People still fall for emails from supposed Nigerian princes, just as they did for letters from supposed Spanish prisoners in the early 1900s. These versions of what’s known as the advance-fee scam play to the victim’s greed with the promise of a big return on investment but of course just leave you with a depleted bank account.
The self-proclaimed Zulu princes who toured America around the turn of the twentieth century played a slightly different confidence game. Their marks were eager to hear about the Christianization of “darkest” Africa and the progress of the missionary civilizing mission. The likes of Tip-o-Tip, who also called himself Borneo Mokego and other other aliases, gave them what they wanted to hear, and they, in turn, gave him money.
Historian Sara C. Jorgensen reviews the career of one of the most successful of these would-be African noblemen. Active from 1890 to 1893, Tip-o-Tip—short for Jave Tip-o-Tip Victoria Flosse Zulu Dungan Omisha—claimed he was the youngest son of the Zulu king Cetshwayo ka Mpande, who had been dethroned by the British in 1879. Tip-o-Tip’s pitch was that he
had converted to Christianity, been encouraged by missionaries to pursue education in the United States, and was now raising money by selling photographs and giving talks to churches and religious groups so he could complete his studies and begin his own humanitarian career in Zululand.
Advertisements and news stories trace his trail through the South, where he often spoke in Black churches, and the Midwest, where he often spoke in white churches.
With his fiery red hair, Tip-o-Tip cut a bold figure. The Milwaukee Journal confirmed he was a Zulu prince because he was “the only fulled-blooded negro living who has distinctly red hair.” Writes Jorgensen, “the credibility his hair bestowed was evidently worth the risk of discovery.”
There was definitely some risk involved. Tip-o-Tip once slipped out of town when someone saw him buying peroxide in a drug store. And in October 1891, Black parishioners in St. Louis recognized him—as a circus performer from South Carolina.
Jorgensen explains that “Zulu” was a common circus sideshow and dime museum name for performers who played dark-skinned “wild” or “savage” roles. As with Tip-o-Tip, these were generally performed by Americans who had never been to Africa. A circus, however, was expected to be selling flam-flam—a traveling missionary student wasn’t.
In 1892, Tip-o-Tip was arrested as a fugitive in Kentucky. He was suspected of being involved in robberies in Milwaukee, Toledo, Detroit, Cleveland, and Cincinnati. The Zulu prince turned out be casing the homes of clergymen he visited. For unknown reasons, Tip-o-Tip wasn’t shipped off for prosecution at that time, but his days as a conman were numbered.
Tip-o-Tip’s real name isn’t known. He knew enough about sub-Saharan Africa to play off American ignorance, racial stereotypes, and missionary zeal. He fed the American hunger to know about Africa and to Christianize its inhabitants to civilization. Audiences of all types were eager to hear him. And see him in action. Adeptly using his circus skills, he was known to walk on glass and claim it was a Zulu cultural tradition.
Tip-o-Tip’s run ended in late 1893, in New Haven, Connecticut, when he was convicted of using false pretenses to obtain money from clergymen. After serving his sentence, he disappeared from the historical record.
But, as Jorgensen notes, there were others. A Prince Kouzi worked Virginia in 1894. A Prince Hozanna operated in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Apparently, the Zulu prince persona
continued to provide its inhabitants with rewards—perhaps profit, security, or the ability to move with relative safety as a black man through the landscape of Jim Crow America—that were worth the risks inherent in deception, an eloquent testament to the performers assessment of its strength.
Jorgensen notes that actual Black African visitors to the United States at this time were more or less forced to play the African prince role as well. It was what was expected. They also had to tone down their criticism of missionaries in their homelands to gain American acceptance.