Black people in the zoo


Seventy-five years ago, in 1936 closed down the last of the zoo houses in Europe – notably in Turin, and one year before that the penultimate one in Basel – where black people were presented to visitors.

Black people from Somalia in the zoo of Basel, 1930

Black people – and sometimes American natives – were brought since the 16th century by the explorers from the new continents to Europe where they belonged, together with exotic creatures, monkeys, lamas, parrots, to the spectacles of princely courts. The 1870s onwards when, with the emancipation of the bourgeoise, museums of natural history and zoos were opened across Europe as intellectual heirs of the princely cabinets de curiosités, it was considered self-evident that the presentation of exotic fauna also includes black people. At the turn of the century already the zoos in fifteen European cities – including London, Berlin, Basel, Antwerp, and even the Russian Warsaw – offered this attraction. The inhabitants of the African colonies were first exposed in cages, and later in “ethnographic villages” where whole families lived their “traditional form of life” before the eyes of white visitors.



However, the traditional African way of life was not invented for the European winter. According to the data of the Hamburg zoo, only between 1908 and 1912 twenty-seven black people died here during the exposition.

Emperor Wilhelm II. visits the black people in the zoo of Hamburg, 1909

Our reader Helga drew our attention to the fact that during the celebrations of the millennium of the foundation of Hungary (1896) black people were also presented in the zoo of Budapest, namely two hundred and fifty persons. An essay in urbanlegends.hu reports, on the basis of an 1896 edition of Vasárnapi Újság and the ethnographic exhibition The other (2008) that the travel of the black people from Accra was organized by an agent in Lyon, a former French naval officer, who since 1893 had regularly organized similar groups for the world’s fairs in Chicago, Lyon and Bordeaux.

In the same site, an article by Zolán Hanga explores in detail the historical background of the human installations in the zoos. It was Carl Hagenbeck, the major supplier of European zoos who in 1874 brought thirty reindeers from Lappland, and he hired Sami herdsmen to take care of the animals on the way. And once they came, they also brought their tents and equipment, and presented them in the form of a traveling live exhibition across the zoos of Europe. The success was overwhelming, and since then the Hagenbecks included in their portfolio the transport and presentation of exotic people for a long time. When they finally turned to circus productions, other companies took over the industry of human exhibitions.














Although black people were no rarity in the United States, even there were zoos which set on exposition indigenous people coming from Africa, mainly Pygmies whom many contemporary Darwinians considered as a “paleolithic” state of human evolution. Ota Benga, whose village was massacred by the Force Publique of Belgian Congo, was found and brought to the USA by an American missionary to the World’s Fair of St. Louis in 1904. After the exhibition, in 1906 he was brought over to the Bronx Zoo, where he regularly featured in the monkey house in company of an orangutan called Dohong. On the protest of the local Christian churches who considered it humiliating to expose a human person together with animals, the following article was published in the New York Times:

“We do not quite understand all the emotion which others are expressing in the matter… It is absurd to make moan over the imagined humiliation and degradation Benga is suffering. The pygmies… are very low in the human scale, and the suggestion that Benga should be in a school instead of a cage ignores the high probability that school would be a place… from which he could draw no advantage whatever. The idea that men are all much alike except as they have had or lacked opportunities for getting an education out of books is now far out of date.”

Benga committed ritual suicide in 1916, at the age of 32, when with America’s entry to World War I he lost all his hopes to ever be returned to his homeland.


Zoos occasionally exposed the representatives of other “primitive peoples” as well, such as Polynesians, Canadian Inuits, American natives, the indigenous people of Dutch Suriname (on the 1883 World’s Fair of Amsterdam) or Patagonian natives (in Dresden). Moreover, in 1920 the “ethnographic village” of Königsberg also exposed peasants from the Baltic region as representatives of the Baltic Prussians, killed out in the Middle Ages by the Teutonic Order, who performed ancient pagan rites in the presence of the visitors.





Just after the publication of this post we have discovered that the Ptak Science Books blog has also written about the Patagonian natives and the black people of Nubia on exposition in the zoo of Dresden, also publishing their engraved picture from the 1877 and 1879 edition of the Illustrierte Zeitung:



The man-cages of European zoos closed down mostly in the late twenties, partly due to the ideas of the equality of peoples propagated by the League of Nations, and partly because of prosaic reasons: after the great depression the attendance of zoos drastically declined, and now even the provision of the animals met with difficulty. However, black people were occasionally exhibited even decades later, such as on the 1958 World’s Fair in Belgium. Here a whole village was presented together with the inhabitants from Belgian Congo, where the Belgian colonial army only one generation earlier massacred half of the population, ten million people.



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Update: In a comment to the Hungarian version Flora has called the attention to the New Caledonian football player Christian Karembeu who, when playing in the French national team, refused to sing the French hymn, because on the World’s Fair of 1931 one (or, in other sourcers, two) of his grand-uncles was/were exposed in the same way. The French Wikipedia also has the respective photo, which we include here.