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April 16, 2018 | Feature Article

When Belgium Used To Display Black People At The Zoo

An African child in a Belgium zoo being fed with banana
An African child in a Belgium zoo being fed with banana

It's only a psychologist that can explain effectively the reason some people are racists, killers, greedy, selfish and wicked without conscience. The world is actually full of sick, crazy, and psychologically tormented people but because of their polished shoes, it's hard to identify them among us.

Racism is deeply embedded in our culture. Slavery of African people, ethnic cleansing of Native Americans and colonialist imperialism are seeds that intertwine to create racism that still has an impact in our societies today.

One example of the sad human history of racism of colonizers seeing themselves as superior to others is the long history of human zoos that featured Africans and conquered indigenous peoples, putting them on display in much the same way as animals.

People would be kidnapped and brought to be exhibited in human zoos. It was not uncommon for these people to die quickly, even within a year of their captivity. This history is long and deep and continued into the 1950s. Throughout the early 20th century, Germany held what was termed a “Peoples Show,” or Völkerschau. Africans were brought in as carnival or zoo exhibits for passers-by to gawk at.

Brussels, Belgium in 1958
PopularResistance.org reveals only decades before, in the late 1800′s, Europe had been filled with, “human zoos,” in cities like Paris, Hamburg, Antwerp, Barcelona, London, Milan, and Warsaw. New York too saw these popular exhibits continue into the 20th century. There was an average of 200,000 to 300,000 visitors who attended each exhibition in each city.

Carl Hagenbeck of Germany ran exhibits of what he called, “purely natural,” populations, usually East Asian Islanders, but in 1876, he also sent a collaborator to the Sudan to bring back, “wild beasts and Nubians.” The traveling Nubian exhibit was a huge success in cities like Paris, London, and Berlin.

The World’s Fair, in 1889 was visited by 28 million people, who lined up to see 400 indigenous people as the major attraction. The 1900 World’s Fair followed suit, as did the Colonial Exhibitions in Marseilles (1906 and 1922) and in Paris (1907 and 1931) which displayed naked or semi-naked humans in cages. Paris saw 34 million people attend their exhibition in six months alone.

Just four years shy of the 20th century, the Cincinnati Zoo kept one hundred Sioux Native Americans in a mock village at the zoo for three months.

In 1906, the amateur anthropologist Madison Grant, who was the head of the New York Zoological Society, put a Congolese pygmy Ota Benga, on display at the Bronx Zoo in New York City. The display was in the primate exhibit, and Ota was often made to carry around chimpanzees and other apes. Eugenicist and zoo director William Hornaday labeled Ota, “The Missing Link.” The public flocked to see the display.

Benga shot targets with a bow and arrow, wove twine, and wrestled with an orangutan. Although, according to the New York Times, “few expressed audible objection to the sight of a human being in a cage with monkeys as companions,” controversy erupted as black clergymen in the city took great offense.

“Our race, we think, is depressed enough, without exhibiting one of us with the apes,” said the Reverend James H. Gordon, superintendent of the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum in Brooklyn. “We think we are worthy of being considered human beings, with souls.”

In 1906, the Bronx Zoo kept Ota Benga on a human exhibit. The sign outside of his fenced in area of the primate exhibit read, “Age, 23 years. Height, 4 feet 11 inches. Weight, 103 pounds. Brought from the Kasai River, Congo Free State, South Central Africa, by Dr. Samuel P. Verner. Exhibited each afternoon during September.”

These sorts of, “human zoos,” continued even later. The Brussels 1958 World’s Fair kept a Congolese village on display. Even as late as April 1994, an Ivory Coast village was kept as part of an African safari in Port-Saint-Père (Planète Sauvage), near Nantes, France.

In Germany, as late as 2005, Augsburg’s zoo in Germany had similar exhibits. In August 2005, London Zoo also displayed humans wearing fig leaves, and in 2007, Adelaide Zoo housed people in a former ape enclosure by day. They were, of course, allowed to return home at night, unlike many of the earlier incarnations of these racist displays.

Many people console themselves with the belief that the racism of yesterday remains safely in the past. But the echoes of the “human zoo,” into recent years show that this is far from the case. The racism of the past continues to bleed through into the present.

UNCOVERED: The Haunting ‘Human Zoo’ of Paris

In the furthest corner of the Vincennes woods of Paris, lies the remains of what was once a public exhibition to promote French colonialism over 100 years ago and what we can only refer to today as the equivalent of a human zoo.

In 1907, six different villages were built in the Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale, representing all the corners of the French colonial empire at the time– Madagascar, Indochine, Sudan, Congo, Tunisia, and Morocco.

The villages and their pavillions were built to recreate the life and culture as it was in their original habitats. This included mimicking the architecture, importing the agriculture and appallingly, inhabiting the replica houses with people, brought to Paris from the faraway territories.

The human inhabitants of the ‘exhibition’ were observed by over one million curious visitors from May until October 1907 when it ended. It is estimated that between 1870 up until the 1930s, more than one and a half a billion people visited various exhibits around the world featuring human inhabitants.

In 1906, this Congolese replica “factory” was built in Marseille as part of a colonial exposition. Congolese families were also brought over to work in the factory. In February 2004 its remains were burnt down.

Today, the Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale is treated as a stain on France’s history. Kept out of sight behind rusty padlocked gates for most of the 20th century, the buildings are abandoned and decaying, and the rare exotic plantations have long disappeared.

In 2006 the public was granted access to the gardens but few people actually visit at all. The entrance is marked by a 10 ft Asian inspired portico of rotting wood and faded red paint that stands like the ghost of a slain gatekeeper.

Visitors can instantly feel a sense of anxiety upon entering and quickly develop an understanding that this is not a place that the French are proud of. A hundred years on and there’s still an eerie presence of ladies clutching sun parasols and men in bowler hats arriving, eager to see the show on the other side of this now crumbling colonnade.

Only some of the pathways remain clear of overtaking nature and they all lead to various vandalized monuments, condemned houses with danger signs and abandoned paraphernalia that you can’t make any sense of.

More than thirty-five thousand men, women, and children left their homelands during the high noon of Imperialist Europe and took part in ‘exotic spectacles’ held in major cities like Paris, London, and Berlin. Entire families recruited from the colonies were placed in replicas of their villages, given mock traditional costumes and paid to put on a show for spectators.

An opportunity to demonstrate the power of the West over its colonies, the expositions became a regular part of international trade fairs and encouraged a taste for exoticism and remote travel.

Europeans gawked at bare-breasted African women and were entertained by re-enactments of “primitive life” in the colonies. Here, anthropologists and researchers could observe whole villages of tribespeople and gather physical evidence for their theories on racial superiority.

While the villagers had come to Paris of their own free will and were paid to be on display, they were equally oppressed, exploited and degraded. The distinction between person and specimen was blurred. They were not guests here. They were nameless faces on the other side of a barrier.

When the Exposition Tropicale ended its four-month run in October 1907, it is unknown how many of the participants returned home safely. Villagers were enticed by lecherous agents or even mislead by their own village chiefs into joining circus-like troupes that toured internationally. From Marseille to New York, their vulnerability in a capitalist world was exploited every step of the way.

Some would eventually find their way home after a few years, but others would never make it. If they didn’t fall victim to diseases unknown to them; smallpox, measles, tuberculosis; they would die of adversity in an alien world.

There are rumors that one building, the Indochine pavillion, will be refurbished to function as a small museum and research center. It may be an intelligent solution to a touchy subject. If the French government destroyed the gardens, there would be accusations of trying to cover up the past. If they were fully restored, it might be construed as a commemoration to a France’s once very sinister use of power.

And so the garden remains, hauntingly beautiful; a neglected embarrassment.

Gardeners stopped coming a long time ago. Wild and verdant, mutations of untamed tropical plants plucked from their homelands are left to fester in a junkyard of French colonial history. They are the ghosts of this purgatory, waiting for a ticket home.

A 20-year-old girl from South Africa known as Sarah “Saartjie” Baartman would be emblematic of the dark era that gave rise to the popularity of human zoos. She was recruited by an exotic animal dealer on location in Cape Town and traveled to London in 1810 to take part in an exhibition.

The young woman went willingly under the pretense that she would find wealth and fame. Exhibitors were looking for certain qualities in their ‘exotic’ recruits that either coincided with the European beauty ideal or offered unexpected novelty. Sarah had a genetic characteristic known as steatopygia; protuberant buttocks and elongated labia.

She found herself being exhibited in cages at sideshow attractions dressed in tight-fitting clothing that violated any cultural norms of decency at the time. A few years later she came to Paris where racial anthropologists poked and prodded and made their theories. Sarah eventually turned to prostitution to support herself and drank heavily. She had been in Europe for only four years.

When she died in poverty, Sarah’s skeleton, sexual organs, and brain were put on display at the Museum of Mankind in Paris where they remained until 1974. In 2002, President Nelson Mandela formally requested the repatriation of her remains.

Nearly two hundred years after she had stood on deck and watched her world disappear behind her, Sarah Baartman finally went home, where the air smelled of buchu and mint, and the veld called out her name.

Joel Savage
Joel Savage

Joel Savage is a Ghanaian-Belgian journalist and author. The accredited press-card holder of the Flemish Journalists Association once contributed regularly to the features column of the Daily Graphic, The Mirror, Ghanaian Times and the Weekly Spectator. The writer currently lives in Belgium.,

Disclaimer: "The views/contents expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of Joel Savage and do not neccessarily reflect those of Modern Ghana. Modern Ghana will not be responsible or liable for any inaccurate or incorrect statements contained in this article."

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