The embarrassing human zoos of the colonial era

The Senegalese Villa of the 1905 Universal Exhibition / Photo: Zoos Humains

In 2012, the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris, an institution dedicated to ethnology and anthropology, organized an exhibition entitled Exhibitions. L’invention du sauvage, which, through photos, posters, films and postcards, and driven by French ex-footballer Lilian Thuram, reminded the public of the embarrassing existence until very shortly before unusual zoos that exhibited human beings instead of wild animals. It was not a performance, but a grotesque concept of science that, in cataloguing indigenous Africans as intellectually and socially inferior, considered it normal to show them in such places for the curiosity of the public.

The last one was held in 1958, in the context of the General Exhibition in Brussels, although there are still cases like that of the Augsburg Zoo which in 2007 inaugurated an African village on its premises. It is paradoxical that this human pseudo-zoo – limited, I suppose, to huts without inhabitants – is located in Germany, the first country to abolish this type of spectacle; a double paradox, moreover, since the initiative of this proscription started in the thirties from a regime as profoundly racist as the Nazi regime.

German poster of 1928 announcing an ethnic show / Image: public Domain in Wikimedia Commons

The imperialist career of the European powers was closely related, at least at the beginning, to the scientific interest in discovering the deepest mysteries of the black continent. The explorers were the advance party in feverishly searching for the sources of the Nile, unraveling rumors about a rare humanoid that turned out to be the gorilla, or corroborating that in the middle of equatorial Africa there was a mountain crowned by perpetual snow. Then came the conquest and the economic exploitation; and with them a second wave of scientists who focused their attention on the study of the natives to settle the colonialism from a cultural point of view.

Thus supremacism appeared, a doctrine by which Western civilization justified its presence in those latitudes: the inferiority of the black race against the white race forced the latter to exercise a protective and pedagogical role over it. For this, social Darwinism was the starting point, a capricious interpretation of the evolutionary theory enunciated by Herbert Spencer, who considered himself Darwin’s predecessor and inspirer, although it is true that Darwin himself divided human races into civilized and wild, and that the latter constituted an obstacle to development and a risk for the species.

“Inhabitants” of the Congo Village in Oslo, 1914 / Photo: Wikimedia Commons

It was the second half of the nineteenth century and these postulates were based on other studies, such as anthropometry, which was based on a system of morphological measures that “demonstrated” the lower cranial capacity of primitive peoples and, consequently, their human and cultural inferiority. This would also give rise to the birth of eugenics, although here we are already deviating from the main theme. The fact is that the idea of the superiority of the white man and his civilization lasted. And for the sake of science, of that paternalism mentioned above (it used to be said that Africans were like children), it was normal to bring human specimens to Europe to show them to people as scientific curiosity.

Exhibiting people was not really something new, even in very old historical contexts, in other corners of the world and in different cultures. Aside from the simple curiosity, such as the Indians that Columbus took back to Castile after his first voyage or the four Greenlanders that a Dutch sailor introduced to the Danish court in 1664, the Moctezuma zoo (Huey Tlatoani mexica when the Spaniards arrived) included a group of people affected by various deformities such as dwarfism, albinism or hypercifosis, and Cardinal Hippolytus de Medici, the bastard grandson of Lorenzo the Magnificent, brought together a picturesque group of “barbarians” of multiple ethnicities.

Cartoon of the Hotentot Venus/Image: public Domain in Wikimedia Commons

In 1815 Saartjie Baartman, aka Hottentot Venus, a khoikhoi slave, became famous in London. She was forced to parade naked on a platform to show – and let touch – her steatopygia (giant buttocks). By the way, Saartjie’s skeleton remained exposed until 2002 in the Parisian Musée de l’Homme; that year her remains were sent to South Africa and buried, just as it happened with the famous Negro de Bañolas, a dissected Bushman who was the great attraction of the Darder Museum (Girona, Spain) until in 2000 it was returned to Botswana for burial.

However, it was not until the middle of the 19th century that human exhibits became widespread. In some cases, also as part of a mere entertainment show, such as the Barnum circus, where you could see what they called freaks (Siamese, dwarfs, etc.), or that of the Fuegians that a German sailor took with him to teach in several European countries on an itinerant basis. But in others with real scientific pretensions, such as the tour of the USA and Europe by Máximo and Bartola, known as the Aztec Children (two small Salvadorans affected by microcephaly) or the eleven Ona Indians, also from Tierra del Fuego, who were kidnapped and housed in an artificial settlement built for the 1889 Universal Exhibition in Paris; When some media pressure was formed to put an end to that spectacle, they were transferred to the Musée du Nord in Brussels until their definitive liberation and repatriation (by then half of them had died).

Máximo and Bartola already grown up / Photo: public Domain in Wikimedia Commons

There were even more cases, especially in cities in Germany and, above all, in Belgium, where the Anthropology Society showed a special interest in their study, something that would continue for decades into the 20th century; it is worth remembering in this regard the lamentable role played by anthropologists from that country in Rwanda, establishing artificial racial differences between Tutsis and Hutus that they themselves assumed to be true and that, combined with the corresponding economic and social inequalities that they implied, led to the 1994 genocide.

But since the last third of the nineteenth century what became fashionable were human zoos, which had a more “scientific” character. There were them in Paris, Hamburg, Antwerp, Barcelona, London, Madrid, Oslo, Milan and New York, among many other cities, passing through them a great variety of ethnic groups: Sami, Polynesians, Nubians, Inuits, Indians, Bedouins, Sénégalese…

Sioux Indians touring Germany with the Sarasani Circus in 1928 / Photo: public Domain in Wikimedia Commons

They were almost always presented naked or half-naked, sometimes in cages, although most of them in more or less faithful recreations of their villages and habitats in order to explain their way of life. It is not known exactly how many people lived that experience but it is estimated that thirty-five thousand, bearing in mind that only in the International Fair of Paris in 1878 a site was opened baptized as Village Nègre where four hundred indigenous people lived as an attraction. The Jardin d’Acclimatation in the Bois de Boulogne in Paris also organised some thirty ethnological exhibitions between 1877 and 1912. And in other places as well. Curiously enough, they were almost always paid for it, which meant that the thing was not as close to science as it was intended; particularly considering that the number of spectators who contemplated them approached one billion people.

The Kalinas Indians of Guyana exhibited at the Jardin d’Aclimattattion in 1892 / Photo: public Domain in Wikimedia Commons

The United States was no stranger to all this and in 1896 the Cincinatti Zoo opened a Sioux village with one hundred Indians for three months, just as in 1904 the Saint Louis International Fair exhibited natives from the new territories snatched from Spain: Guam, the Philippines, Puerto Rico… The objective was to endorse the American civilizing work and legitimize the 1898 plundering. Two years later the New York Bronx Zoo showed a Congo pygmy named Ota Benga living with chimpanzees and orangutans in a cage, suggesting their taxonomic proximity; there were strong protests, especially from religious, but the mayor did not listen due to public success.

Finally, following the aforementioned 2012 exhibition, there was no lack of criticism of its approach -many even from progressive positions-, which they called Manichean and moralistic. They considered that the custom of human zoos went beyond mere colonial self-propaganda and the Musée du quai Branly event only underscored a certain victimism very much in use in recent times; as they said, the message was biased and left out that which did not interest – for example, that since the mid-19th century all these specimens were voluntary -, assuming that everyone is manipulable and incapable of discerning…. Paradoxically, the same accusation that once applied to primitive peoples.

Ota Benga at the Bronx Zoo / Photo: public domain in Wikimedia Commons

Sources: Exhibitions. L’invention du sauvage (Pascal Blanchard, Gilles Boëtsch y Nanette Jacomijn Snoep eds. en Musée du Quai Branly Jacques Chirac)/Colonial exhibitions, ‘Völkerschauen’ and the display of the ‘other’ (Anne Dresbach en European History Online)/The invention of race. Scientific and popular representations (Nicolas Bancel, Thomas David y Dominic Thomas eds)/Human exhibitions. Race, gender and sexuality in ethnic displays (Rikke Andreassen)/Wikipedia