The Beggar Chiefs of St. Zaia: Nestorian 'Great Deceivers' in South Africa and the Benevolent Empire, 1860s-1940s

Monday, 11 March, 2013 - 15:00

Presented by : 
This biographical paper explores how a fraternity of hereditary beggars, from the mountains of Kurdistan and known as the 'Jīlū Men', 'Great Deceivers' or 'Thieves of the Cross', spent nearly a century 'collecting' their way through some sixty-one countries on each of the inhabited continents. Segregationist South Africa formed an important part of their circuit as the fraternity, who were mostly Nestorians (later called Assyrians) from a single, ancient village, begged from, and generally duped, colonial elites. The fraternity's tactics involved the mocking appropriation of high-sounding titles, the development of exquisite skills of mimicry, the exploitation of sentiment through harangue, invective and rhetoric and, especially, the cultivation of careers as popular preachers and lecturers. Story-telling was aided by various novelties (for eg.,  magic lanterns, fake sacraments and straight faces) and involved outrageous exaggeration mixed with petty detail. In South Africa, the most well-known to succumb to the routine were Lionel Curtis, Louis Botha and D.F Malan, among others. As part of an ongoing transnational biography of one figure within the Nestorian/Assyrian underworld, Rev. M G Daniel, PhD, the paper talks to debates around the impact of literacy on imperial peripheries, as well as the salience of religious economies, trust and confidence in the social history of Empire, and the durability of itinerant, vernacular cultures of mobility.

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