The Unspeakable Tragedy Of Human Zoos

“Show me a prison, show me a jail / Show me a pris’ner whose face has grown pale / And I’ll show you a young man / With many reasons why / There but for fortune, go you or I.” —Phil Ochs, “There but for Fortune”

In A Nutshell

For almost 50 years, zoos and traveling exhibitions featured much more than animals. So-called exotic humans, brought back from what were then the farthest reaches of the world, were put on display for the entertainment of Americans and Europeans alike. These exotics included a “Tribe of Genuine Ubangi Savages” and their advertised “crocodile mouths,” the “cannibal chieftains” from Africa, and entire villages of people uprooted from across the African continent and shipped off to be displayed for public entertainment. The practice didn’t fully end until World War II, but they were first banned by Hitler.

The Whole Bushel

It turns out that displaying any people who aren’t like the others is another thing that we can blame Christopher Columbus for. When he returned from his voyages to the New World, he brought back six Native Americans and put them on display at the court of his financiers in Spain.

It all went downhill from there, and reached a massively unspeakable, tragic peak at the turn of the 20th century.

At the height of colonialism and the territorial expansion of the world’s emerging superpowers, people in America and Europe were growing curious about these strange foreigners they were hearing stories about. So the next logical step (or at least the next most financially sound decision) was to bring those strange, strange foreigners to Europe and America so the curious could get a look at them.

For a price, of course.

So-called “savages were” brought back from the depths of Africa, dressed appropriately, and exhibited in zoos, circuses, sideshows, and on the big city stage.

The Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus was right there waiting to cash in. In the 1930s, they traveled with an exhibit of a “Tribe of Genuine Ubangi Savages”. Born and raised in the French Congo, the women in the exhibit were from a culture that practiced lip stretching as a form of beautification, inserting discs of increasing size into their lips. Because of it, they were billed as the “World’s Most Weird Living Humans from Africa’s Darkest Depths” by the circus, and toured first Europe then the United States.

And they were far from the only ones.

France in particular grew to have a reputation for the quality and diversity of its human exhibitions, although they were done all across Europe, the United States, and even in Japan. Mock villages were set up to highlight the savagery that people supposedly lived in; they were often put on display naked, coached to chew on bones, and told to grunt and gesture at audiences. They were also instructed to perform dances and rituals to the delight of the crowds on the other side of the fence.

Amid the entire villages of people that were created as exhibits in zoos, many had their names taken away from them with their dignity. There are a few who retained their names, however, and whose memory now remains as a tribute to those other nameless victims. Perhaps the most famous was Saartjie Baartman, better known as the Hottentot Venus, who died in poverty at 28; to the Europeans, she was “Fat Bum.” Even after her death, her skeletal remains were still displayed until she finally received a proper burial—in 2002.

But there was also Ota Benga, who was on display in the monkey house at the Bronx Zoo before he was eventually turned over to an orphanage. He later committed suicide.

In 1931, a group of people who promised they would be acting as ambassadors left their homeland in New Caledonia and went to France. They were caged, displayed, and billed as cannibals.

The practice continued until 1958, with Belgium being the last to end its human zoos. The first world leader to take the step of banning these human exhibitions outright was Adolf Hitler. By then, more than 35,000 people had been displayed for the delight of the so-called civilized world.

Show Me The Proof

BBC News: Human zoos: When real people were exhibits
Secrets of the Sideshows, by Joe Nickell
The Guardian: Paris show unveils life in human zoo

  • alphaman

    How ironic that Hitler is the one that banned this

  • NHN

    Well, modern media have made that kind oft infotainment obsolete. It is easy to condem this practice nowadays, but for people 100 years ago to see foreign people in life, it would have meant to go on a very expensive, dangerours and long-lasting trip. To see those strange tribes in a zoo surounded by exotic animals from their home continent was a good alternative. They did not only exhibit the stereotyed “poor little negro” from savage Africa, but e.g. Sami people from Finland too (not with monkey though, but with reindeers.)

    • bob ab

      “….was a good alternative”

      Just stop before you dig yourself into a deeper ditch.

    • Gabriela

      Oh right. How would you like to have yourself or your kids put in a cage so that others have a “good alternative” to travelling to wherever assholes live?

  • rincewind

    It proudly states “new to civilization!!!” on the displayed poster. When Gandhi was asked what he thought of Western civilization, he said it would be a very good idea. I think the savages were OUTSIDE the cages.

    • TheTimmynator

      Ah yes, civilization. Heads on spikes.

  • TheMadHatter

    You have “Savages were” in quotations where only savages should be in quotations.

  • bob ab

    There is a separation of colored people from white people in the United States. That separation is not a disease of colored people. It is a disease of white people. I do not intend to be quiet about it.

    – Albert Einstein

    • fasddfassdf

      there must be a separation between human beings and animals, you let the animals in and you got obama, muslim terrorism and fergusson riots.

  • KeithaVandehey

    There is faced the Problem for the Human behaviour about Animal Zoos.

  • Quest4liberty

    In one of Richard J. Maybury’s books (I believe it was World War II: The Rest of the Story and How It Affects You Today) he said that he always wondered how Barnum and Bailey got people who lived far away to leave their homes and families and join the circus. Finally at a museum in Australia he found the answer.

    Barnum and Bailey followed the savage British troops around as they went through and slaughtered and destroyed the villages of innocent foreigners. The circus would find a few survivors and offer them a deal: stay in your decimated village, where you have no family or friends because they have all been killed, and where you will now likely starve to death, or join us and have a better chance to live. The root of the problem was British imperialism.

    • Mark Lambourn

      “Savage British Troops”…. I do hope you refer to all troops of all nations who follow orders as savage, or this is just outright xenophobia.

      • Quest4liberty

        I refer to any indiviadual (be it a civilian/soldier/policeman it matters not) from any country (be it Britain, America, or China, it matters not) who attacks or threatens to attack another individual (be it a civilian/soldier/policeman it matters not) that was no threat to to them, as a savage. They have broken the “non-aggression principle” of libertarianism in so doing, the principle upon which the entire philosophy is based. I don’t let the govt. currently ruling my homeland off the hook either, as you can see from the powerpoint I made which NY Times bestselling historian Tom Woods called a “very good presentation” on his blog:

  • Nick Mulgrave

    Displaying people who are not like others and the exhibition of strange humans is still a lucrative trade that still goes on today.
    And people are still often put on display naked, and told to grunt and gesture at audiences. They are also instructed to perform dances and rituals to the delight of the crowds on the other side of the fence. Only today we call them Lady Ga Ga concerts.

    • lonelydisco

      Well, at least they’re paid … I think.


  • Now we travel to see them in their native environments

    • lonelydisco

      Where they are watching The Kardashians.

      • ..

      • alwayssinnyinsa

        The modern equivalent of human zoos, watching “savages” on tv shows like Keeping Up With the Kardashians and Jersey Shore. People with behaviour so foreign we feel the need to display than

        • lonelydisco

          Difference is, these savages are paid millions of our currency units.

          This reminds me of that David Bowie song.

          • “‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore”?

          • lonelydisco

            Life On Mars.

  • Ican Aja

    isplaying people who are not like others and the exhibition of strange
    humans is still a lucrative trade that still goes on today.
    people are still often put on display naked, and told to grunt and
    gesture at audiences. They are also instructed to perform dances and
    rituals to the delight of the crowds on the other side of the fence.
    Only today we call them Lady Ga Ga concerts.

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  • Thanks for this post.