Human zoos, Europe’s shameful secret: racist entertainment, a black stain on the historical past

Before the advent of modern means of entertainment and mass tourism, millions of Western citizens visited zoos, where the “exhibits” were racial minorities.

Let’s make one thing clear at the outset: circuses strike us as sadistic and not at all entertaining, and zoos are almost on the same level. Well, not so long ago, Europeans thought it was okay to lock human beings in cages to be “observed in the wild” by the so-called master races, a status conferred by white skin.

Fenced in, like in a zoo, to illustrate ethnic differences, the natives of regions where Europeans had colonies were feeding the most poisonous idea that scientists, then later rulers, wanted to inoculate the population with: pure, white, civilized races are superior to black ones. The photos were distributed by the PowerfulPrimates website, in addition to other publications.

Human zoos, organized in apparently civilized countries

Although history books seldom contain pictures or references to this period, there were millions of spectators who came to see the “savages” in the reconstructed villages for the amusement of the whites. It is estimated that more than one and a half billion people around the world visited such exhibitions between 1870 and 1930, according to French historian Pascal Blanchard, quoted by Adevărul.

One of the first human zoos was in London in 1851, when entire families of indigenous Africans were brought to Europe to make a replica of primitive villages in Senegal, Niger or Guinea. Newly arrived in unfamiliar territory, some of them were forced to perform traditional dances as soon as they got off the train, all for the entertainment of spectators. In some areas, groups of indigenous people were even forced to simulate battles between themselves and the colonisers or fight wild animals for food.

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Photo from Negro Village

Although France had declared itself an advocate of egalitarian principles, another zoo with human exhibits was opened in 1889 in Paris for the World’s Fair. Around 400 Aborigines, Africans and Asians were exhibited in cages. Human zoo fairs were originally conceived as marketing strategies, but the 1889 Paris event was a stunning success, attracting 18 million visitors.

The idea was later taken up by other European countries, such as Belgium and Germany, but was also imported overseas. There are vintage photographs of people exposed in cages, forced to live among monkeys or shoot bows and arrows at other animals, taken in the early 20th century in cities like New York and St. Louis.

How scientists viewed this form of abuse

Although they blatantly violated every rule of freedom and social equality, human zoos were rarely condemned by scientists. They were even content to develop a series of studies on indigenous families, arguing and promoting to an increasing extent the racial theories that later led to the rise of Nazism. “It was a business, simply capitalism. Indigenous people were dominated by the gaze of visitors, who forced them into a role that was not theirs. This role created a symbol of race. Human exhibitions are a clear sign of our collective amnesia,” said French historian Pascal Blanchard.

Oto Benga

One of the disturbing stories to reach the media is that of Oto Benga, a pygmy brought to the United States from Africa. Forcibly brought to the US in 1906, Oto Benga was one of a group of indigenous people on display for the amusement of Westerners. After being seen by more than 20 million people, Oto is taken back home to his village in Congo. Searching for his tribe, he discovers they have been exterminated entirely by Belgian soldiers. He marries a girl from another tribe, but she soon dies of a snake bite.

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Oto Benga was then chased away by the chief of the tribe, who believed he was attracting evil forces. Oto decided to return to the United States and asked the man who brought him back to take him back to America. Inevitably, he was noticed by other scientists, including Madison Grant, who wrote the 1930 book The Passing Of The Great Race, which became a seminal study for Hitler. After ending up back in a zoo with the animals for another two years, Oto Benga is released and begins to build a new life in an adoption centre. Unable to adjust, at the age of 32, he committed suicide. His story has become a reference for cases of racist abuse.

Tragic cases did not stop these practices, however. Because it was, after all, all about money, exhibition managers also designed advertisements to bring as many Westerners as possible to “savage” shows. Some of the advertisements of the time announced: “They live in the woods, they are extremely shy. They eat the flesh of wild animals almost with their bare hands. They are cruel and take pleasure in torturing animals” or “A pygmy eats 60 bananas at a meal, in addition to other food. Then he asks for more”.

Advertisement for a human zoo in Germany

The phenomenon of human zoos has been losing popularity since the 1930s, but not because of a Western moral change, but simply because of the advent of cinema. The last such exhibitions were recorded in Belgium in 1958, and remain testaments to the cruelty of which human beings are capable.

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