In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as race science blended with the new colonial imperialism, “human zoos” became all the rage in the west. Placed into “natural habitats,” adorned in “traditional dress” and sometimes behind bars, people from “exotic” lands were put on display for a gawking public. All of this to prove the racial theories of the day–that people after all were not alike all over.
Art- Poster of the “Peoples Show” (Völkerschau) in Stuttgart (Germany), 1928
In 1960 Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone aired an episode titled “People Are Alike All Over.” It starred actor Roddy McDowall as the cynical biologist Sam Conrad. Scheduled for a mission to Mars, Conrad worries about what they might find “out there.” His mission commander Warren Marcusson assures him there’s nothing to worry about: God made everyone in His image and no matter what they find “people are alike all over.” Marcusson doesn’t survive the trip, and Conrad finds himself alone, crash-landed on the alien planet. There he meets the natives–who surprisingly look human like him. They are friendly, intelligent, can read minds and seemingly hospitable. They even provide him with a room, furnished with all the trappings from back home to make him comfortable.
Conrad relaxes momentarily in his new environs–until he realizes something is wrong. The room has no windows. He can’t open the doors. He starts to shout and yell, wondering what’s going on. Then the walls slide upward, and Conrad finds himself looking down at a group of gawking Martians–from behind a set of steel bars. It’s then that he notices a sign: “Earth Creature in his native habitat.” He’s been placed into a Martian zoo. A zoo for humans. In his last fitful cries, Conrad grips the bars of his new prison and yells out to the ghost of his mission commander: “Marcusson! Marcusson, you were right! You were right. People are alike…. people are alike everywhere!”
Rod Serling’s disembodied voice arrives to give the closing epilogue:
Species of animal brought back alive. Interesting similarity in physical characteristics to human beings in head, trunk, arms, legs, hands, feet. Very tiny undeveloped brain. Comes from primitive planet named Earth. Calls himself Samuel Conrad. And he will remain here in his cage with the running water and the electricity and the central heat as long as he lives. Samuel Conrad has found The Twilight Zone.
When I first saw that Twilight Zone episode in syndication as a kid, I was riveted. The idea that aliens who looked just like us, who were essentially us, might place us in a zoo–like animals–was mind-boggling, not to mention terrifying. I didn’t know then that this trope wasn’t that far-fetched or fantastic, or that the story on which the episode was based (the 1952 short story “Brothers Beyond the Void” by Paul Fairman) was culled right from our own history. A history that hadn’t even yet come to an end. Samuel Conrad hadn’t entered the Twilight Zone. He’d never left home. I suppose in the end, the best sci-fi always gives us glimpses of ourselves.
European “curiosity” about the people of newly encountered lands dated back to the “Age of Discovery.” Spanish explorers, including Columbus, took back indigenous people from the Americas to Europe–so that the Spanish could see their odd customs and bizarre dress. He even had plans for an ill-conceived trans-Atlantic slave trade in reverse, where he would supply Europe with indigenous bodies.
But even during this rapacious old imperialism, race-science was far from developed. The great dividing line of humanity was still a matter of culture, and especially religion. Certainly people noticed that “others” looked different from themselves, and wondered if things like the climate could affect behavioral disposition. But this was rudimentary as definitions of “race” could mean almost anything. Even the Borg-like Requerimiento, used to justify everything from colonization to slavery to outright genocidal massacre, readily acknowledged that “all the men of the world, were and are all descendants” of Adam and Eve.
This changed with the coming age of reason, where natural rights were accompanied (in part produced) by notions of natural law. It is an irony that the same ideas that promoted the inalienable rights of all mankind, also proposed that there were perhaps different sorts of mankind. After all, if natural laws differentiated species in nature, did it not also mean there were natural divisions of humanity? And were these differences a product of cultural difference, or fixed unchangeable traits? This all rose alongside the developing African slave trade and an increasingly “race-based” bondage system essential for carving empires out of the “New World.” This confluence of events created new ideas of “race” as a perhaps immutable biological difference of mankind, and part of a “natural” hierarchical order.
Founding Father, U.S. President and “enlightened” thinker of reason Thomas Jefferson ruminated on these notions in his 1781 Notes on the State of Virginia. There Jefferson deliberated on whether blacks were the opposite from whites in skin and biological makeup, in beauty and in capabilities. But what was the cause? Was it enslavement that had degraded the blacks who worked his Virginia plantation in faculties and intelligence? Or was nature itself “less bountiful” in its endowments to this unfortunate race?
Jefferson pondered these questions and appeared to arrive at the latter. Blacks were a form of lesser humans, placed lower on the biological scale by nature. He proposed that blacks were so close to beasts that the “Oranootans (Orangutangs)” had a sexual preference for “black women over those of [their] own species.” [Note to Thomas Jefferson: Orangutangs are from Asia] When black scientist Benjamin Banneker took the Founding Father to task for his writings, Jefferson responded he was only posing the question. He assured Banneker that “no body wishes more than I do to see such proofs as you exhibit, that nature has given to our black brethren, talents equal to those of the other colours of men.” He hoped in the end it was slavery and not nature that accounted for “the imbecillity of their present existence.” The burden of proof, it seemed, would be on blacks to prove their human equality. But Jefferson could be a hard judge, often dismissing any evidence of black ability as simple mimicry, not true understanding. Education could produce “a Phylis Wheatley,” he surmised, “but it could not produce a poet.”
In the early 1800s these growing themes of biological race and difference proliferated. Philadelphia physician Samuel G. Morton in the 1820s and 1830s collected and measured hundreds of human skulls, noting shapes and brain-sizes among the “races.” Morton’s collection was welcomed by the Swiss naturalist and creationist Louis Agassiz, whose work in the 1840s set out to prove that blacks and other races were different biological species–all inferior to whites who were now termed “Caucasians.” In the United States, these theories were essential to supporting the institution of slavery. Morton himself tied his theories to the politics of proslavery Southerner John C. Calhoun. In the larger world, these ideologies helped explain to western Europeans their place in the global order–and where the many “other” peoples who shared the world should fit. The travelogues of sailors, merchants and explorers reached back to London and Paris, where readers voraciously devoured sketches and tales of “foreign” people and customs. In theaters, performers darkened their skins and put on costumes to give physical presence to these accounts. And sometimes, the “natives” came in the flesh.
In 1810 Saartjie Baartman, a KhoiKhoi woman from Southern Africa, was convinced to take a tour of Europe by a Scottish doctor Alexander Dunlop. Dunlop was also an aspiring businessman who on the side supplied exotic animals for showmen and zoos in Europe. Promising Baartman wealth, he suggested she join him in a traveling exhibition. For five years Baartman was paraded about Great Britain and France, on one occasion by a leash, as a type of racial sexual oddity–an example of the “grotesque” and the “monstrous” on account of her large buttocks (described as those of a mandrill baboon) and body proportions. Baartman was always exhibited in “costume” (often far from anything resembling actual KhoiKhoi dress) and drawn in ways to accentuate (to the point of exaggeration) her deemed “abnormal” differences in comparison to European women.
This was part of the making of our modern notions of race, as essential as Morton and Agassiz’s later pseudo-scientific writings and theses. It was a means by which to exemplify the vast biological gulf that allegedly existed between the so-called “Negro” and “Caucasian.” Upon her untimely death in 1815, Baartman’s remains were handed over to Georges Cuvier, the French naturalist, zoologist and founder of modern comparative anatomy. Cuvier made a caste of her body and boiled down her bones as a specimen he believed closer to apes than humans. He also removed her brain and genitals which were preserved in a jar and placed on display at the Musee de l’Homme in Paris. They were not taken down until 160 years later in 1974.
By the late 19th century, with the Industrial Revolution well underway, a new generation of Western “explorers” set out not only to see the world but subjugate it–with steam powered warships and the maxim gun. The was the New Imperialism that would birth the colonial world. And the race theories that were increasingly part of both popular and academic culture became a tool of empire. In sketches, paintings, photos and narratives, colonial adventurers and colonial administrators sent images back to their respective metropoles cataloging the fantastic peoples they encountered.
This cataloging and categorization coincided with the growing intensity of racial science, part and parcel of a Victorian outlook obsessed with placing humanity into fixed and essentialist categories of difference. Photographic books brimming with photos of “native peoples” that served the needs of new scientific fields of humanity such as anthropometrics, ethnography and anthropology.
But two-dimensional images were never enough. Neither were blacked up or browned up performers. Citizens of the metropole needed to see these varied people from the subjugated colonies up close. They needed to witness their bizarre customs, exotic dress, multi-hued skins and even hear them speak their native tongues. This was billed as both entertainment and education, hosted by scientific expeditions and observatory exhibits. But the real purpose was to teach another profound lesson–one of difference and inferiority. It was a way of maintaining the racial and colonial order, turning these “othered” humans into things to be consumed by the gazes of their obvious betters.
In 1874 a German merchant in wild animals, Carl Hagenback, opened up an exhibit of Samoan and Sami (Scandinavian Laplanders, who vexed racial categories) as “purely natural” peoples. In 1876 he commissioned an expedition to Sudan to return with native animals and Nubians. The trip was successful, and Hagenback’s Nubian Exhibit became popular, touring Paris, London and Berlin.
Following in his steed in 1877, the zoological director Albert Geoffroy de Saint-Hilaire in Paris put together his own human displays at the famed Jardin d’acclimatation, featuring Nubians and Inuit as spectacles of ethnology. The successful showings created imitators. And Human Zoos sprang up to sate western public curiosity.
“Achantis!” read the 1887 poster for an exhibition at the “l’Acclimatation Anthropologique,” as the Jardin Zoologique d’Acclimatation was renamed. The exhibit promised Parisians an up-close look at the fantastic Achanti (Ashanti) of the Gold Coast (what is today Ghana) in their traditional dress and natural habitat.
From Paris to Hamburg to Brussels to New York, Human Zoos became a normal fixture drawing large numbers to gawk, sometimes touch, prod, laugh, yell and even feed the exotic menagerie of humanity. World’s Fairs especially became a common housing of Human Zoos, where visitors flocked to see the human specimens on display. One source notes that the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris (visited by 28 million people) featured long lines to see 400 human displays. The 1900 World’s Fair and the Colonial Exhibitions in Marseilles and in Paris featured “naked or semi-naked humans in cages” which was visited by tens of millions.
Some displays were little more than fenced enclosures. The most elaborate exhibits however took great care to recreate the “natural habitats” of those on display. This was done to provide “authenticity” for viewers, who would be able to observe the natives in model replicas from their lands. Tools, weapons, housing, even animals, were provided to produce a realistic effect. The individuals who made up these zoos came from the colonies, or from reservations in the U.S. Some (like Native American ethnic groups) may even have long adapted to western customs and dress. But they were made to adorn themselves in traditional garb and perform traditional dances to play up their exotic natures.
A 1904 St Louis Human Zoo even featured a “Savage Olympics,” where those on exhibit were made to compete in “savage” events like archery before crowds. Curators encouraged their subjects to submit to visual examinations of their bodies, or allow visitors to touch their hair. But explaining Human Zoos is sometimes an exhaustive exercise. The photos tend to speak for themselves:
Who were the human faces behind these many people put on display and why did they do it? Hard to always say for certain. Many came from newly colonized lands–from societies undergoing rapid change as they came under the control of European empires. They were often lured into work, promised fortunes, fame and prosperity. How many knew precisely what they were getting into is hard to determine. Often they were cheated out of most of their pay. Their accommodations could end up being nothing more than the exhibit that had been built for them. And they were shuttled between shows and fairs, as well as handlers.
Some of them played up to audiences, meeting expectations. Others became despondent or even dismayed in their work. A few died, and were usually buried in anonymous graves far from their homelands. And though they often attempted to assert their own agency, there was little recourse for them in a society that saw them little more than exotic commodities of popular consumption.
A telling case was that of Ota Benga, a so-called “pygmy” from Central Africa. Ota Benga had been lured by explorer Samuel Verner into a business venture whereby he would become wealthy in the U.S. Instead he found himself in exhibits at a St. Louis fair and then at the American Museum of Natural History. In 1906 he was moved to yet another residence–the Monkey House of the Bronx Zoo, where he was exhibited as a type of ape.
At the Bronx Zoo Otabenga often shared a cage with an Orangutang and the two were made to show their similarities. Visitors came to gawk and sometimes throw him food, jeering and pulling at him. He was referred to as a possible Missing Link. An impressed New York Times called him “the most interesting display in the Bronx Park.”
Ota Benga’s tenure in the Bronx Zoo came to an end when African-American newspapers published the event as an outrage, and a delegation of local black clergymen fought to have him released. “Our race, we think, is depressed enough, without exhibiting one of us with the apes,” one complained. “We think we are worthy of being considered human beings, with souls.”
Their protests were met by deaf ears by New York’s mayor, and angry denunciations by the zoo’s director Michael Hornday–who insisted he was only trying to put on an educational ethnological exhibit. The clergymen were finally successful when Ota Benga’s profitability declined and he was released into their care. He became adopted into this surrogate black community, who found his ways strange–going as far as to cap his filed teeth. But with the outbreak of WWI soon after, and the ensuing turmoil on his home continent, Ota Benga was never able to return home. Increasingly despondent at this turn of fate, he committed suicide in 1916–shooting himself in the heart with a revolver at the age of 32.
Human Zoos did not begin to wane until after WWII, once the horrors of fascism displayed to cruel effect the logical extreme of race science. As weakened European empires lost their hold on colonial peoples, theories of racial difference and the policies they helped implement came under attack. Millions of these “inferior” people after all had just helped save Europe from what had been thirty years of the most “uncivilized” warfare the world had ever seen. Any illusions of superiority and the White Man’s Burden had burned down with Dresden and been brutally exposed in Dachau.
But the Human Zoos didn’t end altogether. One of the last human menageries was still around in 1958, in the Congolese Village at the Brussels World Fair. There, like before, Belgians were able to gawk and observe black Congolese from the colony–which itself was ready to boil over with anti-colonial dissent. The display was an attempt to hold onto a world that was fast coming to an end. Rather than fretting at Congolese (many of them French veterans of WWII) then agitating for their rights and independence or facing up to the millions of dead under Belgium’s brutal rule, local Belgians could watch a quaint image of the Congo as they imagined it. They could even show their benevolence as colonial overlords, and feed the natives–literally.
And that’s the end of that right? Well… is it ever?
Human Zoos (like blackface) it seems have not lost their appeal altogether, and always seem on the verge of making a come back–if given the oxygen to do so. In 1994 France’s Planète Sauvage (yes, Savage Planet), a safari park, tried to open an Ivory Coast exhibit to be displayed alongside its animals. The attraction was to create an “authentic” Côte d’Ivoire village complete with contract workers who (weather permitting) would be allowed to walk about topless for visitors. The exhibit was to be sponsored by the biscuit company Biscuiterie Saint-Michel as marketing for their “Bamboula” cookies. Never mind that modern Côte d’Ivoire has skyscrapers. Outcry however from anti-racist groups, many of them calling attention to the history of Human Zoos, caused the idea to be scrapped.
The specter of Human Zoos arose again in 2005, this time at a zoo in the southern German city of Augsburg. There, gawking crowds could witness an African Village and see “black tribesmen in grass-skirts” alongside elephants and rhinos in their “natural” environment–part of an attempt to get visitors to “Discover the Dark Continent.” Black vendors in “traditional garb” were allowed to sell African crafts and foods within the village, alongside drummers and storytellers.
The zoo’s director (following historical precedent) denied the exhibit had anything to do with racism, and billed it instead as educational and even beneficial. “We want to show silversmiths at work, artists, village craftsmen in a setting near the animals of Africa so everyone would benefit from the experience,” she said. To back up her assertions, she pointed out that one of the organizers was himself “a native African with black skin.”
The legacy of Human Zoos and its racial context is hard to shake. And it seems addictive, even for those who claim to be working against racism. In 2014 two Human Zoos came under fire, one by a white South African artist in London and another by a black Sudanese and white artist duo in Norway. Both have billed their projects as anti-racism, meant to highlight this shameful part of the past. But both exhibits have also been strongly criticized by none other than the intended recipients of their anti-racist artistic generosity. In London a protest campaign with the hashtag #boycotthehumanzoo drew 20,000 signatures and brought protestors into the streets.
The Norwegian artistic duo has been fielding similar push back. In a newspaper interview, a black Norwegian originally from the DRC denounced the exhibit as nothing more than “a re-enactment of the fantasies about exoticism and bestiality that have been historically linked to the black body in the colonial mind.” She scoffed at claims of anti-racism, and asked exactly who this is supposed to benefit. “Once again, the black body will be prepped, scripted and presented to a white gaze,” she pronounced. “Africans will once again be subjected to a humiliating and dehumanising racialised public spectacle. Slavery and colonialism was and still is a show.”
Perhaps in the end you can’t escape our past (rather recent at that) by recreating it. Too much of our modern history is tied up in those events; we live out the repercussions right up to the present, in our notions of race, difference and the “other.” Like Roddy McDowall we can look out beyond the bars passed down to us through photos, and ponder the nature of inhumanity.
*Many photos of human zoos are hard to source directly but are taken from the site Popular Resistance.