The sultry human zoos of the colonial era

In 2012 the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris, an institution dedicated to ethnology and anthropology, organized an exhibition entitled exhibitions. The invention of sauvagewhich, through photos, posters, films and postcards, and promoted by the former soccer player of the French team Lilian Thuram, reminded the public of the shameful existence until very recently of some unprecedented zoos that exhibited human beings instead of wild animals .

It was not about any performance but of a grotesque concept of science that, by classifying indigenous Africans as intellectually and socially inferior, considered it normal to show them in such places for public curiosity.

The last one was held in 1958, in the context of the Brussels General Exhibition, although cases such as the Augsburg Zoo still survive today, which in 2007 inaugurated an African village on its premises. It is paradoxical that this human pseudo-zoo -I suppose limited to huts, without inhabitants- is located in Germany, the first country that abolished this type of show; This is a double paradox, moreover, since the initiative for this ban came from a regime as profoundly racist as the Nazi in the 1930s.

The imperialist race of the European powers was closely related, at least at the beginning, with the scientific interest in discovering the deepest mysteries of the dark continent. The explorers were the vanguard when feverishly searching for the sources of the Nile, unraveling the 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 economic exploitation; and, with them, a second wave of scientists who focused their attention on the study of the natives to establish colonialism from a cultural point of view.

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

It was the second half of the 19th century and these postulates were based on other studies, such as anthropometry, which was based on a system of morphological measurements that “demonstrated” the lower cranial capacity of primitive peoples and, consequently, their human and inferiority. cultural. This would also give rise to the birth of eugenics, although here we already deviate from the main theme.

The fact is that the idea of ​​the superiority of the white man and his civilization endured. And for the sake of science, of that aforementioned paternalism (it used to be said that Africans were like children), it was considered normal to bring human specimens to Europe to show them to people as a scientific curiosity.

Actually exhibiting people was not something new, even in much earlier historical contexts, in other corners of the world and in different cultures. Apart from the transfer out of simple curiosity, such as the Indians that Columbus took back to Castile after his first voyage, the four Greenlanders that a Dutch sailor introduced into the Danish court in 1664, or even the pygmy brought before Pharaoh Pepi II; aside, we repeat, it can be noted that the Moctezuma Zoo (Huey Tlatoani Mexica when the Spanish arrived) included a group of people affected by various deformities (dwarfism, albinism, hyperkyphosis…) and it should be remembered that Cardinal Hipólito de Médici, Lorenzo’s bastard grandson the magnificentassembled a colorful assemblage of multi-ethnic “barbarians.”

In London in 1815, Saartjie Baartman, alias the hottentot venus, a Khoikhoi slave who was forced to parade naked on a platform to show -and let her touch- her steatopygia (giant buttocks, “baboon” they said at the time). By the way, Saartjie’s skeleton remained on display until 2002 at the Parisian Musée de l’Homme; That year his remains were sent to South Africa and buried, just as happened with the famous Negro de Banyoles, a stuffed Bushman who was the great attraction of the Darder Museum (Gerona, Spain) until in 2000 he was returned to Botswana for his burial. .

However, it was from the middle of the 19th century when human exhibitions became general. Sometimes also as part of a mere entertainment show, in the case of the Barnum circus, where you could see what they called freaks (Siamese, dwarfs, etc), or that of the Fuegians that a German sailor took prisoner to teach in various European countries on an itinerant basis.

But others with genuine scientific pretensions, such as the tour of the US 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 town built for the Universal Exposition in Paris in 1889; described as cannibals, they were kept in a pitiful state to appear more savage and when some media pressure was created to put an end to that spectacle, they were transferred to the Musée du Nord in Brussels until their final release and repatriation (by then half of them had died ).

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

There were still 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. In this regard, one can recall the unfortunate 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 genocide of 1994.

But from 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, Polynesian, Nubian, Inuit, Indian, Bedouin, Senegalese…

The Kalina Indians of Guyana exhibited in the Jardin d’Aclimattattion in 1892/Photo: Public Domain on Wikimedia Commons

They were almost always presented naked or semi-nude, sometimes in cages, although most of them in more or less faithful recreations of their towns and habitats to explain their ways of life. It is not known exactly how many people lived through that experience, but it is estimated that around thirty-five thousand, taking into account that only at the 1878 Paris International Fair was a site opened called Village Negre where four hundred indigenous people lived as an attraction.

Likewise, given the success of the public they had, the Jardin d’Acclimatation in the Parisian Bois de Boulogne came to organize some thirty ethnological exhibitions between 1877 and 1912. And in other places the same. Curiously, they were almost always paid for it, so the thing was not as close to science as it was claimed; especially considering that the number of viewers who had to watch them was close to one billion people.

The United States was no stranger to all this and in 1896 the Cincinnati Zoo opened a Sioux village with one hundred Indians for three months, just as in 1904 the San Luis International Fair exhibited natives of the new territories taken from Spain: Guam, the Philippines , Puerto Rico… The objective was to endorse the American civilizing work and legitimize the plunder of 1898.

Two years later, the New York Bronx Zoo showed a Congo pygmy named Ota Benga living with chimpanzees and orangutans in a cage, thus suggesting their taxonomic proximity; there were strong protests, especially from religious, but the mayor turned a deaf ear to the public success.

In short, as a result of the aforementioned 2012 exhibition, there was no shortage of criticism of his approach -many even from progressive positions-, which they branded as a Manichaean and moralist. They considered that the custom of human zoos went beyond mere colonial self-propaganda and the event at the Musée du Quai Branly did nothing but underline a certain victimhood very common in recent times; According to what they said, the message was biased and left out what was not interesting -for example, that since the mid-nineteenth century all these specimens were volunteers-, assuming that everyone is manipulable and incapable of discerning…

Paradoxically, the same accusation that was once applied to primitive peoples.


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

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