The Shameful History of Human Zoos: Displaying ‘Exotic Foreigners’ Only Stopped 60 Years Ago
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the shocking display of human beings of various ethnicities was in vogue in the West, especially in the colonial empires of Great Britain, France, and Germany. One of the factors contributing to the popularity of these human zoos was that they exhibited ‘exotic’ peoples from different parts of the world, which had great appeal to the masses during that period.
1893 poster advertising a display of the Sami people arranged by Carl Hagenbeck in Hamburg-Saint Pauli, (Felistoria / Public Domain )
Ancient Beginnings to a Shameful Act
Although the human zoo is a recent phenomenon, its roots can be traced much further and began with the artistic display of exotic peoples from other kingdoms. In the tomb of the Nineteenth Dynasty pharaoh Seti I in Egypt there is a mural depicting the four different races of the world, i.e. Egyptian, Libyan, Asiatic, and Nubian. This display of foreigners is also seen in the art of the Achaemenid Empire. At Persepolis, one of the Achaemenid capitals, all the peoples under the empire’s rule were depicted in reliefs that adorn the North and East Stairs of the Apadana. The subjects of the empire are shown bringing tribute to the Achaemenid king.
A Nubian, a Syrian, and an Egyptian, drawing by an unknown artist after a mural of the tomb of Seti I; Copy by Heinrich von Minutoli 1820. Note that the skin shades are due to the 19th century illustrator, not the Ancient Egyptian original. (Nard the Bard / Public Domain )
Display of Foreign Captives
Artistic displays then evolved into real displays as foreign captives were paraded around by victorious Roman generals during their triumph in Rome. This was meant to show Rome’s victory over its enemies and to appeal to the curiosities of the people who were eager to see these strange people from other lands. Some of the most famous captives who were paraded during a Roman triumph included Cleopatra Selene II, Alexander Helios, and Ptolemy Philadelphus (the children of Mark Antony and Cleopatra), Caractacus (a British chief who fought against Rome), and Vercingetorix (the Gallic leader who was defeated by Julius Caesar).
How Human Zoos Evolved
During the Age of Exploration, Spanish and Portuguese explorers would often bring back foreign plants, animals, and even people, to prove that their voyages were a success. These displays, however, were accessible only to the elites, as they were only exhibited at the royal courts. During the 17th and 18th centuries, having servants of non-European descent was a sign of a European aristocrat’s wealth. Once again, it was only the elites who had contact with these ‘exotic’ foreigners.
Things changed at the beginning of the 19th century. Between 1810 and 1815, a South African woman by the name of Saartjie Baartman (pejoratively known as the Hottentot Venus) was displayed in London and Paris as a ‘freak show’. This was the first modern instance that a foreign individual was displayed for the entertainment of the European masses and served as a precursor for the human zoos, which were called ‘ethnological expositions’.
A caricature of Saartjie Baartman, called the Hottentot Venus. Born to a Khoisanfamily, she was displayed in London in the early 19th century. (Julo / Public Domain )
During the first half of the 19th century, foreign individuals like Baartman were displayed at fairs and carnivals in which other ‘freak shows’ were exhibited. During this period, emphasis was placed on the difference between the foreigners and the European public. The distinction between ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ was replaced by one of ‘civilized’ and ‘savage’ during the second half of the century, as a result of New Imperialism.
A group of Aboriginals captured in Australia and put on tour throughout Europe and America in the PT Barnum & Bailey circus shows of ‘human curiosities’, where they were portrayed as fierce savages and cannibals (public domain)
As the European powers began to establish colonies across the world, especially in Africa , there was growing appetite among the public back home for displays of the conquered peoples, who were perceived as less civilized than themselves. European governments were more than ready to satiate this demand and native villages were featured at most international fairs and expositions held during that period. The display of ‘savage’ foreigners in human zoos, however, was not limited to Europe alone. In the United States, for instance, the St. Louis World’s Fair held in 1904 boasted a number of ‘living exhibits’, including more than 1000 Filipinos from a dozen of tribes placed in recreated villages. In Japan, an exhibition of Koreans, who were portrayed as cannibals, was organized in 1903, seven years prior to the Japanese colonization of Korea.
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Africans exhibited at the 1914 Jubilee Exhibition in Christiania Oslo, Norway. (Anne-Sophie Ofrim / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Human Zoos Come to an End
Human zoos began to lose their popularity as the 20th century progressed. One of the last instances of the phenomenon occurred in 1958, at the World’s Fair in Brussels, where a Congolese Village was featured. Towards their end, human zoos were criticized as degrading, racist, and unethical, but these criticisms did not seem to cause this phenomenon to lose its appeal. Rather, it was only the appearance of motion pictures that drew the masses away from these zoos and into the cinemas.
Top image: An African girl is shown at the 1958 Expo in Brussels, Belgium that featured a 'Congo Village' with visitors watching her from behind wooden fences
By Wu Mingren
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