In a busy Belgian zoo, a crowd of eager onlookers strain to see over a wooden fence. Inside the enclosure, a popular exhibit wanders listlessly around. This isn’t a mighty elephant or a towering giraffe, though. Instead, the occupant of the attraction is one of the last examples of a truly shocking trend.
Although the idea of exhibiting people for money may seem abhorrent today, the concept of human zoos has existed since at least the 16th century. Back then, Cardinal Ippolito de’ Medici was known for having an assortment of human beings of various races on display in the Vatican.
Then three centuries later, the showman P.T. Barnum made a name for himself by exhibiting humans who were suffering from rare genetic conditions. And over the years this bizarre trend grew in popularity. Indeed, by the 1870s it was common for people in many Western nations to gather and ogle humans of other races from around the world.
As the governments of Europe and the United States continued their relentless colonial expansion, many explorers brought people from across the globe back with them as souvenirs. And tragically, these unfortunate individuals often ended up as exhibits in human zoos.
One of the earliest examples of this disgraceful form of entertainment comes through the story of the ill-fated Selk’Nam people. This indigenous Chilean tribe had lived peacefully in the Patagonia region, but the arrival of European settlers in the late 19th century changed all that.
These indigenous people soon clashed with the Spanish colonialists, hunting the sheep that the European settlers had brought to farm. Then, with a bounty on every Selk’Nam person’s head, a shocking agreement was reached. In 1889 the Chilean administration granted businessman Maurice Maitre permission to take 11 Selk’Nam men, women and children to Europe to be exhibited.
However, on the difficult journey to Paris, two of the Selk’Nam died. And when the tribespeople arrived in Europe, they were kept in cages, brought out to be measured and weighed in front of an expectant public. Finally, after a tour of Belgium, the Chileans were returned to Patagonia. By that time, though, only six of the group remained alive.
Some ten years later a new century dawned, but little progress had been made in terms of indigenous rights. In fact, by 1905 much of America was enthralled by another human zoo. Coney Island, the famous amusement park in New York City, had become home to the Bontoc Igorotte tribe.
Earlier that year, showman Truman Hunt had traveled to Bontoc, a remote province of the Philippines. There, he’d persuaded some 50 locals to travel with him to New York in return for wages of $15 a month per person. Then on their arrival in America, the Igorottes were installed in a fake village and encouraged to perform their native rituals in front of the crowds.
Throughout the course of the exhibition, millions of Americans visited the village at Coney Island. What’s more, the crowds watched as the Igorottes slit the throats of dogs, held mock wedding ceremonies and performed traditional song and dance routines. When a rival promoter brought another group of Igorottes to New York, though, Hunt decided to take his show on the road.
Yet as Hunt and his group traveled the country, the authorities began to receive worrying reports. Apparently, Hunt was stealing the Igorottes’ wages and forcing them to live in squalor. But although Hunt was subsequently arrested in 1906, that didn’t stop his rivals from continuing to operate human zoos across the country.
In fact, that very same year another New York zoo started making headlines with its own unusual exhibit. Two years previously, explorer Samuel Vener had journeyed to Africa, hoping to bring back pygmies to be displayed at the St. Louis World Fair. And there, in a remote African village, he met Oto Benga, a member of the Mbuti tribe.
Intrigued, Verner bargained with the slavers who held Benga captive, and the explorer eventually secured his release. So, in 1904 Benga arrived in Missouri for the World Fair. And with his amiable attitude and fearsome teeth filed into points, the tribesman proved an instant hit.
Then in 1906 Verner relocated Benga to the Bronx Zoo. But while the Mbuti man was allowed to roam freely around the grounds, the zoo also soon began exhibiting him in the Monkey House. There, he was displayed alongside apes – until he was subsequently passed into the care of a clergyman at the end of the year.
Benga’s story did not have a happy ending. Although he initially found some success working in a tobacco factory, the African eventually started to dream of returning home. The outbreak of World War One soon rendered such a trip impossible, though. So, heartbroken, Benga committed suicide with a stolen gun.
Human zoos in fact often formed part of wider exhibitions known as “colonial expositions.” The purpose of these was to highlight the influence of colonial powers and showcase the cultural diversity of their empires. For example, in 1907 Vincennes, a city on the outskirts of Paris, played host to such an exposition – the ruins of which can still be seen to this day.
Today the Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale provides a sleepy detour for visitors to Paris. Indeed, its abandoned ruins are a sharp contrast to the crowds of the Louvre and the Champs-Elysees. During its heyday, though, it was a popular attraction, and locals flocked to see its exhibits, which focused on French colonies around the world.
Like many of today’s zoos, the Jardin featured exotic animals displayed in pavilions that called to mind far-flung places such as Benin and Tunisia. However, unlike modern zoos, the attraction also displayed native humans from these countries.
That year, the Jardin became home to a group of Kanak people, who’d been shipped to Paris from their home in French New Caledonia. And alongside them lived African families – brought over from countries such as Niger, Guinea and Senegal. Each were also subsequently given homes in mock native villages, and they were encouraged to perform traditional rituals for their rapt audiences.
As the cultural exposition then fell out of fashion, the Jardin was consequently left to rot. And thankfully, a similar fate has met human zoos around the world. Today, only the ruins of such places remain, left to fade into obscurity as an embarrassing piece of history that Westerners would rather forget.