14th October 2020 LSESU International Development Society

A Neglected Series of Human Rights Violations in our Modern History Textbooks: Human Zoos

Yiwen Zhang


Our history textbooks frequently shed light on the positive, vibrant aspects of European and American popular culture in the 19th to 20th century, with a particular emphasis on film, fashion, theatre, literature, and music. However, Western school curriculums and media continually fail to address the horrific realities their ancestors are guilty of, cherry-picking only the progressive elements of Western modern history.

Human zoos otherwise referred to as ‘ethnological expositions’, epitomize an inarguable violation of human rights in black history; black and indigenous human beings were kidnapped from their lands, locked up in cages, and placed on display often with animals for enormous crowds in European countries like the UK, Germany, and France, as well as American states like New York, for millions of white people – friends and families – to enjoy. These human beings were viewed as ‘savages’ who existed in a ‘primitive’ state and were devalued to a mere source of public entertainment for white people. Whilst slavery had been abolished in 1833 under the Slavery Abolition Act, it is more than apparent that the objectification and dehumanization of black people continued to perpetuate in the eyes and activities of the Western world well beyond the early 19th century.


How did human zoos become popularised?

In the 1870s, Carl Hagenbeck, a German wild animal merchant and business operator of multiple zoos in Europe in the 19thcentury served as a key figure in popularising the emergence of this deeply racist and horrifying human exhibition chain in Europe. After being faced with rising costs of acquiring and maintaining animals, Hagenbeck searched for alternative methods to alleviate the financial strains endured by his company. Upon suggestion from his friend Heinrich Leutemann, who proposed that humans from foreign lands were to be seized to accompany the animals on display, Hagenbeck ordered a group of Sami and Samoan individuals from Lapland to complement his shipment of reindeer; these indigenous people, derogatorily known as ‘Laplanders’, were showcased at an exhibition in his Hamburg Tierpark in 1874, sparking the rise and popularisation of human zoos.

Whilst Hagenbeck’s shows did not constitute the first historical event in which foreigners were captured for display – which can be traced back to the Ancient Romans – he has undoubtedly boasted about his first shows parading ‘cultures’ from foreign lands. Thus, in an era prior to mass technological innovation and globalization, such inhumane exhibitions were excused as a way for white people to ‘learn about the culture’ of black and indigenous populations. White Europeans and Americans observed behind barriers, whilst these indigenous individuals apparently carried on with their lives in an unnatural, inhumane and enclosed environment, equivalent to zoo enclosures for animals.

Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II meeting Ethiopians standing behind a wooden fence in Hamburg, Germany (1909

Some example exhibitions of black people

In 1876, Hagenbeck directed an associate to the Egyptian Sudan in pursuit of bringing back both wild beasts and Nubians as European collections to be on public exhibition. This exhibition served as a huge ‘success’ in Paris, London, and Berlin. The 1878 and 1889 Parisian World’s Fair presented a ‘Negro Village’; the 1889 World’s Fair showcased 400 indigenous people, attracting 28 million visitors, unveiling the extent of support towards human zoos harvested in the West.

Ota Benga, a member of the Baschelel tribe in the Belgian Congo served as a notable victim of human zoos, having been on display at the 1904 World Fair in St. Louis in the US. As a pygmy captured by Samuel Phillips Verna, a Presbyterian minister from South Carolina who originally tried to kill him, Verna conceptualized Benga as the ideal image of a ‘savage’: dark skin, short stature, and teeth filed down into spikes. Thus, Benga was put on display with several other pygmies, and forced to reside in makeshift village huts. As a result of tips paid to pygmies by visitors at the World’s Fair, pygmies spent earnings on Western habits like smoking cigars and wearing stylish top hats. However, such substances and objects were confiscated by white organizers, due to its direct paradox with the notion that these individuals were ‘primitive natives’ incapable of appreciating other cultures.


Benga, who gained significant recognition for being good with animals was further profited off by Bronx Zoo director William Temple Hornaday in New York City; here, he was placed in his own exhibition in a monkey cage, receiving countless sneers from visitors on a daily basis. Isolating Benga in a cage with an ape epitomizes the total defilement of basic human rights, highlighting the cruel, inhumane manner in which black people were treated.

Ota Benga at the Bronx Zoo in 1906

Shockingly, human zoos were still in operation around 60 years ago – the final human zoo exhibition was not until 1958: The World’s Fair in Brussels which comprised of a Congolese village. This culminated in the tragic death of a number of black people during the show, who were buried in a large, unmarked grave, a further exemplification of the absence of empathy and consideration of black lives, and the dehumanizing nature of human zoos. Fortunately, the popularity of human zoos had overall faded by then, and the majority of human zoos were condemned and banned; the Brussels World’s Fair had served as a historical outlier.

Brussels World Fair (1958) 

Key Implications

Ultimately, it is shocking that a horrific series of events attracting millions of people, embodying a rampant form of entertainment in the 19th and 20th centuries, has been fully neglected in our curriculum. White Europeans’ cruel treatment of black people, in particular, has been downplayed and ignored in our history textbooks.

Upon reflection, Hagenbeck writes in his memoirs: ‘it was my privilege to be the first in the civilized world to present these shows of different races’. His statement only fortifies the existence of white privilege; even after the abolishment of slavery in 1833, white people have continued to unethically and cruelly profit off the mere existence of black people. Referring to the West as the ‘civilized’ world only reinforces the white supremacist sentiment that white people are intrinsically superior; considering that this alleged ‘civility’ comes as a product of centuries of slavery, colonialism, imperialism, and the dehumanization of black people as zoo exhibitions, his statement must be re-evaluated.

With the present-day rising level of controversy surrounding the morality of zoo enclosures for animals, it is difficult to comprehend that just six decades ago, human beings were locked in cages, shut behind barriers, and placed on display, to be sneered upon by millions of people. Nonetheless, this mirrors the fast-paced nature of change in modern societal perceptions; this provides a glimmer of hope that the systemic racism that remains rooted in today’s society could be defeated sooner, rather than later.