All men were made to be equal and enjoy equal rights to freedom. Yet, over the past millennia, men have thought themselves, their race and ethnicity, above others. They have enslaved one another to varying degrees. While we may forget, or excuse, some of the man’s atrocities against another, there is one event in history that we can never forget: The exhibition of Africans in human zoos in Europe and America.
Some centuries ago, the colonist European and white-American society had developed an appetite for exhibiting Africans in theatres across the continents. From around mid to late-1800’s, theatrical exhibitions not only showcased artifacts, but actual people also. Human “specimens”―inhabitants from foreign lands, mostly African countries―were shipped back to Berlin, Brussels, London, Paris, or North America, etc., for the interest and entertainment of white crowds.
From this period, in an era preceding that of the cinema, these shows presented westerners the opportunity to see those Africans they had only heard of, as researchers sought to support their theories of races with human evidence.
Many hundreds of thousands would eventually visit the exhibition theatres (or human zoos)―created as part of great and profitable international trade fairs, where they could watch real-life inhabitants of villages in Africa or Asia, paid or forced to perform before the colonial masters.
Human Exhibitions in France
From around the late-1800s, the French society had maintained an agricultural site―the Jardin tropical―devoted to the cultivation of plants from France’s vast empire. In 1907, however, the garden’s fair was incorporated into the Paris Colonial Exposition and hosted recreated indigenous villages from French colonies. Such recreations represented what life was like there, and might have been taken lightly, if not for their display of live human beings.
According to reports, these villages contained colonial subjects engaged as performers, but where truly zoo exhibits. Performing non-stop for the curious white audience, these exhibits were provided with costumes, only offering little protection from the harsh weather of Europe and America. They were out through terrible living conditions, foreign diseases, and cold killed many, who were then buried in the gardens.
Ota Benga and Exhibitions in North America
In 1904, the St. Louis World’s Fair in Missouri was commissioned. This served a dual purpose: First, as an entertaining spectacle; and secondly, as s a means of promotion for both products and industry. The fair consisted of many villages.
Among them, the most popular, most profitable was the Igrot Village which contained an ethnic group perceived as the least civilized of those on display. Revenue from it was said to have surpassed that of all the other villages combined.
Among the most popular exhibits in St. Louis World’s Fair, was the 23-years-old Ota Benga, a 4-feet-11-inches Congolese brought from the Kasai River. After the fair was wrapped up, Benga, believing he was being hired to care for the zoo’s elephant, was taken to New York to become part of an exhibition at the Bronx Zoo.
Touted as a savage pygmy, Benga became a highlight of the zoo, and was displayed in a monkey house. His teeth were filed to points, and the floor of his cage was cluttered with bones placed there by zookeepers to make him look more threatening.
There, Benga played the savage’s role. Amateur anthropologist, Madison Grant, then secretary of the New York Zoological Society, and future prominent eugenicist, successfully championed the move to display him in a cage with apes. He was identified as “a Bushman, one of a race that scientists do not rate high in the human scale.” At the height of the exhibit, thousands are said to have come in their droves to watch him.
The London Exhibition of Saartjie Baartman
Among the stories on human exhibits, none is, perhaps, more popular than that of Saartjie Baartman.
Considered “the saddest emblem of the coming era”, Baartman―later known as the Hottentot Venus―was from South Africa. Born around 1780, she was brought to London, where she was put on display, in 1810. Possessing the genetic characteristic known as steatopygia―excessive accumulation of fat on the buttocks―she was a subject for the delight of the people of London.
Baartman was later brought to Paris where she was analyzed by anthropologists who racially―maybe not collectively―described her as having “the buttocks of a mandrill”. After her death, her skeleton was on display and later remained on show in the Museum of Mankind in Paris until 1974. It was not until in 2002, after much pressure, that her remains were returned to her country of origin, and buried.
End of the Era
Despite efforts to bring them to an end, human fairs did not cease to exist till after World War II. It is reported that Adolf Hitler was the first among western leaders to banned them. It was not until in 1958, that the last featuring a Congolese woman, and more strikingly, a young African girl in western dress, fed by the outstretched white hand of a patron while visitors watch, took place in Brussels, Belgium.
It is claimed that the human zoos were seen by a staggering 1.4 billion people overall, and were very instrumental in the development of modern racism.
As they lie in ruins, or only exist in faded posters, the shameful episodes of human zoos from man’s history should not be simply erased or forgotten, rather, they should “stand as a testament to a shameful, and often uncomfortable past”.
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SOURCES OF AUTHOR’S INFORMATION
Schofield, H. (2011, December 27). Human zoos: When real people were exhibits. Retrieved July 10, 2020 from BBC: https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-16295827
CBC. (n.d.). Human Zoos: A Shocking History of Shame and Exploitation. Retrieved July 11, 2020 from CBC: https://www.cbc.ca/natureofthings/features/human-zoos-a-shocking-history-of-shame-and-exploitation