In the history of the dehumanization of man, the infamous human zoos stand out for their vileness. These were places where people were exhibited for the “amusement” of the spectator. Not so long ago, they still existed. Until 1958, to be precise.
The saddest emblem of this was the South African Saartjie Baartman, known as the “Hottentot Venus.” Born around 1780, she was taken to London in 1810 and shown at fairs in Europe. Her great attraction was her buttocks. She was then sent to Paris, where she was analyzed by budding racial anthropologists. She died in 1815. Her brain, skeleton and sexual organs remained on display at the Musée de l’Humanité in Paris until 1974. In 2002, her remains were repatriated and buried in South Africa.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries something was happening on both sides of the Atlantic. There were “re-enactments” of life in the colonies. Visitors were given a glimpse of “primitive” life.
The German Karl Hagenbeck, a wildlife trader, popularized the business. He exhibited Samoans, Sami (Lapps) and Nubians from the Egyptian Sudan. It was a tremendously successful show in Europe.
In Paris, between 1877 and 1912, 30 “ethnological exhibitions” were presented. They exhibited human beings brought from the colonies. Even 11 natives of the Selknam or Oma people, from Chile, were brought to be exhibited. The Patagonian Tehuelche Indians were forced to “perform” daily between 1878 and 1900. The legendary “Buffalo Bill” Cody organized traveling shows. His Wild West shows were another example of racial stereotyping.
The “differences” between the “primitive” and the “civilized” were emphasized. It happened in Hamburg, Copenhagen, Barcelona, Milan, Warsaw, etc. In 1906, the New York Zoological Society had the Congolese pygmy Ota Benga exhibited. It put him in the New York Bronx Zoo along with apes and other animals. It labeled him “The Missing Link.” They wanted to illustrate that, in evolutionary terms, Africans were closer to apes. Soon after, Ota Benga committed suicide by shooting himself in the heart.
An estimated 35,000 people were exhibited. Most were paid: they were spectacles, public entertainment. But there were always bars to reinforce inequality.
The infamous human zoos finally closed. The last one to close was the one in Belgium, in 1958. But their contribution to today’s racism was already quite widespread.