to what they characterised as tyrannical and brutal Oriental regimes.