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A Dark, Shameful History of Human Zoos

Racism has always remained an indelible stain upon human history since time unremembered. There is a long list of discrimination, atrocities and acts of inhumanity that has stemmed from our inability to live together and accept races or cultures other than our own. Yet although the majority of these humiliating, unforgivable injustices littering history are perhaps known by many, there are others that sadly seem to remain buried and unknown to the world at large. One such phenomenon that seems to have been largely brushed under the carpet of race related atrocities is that of the “human zoo.” Just as exotic animals that we are intrigued by have always made for curious exhibitions at zoos, so have the various unusual specimens of mankind over the ages, paraded out and put on display as if they were not human beings at all, but rather mere wild animals.

The phenomenon of displaying other human beings as curiosities and exhibitions goes back deep into history. In the 15th century, the famed explorer Christopher Columbus is known to have kidnapped people from the native tribes he encountered in his travels, bringing them back to Europe for amazed, wide eyed onlookers to gawk at them. It is estimated that hundreds of these kidnapped native people died during transport during these raiding runs, or within months of their arrival, but they nevertheless were popular among the populace of Europe at the time, who were mesmerized by these “primitive savages” from faraway lands. It was not long before these indigenous people of the Americas were a common sight being paraded about or even forced to ride along the Thames river in stylized canoes.

Montezuma

Montezuma

One of the earliest known human zoos was kept by the Aztec emperor Montezuma, who ruled Tenochtitlan in Mexico from 1502 to 1520. Montezuma was known to keep vast collections of various animals, and to spice things up he became more and more interested in displaying humans as well, in particular those with genetic deformities, such as albinos, hunchbacks, dwarves, and midgets. The same sort of thing was going on over in Europe in the 16th century, where in Italy Cardinal Hippolytus Medici, of the powerful House of Medici, was known to house a collection of people from different races, who were referred to as “savages” and exhibited alongside exotic wild animals at the Vatican. Other countries were doing the same sort of thing at the time, such as the exhibition of four Greenlanders at the Danish Court in 1664.

While humans of different physical traits, races and cultures had been exhibited since the 15th century, it was not until the 19th century that the fad really took off. The most famous examples are the freak shows of the legendary showman PT Barnum, who in the early 1800s made a small fortune displaying people with abnormalities or intriguing physical attributes. One example of Barnum’s early exhibits was an elderly African-American slave by the name of Joice Heth, who was displayed in 1835 and claimed to amazed audiences to be 161 years old, although she was in actuality in her late 70s. Heth, who was blind and could barely move by that time, was made to sing old-timey hymns and tell stories from her youth. Barnum is also well known for displaying a pair of conjoined twins from the then Kingdom of Siam (now Thailand), but who were introduced as the “Chinese Twins.” Indeed it is the fact that these most famous of twins were from Siam that we get the common word “Siamese twins.” The sensationalized “freak shows” that Barnum became known for paved the way for the popularity of such attractions, and before long there were many such shows popping up all over the place.

PT Barnum was by no means the only one guilty of making a buck of exhibiting other humans beings for audience amusement. In 1808, the showman John Richardson had already been making a living exhibiting unusual individuals, in particular a slave boy from the Caribbean by the name of George Alexander Gratton, who exhibited a form of partial albinism called piebaldism, which had resulted in patterns of white contrasting with his naturally dark skin and hair. Richardson bought George for £1,000 when he was only a baby, and by the time he was a few months old he was already being displayed all over Britain, where he was known as “George the Piebald Boy,” the “Beautiful Spotted Boy,” and the “Spotted Negro of Renown.” Indeed, since the end of the 18th century people of African origin who displayed albinism were popular attractions around Europe, such as Amelia Newsham, who was exhibited throughout Britain in the late 1700s and was part of a popular fad of displaying such young albino women, who were often called the “White Negresses.”

Saartje Baartman

Saartje Baartman

In the early 1800s there was also the sad story of Saartje Baartman, later renamed Sarah Bartman, who was brought back from her home in southern Africa in 1810 by British ship’s doctor William Dunlop for the purposes of being displayed for money. In Bartman’s case, the draw was not only her cultural background as a tribeswoman of the mysterious Hottentot tribe of South Africa, but also her unique, unusual physical features. Bartman displayed a genetic condition known as steatopygia, meaning she possessed extremely enlarged buttocks and a protruding labia. The woman was shown all over Europe, almost always naked so that shocked crowds of gawkers could see her deformities in all of their glory. Typically Bartman, whose stage name was “The Hottentot Venus,” was brought out onto a stage in a cage just as an animal would be. One viewer at London’s Picadilly described the usual and rather shocking scene thus:

She was on a stage raised about three feet from the floor, with a cage, or enclosed place at the end of it; … the Hottentot was within the cage; that on being ordered by her keeper, she came out, and that her appearance was highly offensive to delicacy … the Hottentot was produced like a wild beast, and ordered to move backwards and forwards, and come out and go into her cage, more like a bear on a chain than a human being.

Bartman was subjected to this inhumane treatment over and over again, for up to 11 hours a day, all over Europe, and during most of these performances she was mercilessly mocked and jeered at by audiences. She was also intensely studied by doctors and anthropologists, who suggested she might be some sort of “missing link” or a form of lesser race of human. Sadly, Bartman would go on to be driven to alcoholism, depression, and prostitution, lose her unborn child, and ultimately die dirt poor in 1815, either from small pox or tuberculosis. Practically before her dead body had even gone completely cold, she was dissected, studied, and her buttocks and vagina removed and preserved, after which they were displayed at the Musée de l’Homme (the Museum of Mankind) in Paris along with her skeleton. It was not until 2002 when Sarah Bartman’s remains were finally repatriated to her homeland of South Africa for a proper burial.

A typical human zoo exhibit

A typical human zoo exhibit

As the 1800s went on, Europeans became more and more intrigued by human specimens with such deformities or differences, and in particular strange, exotic tribespeople from unknown far-flung lands. To the general public at the time these were people from dark, savage lands with whom typical Europeans had never had any contact, and this captured the public imagination. They were seen as something bizarre and also somewhat less than human, a fact shown in the increasingly popular pseudo-scientific idea at the time that there were “greater races” and “lesser races,” with Europeans seen as sitting atop this hierarchy. Many did not even consider these people to people at all, but rather some new species lying somewhere along the continuum between man and ape. Such widespread exhibitions of natives from faraway lands would continue to gain popularity, and there was a great demand for people who were “pygmies,” “Zulus,” “savages,” “Indians,” “wild men,” “Arabian camel herders,” “Pacific islanders,” “eskimos,” and Amazonian warrior-women,” and so forth, to the point that even those of African ancestry who were born in Europe and had never even seen these lands started to willingly join these exhibitions in order to pose as “savage natives” for money. These were not small operations either, with hundreds of thousands of people flocking to see such displays all across the continent and even across the pond in places like New York.

As popular as these attractions were, it was in the 1870s that the idea of whole zoos dedicated to showing exotic peoples in their natural habitat, true human zoos in every sense of the word, would really start in earnest. Usually referred to as “ethnological expositions” or “anthropological displays,” one of the pioneers of this idea of keeping exotic natives in enclosures for public viewing was a German merchant of wild animals by the name of Carl Hagenbeck, who is widely credited as being the creator of the modern version of zoos that shows animals in a somewhat natural state. In 1874, Hagenbeck started exhibitions of Samoan and Sami islander populations in mock ups of their traditional villages, followed by a similar exhibition of Nubians from the Egyptian Sudan, whom he kept in an enclosure living alongside various wild animals from their native land. He would repeat the wild success of these displays yet again with a tribe of Zulu and Bushmen at the Paris zoo, also displayed alongside dangerous animals, as well as a village of Inuit Eskimos to throngs of curious onlookers at the Hamburg Zoo in Germany. Hagenbeck would continue to stage ever more elaborate exhibitions like this throughout the 1800s, featuring a wide variety of numerous different indigenous peoples from across the globe, which would all make him a very rich man. The public was fascinated by these displays, as in these days before documentaries and National Geographic it was the only way for the average person to see these primitive people and their ways.

One of Hagenbeck's exhibitions

One of Hagenbeck’s exhibitions

The obvious popularity of Hagenbeck’s exhibitions did not go unnoticed by others looking to cash in on the growing trend, with one notable example being Geoffroy de Saint-Hilaire, who organized over 30 such exhibitions with the the Jardin d’acclimatation, to the tune of over a million visitors, and many other enterprises were also looking to create their own “African villages.” These displays were often billed as “entertainment,” but there was nothing entertaining about it for the ones looking out, and were deeply racist and humiliating affairs for those involved, with the added insult that many of those being showed had been kidnapped and dragged from their homes and families against their will to a foreign land for this purpose. Typically, the people within these exhibitions were made to carry out degrading “ethnic activities” or activities demonstrating their “primitive lifestyle,” based on whatever cultural stereotypes the audience had of them. This could include war dances, religious rituals, chanting, or throwing spears, and similarly their attire and accessories were stereotypical and stylized, such as with Native Americans looking like something out of a Western cowboy movie with feathered hats and hand axes, the grass skirted Pacific Islanders, Arabs looking like something out of the Arabian Nights, or the half-nude, spear carrying African “savages,” with little attention paid to how accurate any of these broad depictions were. This was all to the delight of the ignorant onlookers, who were fascinated by what they saw as barbaric, uncivilized savages and came to view them in huge numbers.

Perhaps the exhibitions of this sort that were of the largest scale were those of various World Fairs. The 1878 and 1889 Parisian World’s Fair featured as a main attraction what it called a Negro Village; a sickening display of racist ignorance in which over 400 different indigenous people were displayed in an enclosure, usually semi-naked and engaged in a plethora of demeaning ethnic activities. The 1889 World’s Fair would draw in around 28 million people with attractions such as these, with the subsequent 1900 World Fair also finding great success with its huge Madagascar diorama, and it cemented the era of the human zoo as a disturbing fad that did not seem to be ready to go away in the slightest. This was also not all confined to Europe, such as the display of a tribe of one hundred Sioux Native Americans who invited to set up a village at the Cincinnati Zoo for three months in 1896 much to the amazement of audiences that had never seen an “Injun” up close before. Although they were not there against their will, these Sioux people likely were not aware that they were being exploited; there as an exhibit for the amusement of the white man. One historian at the University of Cambridge by the name of Dr Sadiah Qureshi said of the evolution of the human zoo in the 19th century:

Millions of people went to see these shows at their peak. Originally you would get a show in a local theatre. By the late 19th century you would see hundreds, if not a couple of thousand people living on site, eating and on constant display.

Philippine tribesmen on display

Philippine tribesmen on display

The dawn of the 20th century saw the demented, shameful practice of human zoos showing no signs of waning. The 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition, also known as the Saint Louis World Fair, featured a village of native Apaches, who were depicted as scalp hunting, war painted barbarians. Also featured at the same World Fair was a sprawling, 47-acre full makeshift replica of a village of the Igorot tribe of the Philippines. The Saint Louis World Fair was after the end of the Spanish-American War, with the Philippines one of the territories acquired by the United States in the aftermath. A dispute to the conditions had led to the Philippine–American War not long after, which the Philippine Republic had ultimately lost in 1902. In order to heap on indignation and show what they saw as the primitive state of these indigenous Philippine people, as well as to highlight the perceived positive and taming effect that American rule had had on them, tribesmen of the country were put on display in human zoos. The enormous Philippine exhibit was by far the largest ethnic human zoo display of the entire World Fair, and the people within it were made to do things such as butcher and eat dogs, which Westerners believed they did on a regular basis but was in fact a ceremonial activity only done on rare occasions. Other displays at the Saint Louis World Fair were Ainu, from the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, as well as pygmies from Africa and New Guinea.

One of the individuals on exhibit at the Saint Louis World Fair would go on to become perhaps one of the most notorious human zoo displays in history. In 1904, a pygmy by the name of Ota Benga was rescued from a tribe of cannibals in the jungles of what was then known as the Belgian Congo by the explorer Samuel Phillips Verner, who was there specifically looking for exotic pygmy specimens to display at the Saint Louis World Fair. Ota was brought back to the United States, where he was shown at the Saint Louis World Fair and wowed people with his unique teeth, which had been filed to wicked points like fangs in his youth. Along with other pygmies, Ota was made to perform traditional dances, cook native ethnic food, and generally act like the savages the audiences perceived them to be.

Ota Benga at the Bronx Zoo

Ota Benga at the Bronx Zoo

In 1905, Ota was brought back to the Congo with the intention of rejoining his tribe, only to find they had been ruthlessly exterminated by Belgian soldiers in his absence. Ota made an effort to settle back into his life in Africa, but when his new wife from a different tribe died of a snake bite he was accused of evil witchcraft and, fearing of his life, begged Verner to take him back to America. After spending some time at a room at the American Museum of Natural History, Ota found himself at the Bronx Zoo, where he was told he would be tending to the elephants. However, the zoo had other plans for him. Although he was at first allowed to roam freely around the premises, Ota was increasingly encouraged to stay at the primate section of the zoo, where it was planned for him to be part of an exhibit.

Ota began to spend all of his time at the monkey house, where visitors would come to see him living amongst primates such as an orangutan, monkeys, and a baby chimpanzee whom Ota had befriended. Although Ota had no idea that he had been put on display, this was most certainly what he was. He was encouraged to bare his sharpened teeth at visitors whenever possible, play with the primates, and run around shooting a bow and arrow. The sign above the cage he was in read that he was the “missing link.” Although he lived under the illusion that he was free, and he ostensibly was, all in all Ota was basically considered a valuable spectacle for the zoo, drawing in nearly 40,000 visitors a day, all clamoring to see the “savage” with his fangs and bow and arrow. It was a horrible act of exploitation that was not lost on many of the people who laid eyes on Ota, many of which were disgusted by and disagreed with his hideous treatment. One visitor described the unsettling scene thus:

The exhibition was that of a human being in a monkey cage. A human being. In a monkey cage. The human being happened to be a Bushman, one of a race that scientists do not rate high in the human scale, but to the average nonscientific person in the crowd of sightseers there was something about the display that was unpleasant. It is probably a good thing that Benga doesn’t think very deeply. If he did it isn’t likely that he was very proud of himself when he woke in the morning and found himself under the same roof with the orang-utans and monkeys, for that is where he really is.

Ota Benga (second from left) on display at the Saint Louis World Fair

Ota Benga (second from left) on display at the Saint Louis World Fair

The flood of public outcry, in particular that of a few very outspoken individuals among the clergy, and growing controversy to such a disgusting display of blatant human exploitation forced the Bronx Zoo to quietly shut down the exhibit a mere two weeks after it had begun. Ota was subsequently allowed to wander about the premises freely, but he was mercilessly taunted and teased by zoo visitors to the point that he became violent, at one point threatening someone with a knife, and on another occasion aiming his bow threateningly at those who were jeering him. With all of the negative publicity and the increasingly unruly crowds of people coming specifically to heckle Ota, the zoo decided to hand him over to an orphanage for black children called the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum, where he was further degraded by being forced into Western ways; capping his filed teeth, wearing Western clothes, learning Western etiquette, and generally being taught how to act like “an American.”

By this point, Ota was yearning to return to his homeland in Africa, and he spent some time saving money to do so by doing various odd jobs such as working in a tobacco factory. As he slowly built up the funds to finally return to his long lost home, his hopes were dashed by the start of World War I, along with its ban on sea travel. Dejected, depressed, without any friends and in a foreign land which it  seemed would never accept him, on March 20, 1916 Ota quietly went out alone, built a ceremonial fire, chipped off the points of his teeth, and shot himself in the head with a pistol. He died as he had lived; alone and forlorn, in a foreign, alien land without family or friends. Ota’s body would go on to be unceremoniously buried in an unmarked grave at the Old City Cemetery. Ota Benga’s story remains a tragic chronicle of this sad time in human history.

African girl on exhibit at a human zoo

African girl on exhibit at a human zoo

Such exhibits continued on well into the 1900s. The Colonial Exhibitions in Marseilles in 1906 and 1922, as the ones in Paris in 1907 and 1931, all featured similar exhibitions of tribal peoples, and they all proved that such things were still insanely popular; with the Paris exhibitions alone drawing in around 34 million people. Far from some deranged ignorant relic of the distant past, in as recently as 1958 the Brussel’s World Fair had a display of a Congolese village, and in 1994 there was a village of people from the Ivory Coast presented as part of an “African safari” in Port-Saint-Père, near Nantes, in France. While not technically slaves or held against their will, these exploited people reportedly had had their passports confiscated and were not paid for their “performance,” prompting vehement public outcry at the time. Perhaps not as intrusive but still quite callous nevertheless was a craft and cultural festival in Augsburg’s zoo in Germany, which had as one of its attractions a full African village on display in 2005, complete with grass skirt wearing natives, sparking widespread distaste and criticism. Even in the present there are clandestine safaris which bring visitors to observe the reclusive Jarawa people of India’s Andaman Islands; a secluded tribe that the government has expressly forbidden outsiders to interact with at all.

The human zoo remains a dark chapter in the history of racial ignorance and exploitation. It also unfortunately seems to be a phenomenon that has for the most part escaped the attention of the masses. While racism still continues to be a stubborn hurdle upon the landscape of human relations, it is perhaps somewhat comforting to think that we have perhaps moved past the days when we put others of our kind on display as if they were no more than animals. We live in a world that at one time embraced the display of other human beings for our pleasure, regulating them to some sort of subhuman status and treating them as beasts to be gawked at. It is hard to imagine that anyone would condone such practices today, yet human zoos remained a stain on history to an uncomfortably recent time. One would sincerely hope that we can look at this grim history of human zoos rather than brush them away, and remember those who were defiled and degraded while at the same time aiming towards a brighter future free of such ignorance and hatred.