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.

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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