The True Story of the Mindanaoan Slave Whose Skin Was Displayed at Oxford
ILLUSTRATOR Etching by John Savage
In the 18th century, two curious objects from Asia hung near a staircase in the Anatomy School of Oxford University.
The first was a mysterious Chinese map acquired by an English lawyer named John Selden, who donated it to Oxford’s Bodleian library in 1659. This hand-drawn map—lands sketched out in black ink, ocean waters in the uneven green color that results when blue pigment has long oxidized away—is unique in the history of mapmaking. Most Chinese maps of this era placed their home country firmly at the center of the world; the Middle Kingdom, or Zhongguo, as the Chinese called their nation. The Selden map, however, depicts Southeast Asia, and (through lines that connect various ports and harbors) the vast trade network that crisscrossed its islands. In fact, the landmass of Luzon—little painted Cordillera mountains blooming across its forehead, Visayas and Mindanao crunched indecipherably below its tailbone, the familiar long arm of Palawan broken into separate islands—occupies the entire right side of the map.
The second object, hung right next to this map, was a fragment of preserved skin. It had been cut from the dead body of a slave purchased in Mindanao, his remarkable tattoos still visible for all scholars to see.
Tattoos from tribal, pagan cultures were a source of endless fascination for those who lived in the teeming cities of Christianized Europe. When the Spanish conquerors arrived in the Philippines, they even called the native Visayans “pintados”, after their tradition of body ink. “The men tattoo their entire bodies with very beautiful figures, using small pieces of iron dipped in ink,” observed the soldier Miguel de Loarca, one of the first conquistadors in the Philippines. “This ink incorporates itself with the blood, and the marks are indelible.”
In 1566, French explorers captured an Inuit woman and her daughter near the Arctic circle, and took them to Antwerp in the Netherlands. There, they were put on display like zoo animals for eight months. Posters of the mother and child spread as far as Augsburg, Germany, labelled (with a sickening showman’s flair) as a “True Portrait of a Savage Woman with her Little Daughter found in the District called Nova Terra and Brought to Antwerp and Recently Publicly Seen there and Still to be Seen.” The illustration clearly highlighted their blue facial tattoos.
More than a century later, a similar poster made the rounds in London. This time, the engraving was that of a single man, dressed only in a loincloth, standing in the sinuous contrapposto style of Renaissance sculpture—one leg bent, head slightly askance, left hand cocked at the waist while the other flowed outwards from the curve of his body. But while he was posed like a Greek god, this figure was like nothing else that had ever been seen in the city before.
“His whole Body (except Face, Hands, and Feet) is curiously and most exquisitely painted or stained full of Variety of Invention,” the playbill stated, “with prodigious Art and Skill perform’d.” The illustrator—a man named John Savage—rendered the tattoos in precise detail. On the man’s chest are narrow, symmetrical strips of checkerboard design, while spiky rings encircle his armpits. Running down his forearms are bands filled with zigzagging patterns like the scales of a snake, which also repeat throughout his shins. Rising up from his calves, almost reaching into his groin, are great waves and fins.
London came to know this mysterious tattooed man as Prince Giolo, the “just Wonder of the age.” “What Wisdom and ancient Learning,” asked the advertisement, “may lie veiled under those curious Figures and mysterious Characters scattered up and down his Body?”
As soon as he arrived in London in 1692, legend quickly grew around Prince Giolo. His back isn’t shown in the poster, but it was said that “a lively Representation of one Quarter part of the World” was tattooed in between his shoulders, including a map of the North Pole. His tattoos were also said to protect him against venom, and that snakes and poisonous insects did him no harm. Giolo’s fame grew so great that the king ordered him to be brought into his court for an audience.
More astonishing details were uncovered by a mysterious writer, who purportedly met with Giolo to ferret out his life story. Through a Dutch merchant conversant in the “Celebean” language, he spoke with the tattooed man, who, after a melancholy sigh, narrated his colorful adventures.
It turned out that Giolo—who professed a belief in one almighty god and a gang of 33 angels with names like Sheherever, Aeudibehest, and Raagdust—was indeed a prince. A royal scion of the island of Gilolo, he was sailing with his family when he was captured by raiders and became a slave in the kingdom of Tominec. The inhabitants of that kingdom were “tall and comely, of a curious Ruddy Colour given much to Piracy,” and atheists besides, but also sometimes devil worshippers.
Despite these religious differences, he fell in love with their princess, Terhenahete. The displeased king sent Terhenahete away, and Giolo escaped to find her, arriving just in time to save her from a lascivious, murderous captor. In gratitude, her uncle offered to set him free, but he stubbornly stayed to woo the princess, telling her, “There may be greater Princes, and there are more Fortunate that make their Addresses to you, but there can't be a greater Lover.”
The story goes on and on in a similar fashion, and quickly thrown together into a book that ran hot off the printing presses. This authorship of this slim volume is generally attributed to Thomas Hyde, a noted Oxford scholar of the time, though many contest this. Of course, nothing written on those pages was true. Just like the disgusting sideshow industry that was being erected around the tattooed man, the book was complete and utter bullshit.
Giolo’s real name, as narrated by the man who brought him to London, was Jeoly. He was not born in “Gilolo”, but rather Miangas, an island just seventy kilometers from the coast of what is now Davao Oriental. In his story, there were no princesses or angels—only slavers, who captured him and his mother out at sea, stripped them of their gold earrings, and sold the two in Mindanao. Eventually, the pair were bought for sixty dollars by one Mister Moody, who later passed on ownership to William Dampier, the buccaneer who inspired the character of Robinson Crusoe.
Dampier and Jeoly would often converse in Malayan. The Englishman may even have felt a connection was growing between him and his newly acquired chattel. When mother and son got sick, he wrote in his memoirs that he “took as much care of them as if they had been my brother and sister.” Jeoly’s mother, however, never recovered. Dampier tried his best to comfort his slave, but the tattooed man wrapped himself up in his mother’s clothes and was inconsolable.
When they arrived in London, whatever brotherly bond the buccaneer felt was quickly brushed aside for business considerations. “I, being in want of money, was prevailed upon to sell first part of my share in him, and by degrees all of it,” Dampier recalled. “After this I heard he was carried about to be shown as a sight.” Jeoly—or as the posters proclaimed him, Giolo, the “famous Painted Prince”—was kept at the Blue Boar Inn at Fleet Street, where the curious could gawk at this lonely and silent slave with the strange markings on his skin.
After just three months in England, Jeoly died of smallpox in Oxford. For the sake of science, the university decided that they would preserve his skin—the “first documented instance of the collection and preservation of tattooed human skin as an anatomical curiosity in England.” Theophilus Poynter, Oxford’s most successful surgeon, was appointed to this grisly task. Jeoly’s skin was hung like a piece of inked paper beside Selden’s singular map; “strange wallfellows,” as historian Timothy Brook put it, “paired as Asian curiosities for the edification of scientific visitors.”
William Dampier, English explorer and the first man to circumnavigate the world three times, was the slave owner who sold Jeoly to be a sideshow attraction.
Among the indigenous people of the Marshall Islands, it is believed that the gods Lewoj and Lanij gave humans the gift of tattooing. As they did so, the two deities said: “Everything will pass after death, only the tattoos will remain; they will outlive you. A human will leave all and everything behind on earth[...] only the tattoo will be taken to the grave.”
Selden’s map survives up to the present day, but Jeoly’s skin has been long lost. However, Miangas, the small island that Jeoly called his home, still occasionally makes Philippine news. Also known as Isla de las Palmas, it is the northernmost island of Indonesia, straddling the boundary between our two countries. It is one of several maritime crossing points where residents can travel, passport-free, across the fluid borders.
Being close to mainland Mindanao, many of its residents speak Bisaya, or tune in to Filipino radio stations, according to Newsbreak reporter Djorina Velasco. At times, however, the close contact between the two countries can create friction, dating back to a 1925 dispute when the US and the Netherlands—our respective colonizers—laid claim to the island. In May 2005, “[a]n unprecedented expression of dissent… put Miangas on the map,” reported Velasco in 2007. Outrage at the murder of a local official caused some locals to take down the Indonesian flag, and briefly wave the Philippine counterpart. The incident, however, was quickly resolved. And so Miangas and its residents continue to make indelible marks on history, like an iron needle piercing the skin.
An Account of the Famous Prince Giolo, Son of the King of Gilolo, Now In England: With a Account of his Life, Parentage, and Strange and Wonderful Adventures. Attributed to Thomas Hyde. London: R. Taylor, 1692. Can also be accessed here.
Angel, Gemma. “Tattoos That Repel Venomous Creatures! The Tragic Tale of Prince Giolo.” Researchers in Museums (blog of University College London), 27 May 2013, https://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/researchers-in-museums/2013/05/27/the-tragic-tale-of-prince-giolo/
Brook, Timothy. Mr. Selden’s Map of China. London: Profile Books, 2015. p. 177-181.
Dampier, William. A New Voyage Around the World. London: A. and C. Black Ltd., 1937. Can also be accessed here.
De Loarca, Miguel. “Relacion de las Yslas Filipinas.” In The Philippine Islands 1493-1803, Vol. 5, Emma Blair and James Alexander Robertson, eds. Cleveland, OH: The A.H. Clark Company, 1907. Can also be accessed here.
Krutak, Lars. “The Art of Nature: Tattoo History of Western Oceania.” http://www.larskrutak.com/the-art-of-nature-tattoo-history-of-western-oceania/
McGhee, Robert. Arctic Voyages of Martin Frobisher: An Elizabethan Adventure. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001. p. 81
Mitchell, Adrian. Dampier’s Monkey. Adelaide: Wakefield Press, 2011
Velasco, Djorina. “Between Manado and Davao: How the Indonesian Island of Miangas Is Making Use Of Its Philippine Ties.” Newsbreak archives, 28 Jan 2007, http://archives.newsbreak-knowledge.ph/2007/01/28/between-manado-and-davao-how-the-indonesian-island-of-miangas-is-making-use-of-its-philippine-ties/