Forgotten History of the Human Zoos: The Legacy of Racism

Through the 1950s, Africans and Native Americans Were Kept In Zoos As Exhibits

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 female 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.

In 1906, the Bronx Zoo kept Ota Benga on a human exhibit. The sign outside of her 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.”

In 1906, the Bronx Zoo kept Ota Benga on a human exhibit. The sign outside of her 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.

Throughout the late 19th century, and well into the 1950′s, Africans and in some cases Native Americans, were kept as exhibits in zoos. Far from a relic from an unenlightened past, remnants of such exhibits have continued in Europe as late as the 2000′s. Above photograph is from Brussels, Belgium in 1958.

Throughout the late 19th century, and well into the 1950′s, Africans and in some cases Native Americans, were kept as exhibits in zoos. Far from a relic from an unenlightened past, remnants of such exhibits have continued in Europe as late as the 2000′s. Above photograph is from Brussels, Belgium in 1958.

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.

Sarah “Saartjie” Baartman’s Story: A Colonial Showpiece

The primitiveness of putting the ‘primitive’ on display began during the modern period when explorers like Columbus and Vespucci lured natives back to Europe from their homelands. To prove the discovery of exotic lands, the natives were flaunted and paraded like trophies. But what began as curious awe deteriorated into an era of racial superiority and the invention of the savage.

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; a 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.

Read the full graphic details at:  Popularresistance.org

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