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Human Zoos: The Disturbing Past of Displaying ‘Exotic Africans’ in Western Zoos


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Human zoos, also known as ethnological expositions, were a disturbing and dehumanizing practice that began in the late 19th century and continued until the mid-20th century.

The practice involved the showcasing of people from various non-European cultures in zoos and exhibitions across Europe and the United States.

These individuals were exhibited as examples of “exotic” and “primitive” peoples, with the aim of reinforcing the idea of European superiority and furthering the colonizing efforts of Western powers.

The roots of this practice can be traced back to the Age of Exploration, when Spanish and Portuguese explorers would bring back foreign plants, animals, and even people to demonstrate the success of their voyages to Africa.

However, these displays were only accessible to the elites, as they were only exhibited at royal courts.

As European powers established colonies across the world, particularly in Africa, there was a growing demand among westerners for displays of the conquered peoples, who were often perceived as savages and uncivilized.

This demand led to the creation of the first human zoos, which featured mock native villages and were showcased at international fairs and exhibitions across the Western world.

These exhibitions aimed to highlight the cultural differences between Europeans and those deemed primitive, with the displayed individuals being presented as curiosities to be gawked at and studied.

Many of these exhibitions were highly popular and attracted large crowds, as people were fascinated by the idea of seeing “exotic” cultures and “uncivilized” peoples.

The individuals exhibited in human zoos were often coerced or forced into participating, and many were taken from their homes and families without their consent.

They were stripped of their dignity and treated like objects, with no regard for their basic human rights.

Also read: Remembering Yekatit 12: Italy’s Deadly Attack on Ethiopians

Some were forced to perform for the crowds, engaging in dances and rituals that were often misrepresented and distorted to fit Western stereotypes of non-European cultures.

While the practice of human zoos is now widely recognized as deeply problematic and dehumanizing, it took many years for society to come to this realization.

Many people at the time saw nothing wrong with displaying individuals from non-European cultures in this manner, and the exhibitions were widely accepted as a form of entertainment.

Thankfully, attitudes towards cultural diversity and human rights have evolved significantly since the time of human zoos, and such exhibitions are now widely condemned.

However, it is important to remember the atrocities of the past and to continue to work towards creating a more inclusive and equitable society for all.

Sarah Baartman

Saartjie Baartman, also known as the “Hottentot Venus,” was a young South African woman who was taken from her home and exhibited in Europe in the early 19th century as a spectacle due to her unique physical features.

Her buttocks were deemed excessively large by European standards, and she became an attraction for people across the continent.

human zoos
source: talkafricana

In 1814, Baartman was transported from England to France, where she was sold to a man who exhibited animals.

She was exhibited around Paris, at times wearing little more than a tan loincloth and forced to sit or stand in a similar manner to circus animals. She was often displayed in a cage alongside a baby rhinoceros, as if she were a wild animal herself.

Despite being half-naked and on display for public entertainment, Baartman was only allowed to cover what was culturally sacred to her. She was nicknamed the “Hottentot Venus” by her European captors.

In 1816, Baartman died in France at the age of 26, but even death couldn’t stop the French from displaying her.

Her body was dissected by a naturalist named George Cuvier, who made a plaster cast of her body, pickled her brain and genitals, and placed them in jars for display at the Musée de l’Homme until 1974.

It wasn’t until 2002 that her remains were finally returned to South Africa, where she was buried in her hometown of Hankey on Women’s Day.

The ceremony was attended by hundreds of people, and President Thabo Mbeki spoke about the significance of Baartman’s story to the African people.

Her story is one of the loss of ancient freedom, the reduction of people to objects that could be owned, used, and discarded by others.

Baartman’s life and tragic exploitation serve as a reminder of the ongoing fight against the dehumanization of people based on their physical appearance or cultural background.

Ota Benga

Ota Benga was a victim of the appalling and dehumanizing practice of displaying human beings in zoos as if they were mere animals.

He was taken from his home in Congo and brought to the United States, where he was put on display at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904 and later in the Bronx Zoo in New York City in 1906.

Human Zoos: The Disturbing Past of Displaying 'Exotic Africans' in Western Zoos
source: talkafricana

In order to make him appear more “savage”, his teeth were filed to points, which was customary in his tribe, and the floor of his cage was littered with bones by the zookeepers.

Ota Benga was made to play the role of a primitive man and, in time, was even displayed in a cage with apes.

More than 40,000 people flocked to see him every day, and he was often the subject of cruel taunts and ridicule from the crowds.

The exhibition of Ota Benga sparked growing concern and then outrage, particularly among African American leaders and religious figures.

The Colored Baptist Ministers’ Conference sounded the alarm, and many prominent pastors spoke out against what they viewed as a grotesque violation of human dignity.

One of the most vocal opponents was Rev. James H. Gordon, superintendent of the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum in Brooklyn, who wrote, “Our race, we think, is depressed enough, without exhibiting one of us with the apes. We think we are worthy of being considered human beings, with souls.”

Ota Benga was eventually freed from the zoo, but his life was forever marked by the trauma he had endured. In 1916, after failing to adjust to American life and struggling with depression, he tragically took his own life by shooting himself in the heart.

St Louis World Fair

The 1904 World’s Fair held in St. Louis, Missouri, is notorious for its controversial “human zoo” exhibit that showcased people from different cultures.

The exhibit featured indigenous individuals from Africa, Asia, and the South Pacific who were displayed in reconstructed versions of their supposed “native environments.”

These individuals, often dressed in culturally stereotypical clothing, performed various cultural dances and other activities for the amusement of fair attendees.

1958 Brussels World’s Fair

The 1958 World’s Fair, also known as the Brussels World’s Fair, was a grand international exhibition that was held in Brussels, Belgium.

It attracted millions of visitors from across the world who came to witness the latest technological advancements, architectural feats, and cultural presentations.

However, amidst all the excitement and wonder of the fair, there were also displays of human beings from colonized countries, presented as exotic specimens for the entertainment and education of fair-goers.

One of the most controversial exhibits at the fair was the “Congo Village” which showcased the culture and lifestyles of the Congolese people.

The village included traditional huts, performances of music and dance, and displays of artifacts. However, the way the Congo Village was presented was heavily stereotypical and reflected the colonial attitudes of the time.

The people on display were often brought from the Congo against their will and were not permitted to leave the fairgrounds.

One of the most tragic examples of this was the exhibition of a young African girl, who was put on display in the Congo Village.

Visitors could watch her from behind wooden fences as she went about her daily routine, performing tasks such as cooking, cleaning, and washing.

The girl, whose identity remains unknown, was presented as a symbol of African primitivism and inferiority, reinforcing the colonial narrative that African cultures were less developed and less civilized than those of the Western world.

The display of human beings as exotic specimens was not unique to the 1958 World’s Fair. It was a practice that was common in previous World’s Fairs and continued well into the 20th century.

The human exhibits were often presented in a way that reinforced colonial stereotypes and perpetuated the myth of European superiority.

The displays also served as a means of justifying colonialism, as they presented colonized peoples as inferior and in need of European guidance and control.

The Congo Village at the 1958 World’s Fair was not only controversial but also had a lasting impact on the lives of the people who were exhibited.

Many of the individuals who were brought from the Congo faced harsh living conditions, were subjected to racist treatment, and were unable to return home.

The fair also played a role in reinforcing colonial attitudes that contributed to the oppression and exploitation of African people.

In recent years, there has been growing recognition of the harm caused by the display of human beings in such exhibits.

Efforts have been made to acknowledge and apologize for the exploitation of those who were put on display, and to ensure that such practices are never repeated.

The legacy of the Congo Village at the 1958 World’s Fair serves as a reminder of the enduring impact of colonialism and the importance of respecting the dignity and humanity of all people, regardless of their culture or background.


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