Jun 1, 2020

Human Zoos Were a Dehumaninzing Spectacle of the Past

Genevieve Montague

he world we live in is often a strange place. And it is sometimes horrifying to look back not very far in time to see how messed up people, and the pervading dominant culture can be. There are too many examples of this mention, but one of the most shocking is human zoos.

Human zoos were mainly found in the European colonial powers of France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. But they were also considered a suitable attraction in the United States and other parts of the world.

Ota Benga’s Life in Human Zoos

This man lived a life that is difficult to imagine. Stripped away from his homeland of Congo, Ota Benga was shipped to the United States against his will.

Benga was looked at as a revenue-generating machine. His owners felt if they displayed him in a zoo, people would visit him and view him as an animal.

Benga was subject to the ridicule of being displayed on a daily basis at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition and then later at the New York Bronx Zoo. During his stay at the New York Bronx Zoo in 1906, over 40, 000 people visited him each day.

In late 1906, he was freed from the zoo and under the custody of a man named James Gordon, who was the head of the Howard Coloured Orphan Asylum.

Benga later then worked at a Lynchburg Tobacco factory in Virginia so he can save enough money to escape this land that dehumanized him so viciously.

When he finally planned his return to Congo and felt he had enough money, World War One broke out. It stopped all ship passenger travel. Benga fell into a deep depression afterward and presumably developed severe mental health issues.

Ota Benga committed suicide in 1916 at the age of 32.

Ota Benga, a Congolese Man Who Was Subject to Constant Ridicule for his Appearance at the New York Zoo in 1906 – Source

France shows off her wares

In 1907, the Paris Colonial Exposition recreated life as it was in a number of the countries in France’s then vast empire.

A garden that showcased plants from Sudan, Congo, Morroco, Madagascar, Indochine, and Tunisia was elaborated and built up to show the people of Paris how indigenous villages were in these faraway places.

The French strived for real authenticity by placing actual people from these countries in the exhibition. Unfortunately, these real-life people were treated with much less care than the plants the garden was previously famous for. The “performers” had terrible living conditions, and many died from foreign diseases they had no protection from and the cold that their native “outfits” were no match for.

Even Babies Were Not Safe From the Dehumanization of these Zoos – Source

The St Louis World’s Fair

As mentioned, the old imperial powers were those most guilty of further exploiting the people from their colonies in human zoos. Still, North America also got in on the act in a big way.

The 1904 World’s Fair in St Louis included a giant Ferris wheel, a whole pavilion made from corn, and several “living exhibits.”

The biggest of these live shows was one that featured 1,000 Fillipios from many different tribes, all being shown to the public as entertainment over an area of 47-acres.

Men from the Philippines Dance and Entertain at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904 — Source

The most popular segment of this great human zoo was the Igorot village. The audience could marvel at these wild people who feasted on dogs and made bizarre rituals in front of their eyes.

It was true that the Igorot people did eat dog, but only for ceremonial reasons. At the St Louis Word’s Fair, the only food they were given was dog.

The Igorot village was such a success that it outlasted the World’s Fair and toured all over North America and beyond. This carried on until protests by Filipinos meant that these shows were banned in 1914.

The end of Human Zoos

Sadly, human zoos were still considered acceptable right up until 1958.

The World’s Fair was held in Brussels that year. It featured a Congolese section that included real-life Congolese villagers.

The visitors to the fair would gawp at the villagers from the other side of a fence. An iconic photograph of a middle-aged white lady feeding a very young village girl best exemplifies the real horror of these places.

A Young African Girl Being Fed by a Visitor in 1958 – Source

This horror comes from the fact that these people casually watching other human beings as though they were animals seems to them to be such a natural thing to do.

To think that these horrendous displays were commonplace up until only 62 years ago is astonishingly sad and unacceptable.

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