Reading Burmese Animal Tattoos

A couple of years ago I wrote a blog about Captain Constantine, an Albanian man whose entire body was covered with Burmese tattoos. When he left Southeast Asia for Europe and then north America in the 1870s he became the object of considerable scientific, medical and anthropological curiosity. Later he toured with the circus of the famous American showman, P.T Barnum.

Poster advertising Captain Costentenus as a side show for the Great Farini or P. T. Barnum circus, c.1875
Poster advertising Captain Costentenus as a side show for the Great Farini or P. T. Barnum circus, c.1875

In that blog post I discussed his claim that the tattooing had been forced upon him as a punishment. This fitted with an imperial fascination with the fate of Europeans punished by ‘despotic’ Asian regimes. Although tattooing was used as a punishment, it was a doubtful story, no doubt concocted to drum-up interest in him as an exhibit—as in the poster above. The tattoos were Burmese, but they were too ornate to have been inked as a punishment.

Last week I found some images of nineteenth-century Burmese tattooing manuals held by the British Museum in their online collection. They show a selection of animal tattoos that a prospective client could choose from. Alongside them are tables of auspicious numbers and astrological explanations.

Museum Number: 2005,0623,0.2, © Trustees of the British Museum
Museum Number: 2005,0623,0.2, © Trustees of the British Museum
Museum Number: 2005,0623,0.3, © Trustees of the British Museum
Museum Number: 2005,0623,0.3, © Trustees of the British Museum
Museum Number: 2005,0623,0.4, © Trustees of the British Museum
Museum Number: 2005,0623,0.4, © Trustees of the British Museum

I wonder whether these sources might enable us to piece together an alternative reading of Constantine’s tattoos? Rather than the Orientalist story that was peddled for imperial audiences, interpreting his tattoos alongside these manuscripts might enable us to understand the meaning of choosing certain animals and speculate on why Constantine might have chosen them. Through the information contained in these tattoo manuscripts, we may have another way of reading his Burmese animal tattoos and get a glimpse of how they might have been read in nineteenth-century Burma.

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One Comment Add yours

  1. muriel bear says:

    This is wildly interesting stuff, thank you so much!

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