The Human Zoo

In 1883, after ten years of brewing beer, Heineken was awarded the diplôme d’honneur at the colonial exhibition. To this very day, the brewery uses the label on its beer bottles. The ‘Internationale Koloniale en Uitvoerhandel Tentoonstelling’ or ‘Exposition Universelle Coloniale et d’Exportation Générale’ (International Colonial and Export Exhibition) was held in Amsterdam. The event lasted from May to October and drew over a million visitors. It was the first exhibition of its kind, with twenty-eight different nations presenting pavilions of colonial trade and wealth. The idea had been put to the city authorities by the French entrepreneur Édouard Agostini. Amsterdam had something unique to offer: a profitable colonial empire which for many had a dream-like fascination.

At the 1878 World Exhibition in Paris the art treasures of the Dutch East Indies had been at the centre of the attention. The organizers decided to focus on colonial trade, and ignore industrial activity. To the city of Amsterdam the exhibition meant a milestone in its recent history, marking a remarkable socio-economic and cultural revival. Location of the exhibition was at what is now known as Museumplein (Museum Square), then an area of unused land behind the Rijskmuseum which was still under construction. Economically, the exhibition was an overwhelming success. A number of hotels were expanded or newly built in order to profit from the large number of visitors, including Americain, the Doelen, and Krasnapolsky, all of them nowadays iconic landmarks in the city. The rebuilding of the Krasnapolsky which included the glass-roofed Wintertuin (winter garden) lounge and electric lightning was a real tourist attraction. The front gate to the Vondelpark is a present-day reminder of the 1883 exhibition.

The main building was designed by French architect Paul Fouquiau in a ‘Moorish’ style. In front of the Dutch pavilion stood on one side a statue of Jan Pieterszoon Coen who, as Governor-General, had played a forceful part in the submission of the Indonesian archipelago, and on the other an Atjeh monument. At the colonial pavilion visitors passed through a tobacco shed, a Javanese compound with a pagoda, the crossed a bridge made of bamboo, and they could touch a nutmeg tree. In the concert-room they listened to native music. There was a Javanese village (kampung) which was inhabited by real ‘natives’. Surinam was represented as well. When the Dutch arrived there in 1581, the country was inhabited by many distinct indigenous groups. The colonial conflicts with the English were settled in 1667 when present-day Surinam was acquired from the English, in the exchange for what is now New York City. Dutch control of the Guiana coast caused the indigenous groups to retreat into the interior to avoid extinction. Colonial policy included practices like transporting a selection of indigenous people of Suriname to the 1883 International Colonial and Export Exhibition in Amsterdam and displaying them in human zoos.

From a cultural point of view, these exhibitions made considerable impact and brought a renewed impulse towards cosmopolitanism. The 1889 Paris Universal Exposition, for example, also presented a model kampong which demonstrated all aspects of communal village life from agricultural practices to religion and entertainment. Javanese gamelan music created a sensation among European musicians. Here was a sophisticated and powerful music that was totally outside the western interpretation of what this art should entail. Claude Debussy, then a young composer at the beginning of an illustrious career, was completely bowled over when he first experienced the tonality of a gamelan orchestra. Scientifically, however, the colonial approach was uncanny. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, scientists were so fascinated by race that thousands of indigenous people from all over the world were put on display in human zoos in pseudo-scientific demonstrations of ‘racial difference’. Human zoos – also called negro villages or villages nègres (both the 1878 and the 1889 Parisian World Fairs presented a ‘village nègre’) – were public exhibits of humans in a ‘natural’ or primitive state.

The displays emphasized the cultural differences between European and non-European peoples. Africans, Asians, indigenous people were caged and displayed in a makeshift natural habitat. These human displays were hugely popular and attracted large crowds at various exhibitions. Human zoos were steeped in racism and superiority feelings. The exhibits were perceived as the races that had been left behind in the evolution of man. Following the 1898 Spanish-American War, the United States acquired the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico. At the 1904 St Louis World’s Fair, the organizers exhibited tribal cultures from the Philippines and other territories in what they considered a ‘parade’ of evolutionary progress. The Philippine exhibit was massive and showcased full-size replicas of indigenous living quarters erected to visualize the inherent backwardness of the Philippine people. The purpose was to highlight the ‘civilizing’ influence of American rule.

The exhibition of people became a more cruel practice once the idea of the human zoo was taken up as a form of entertainment. George Burcher Gale, for example, former officer in the Royal Navy, was originally a minor London actor of small parts in minor theatres. In 1831 he toured America. On his return, he brought back six Native Americans with their chief, Ma Caust. They were exhibited at the London Victoria Theatre until their popularity declined. One can only guess what happened to them afterwards. Gale himself ended his career as a balloonist making over a hundred, often spectacular (night ascents with firework), flights in his lifetime. He was an alcoholic balloonist for that matter. His final flight, made seated on a horse standing on an open platform, was successfully completed. However, bystanders inadvertently let go of the balloon restraining lines after the horse was released. As the balloon started to rise, Gale held onto the guide rope and eventually fell to his death. According to reports he had been drinking.

Human zoos had been preceded by and ran parallel with freak shows. The exhibition of medical freaks and monstrosities was an essential component of travelling exhibitions in Europe. The most popular attractions were oddities with special talents, who could do supposedly normal things despite their disabilities. Printed collections of curious and abnormal medical cases were popular and sold well. Stephano Polito was born at Moltrasio on Lake Como in Italy. He changed his forename to Stephen on becoming a naturalized Englishman. In his early career Polito specialized in the exhibition of ‘exotic’ human beings. At the 1790 Bartholomew Fair he showed ‘three most wonderful Wild-Born Human Beings … found in a remote valley, adjoining the Alps’. These ‘monstrous craws’, as they were called by showmen, were in fact people afflicted with goitre or the swelling of the thyroid gland which causes a lump to develop in the throat. The lump will move up and down when swallowing. The illness formed the basis of several similar other exhibitions at the time. Freak shows, however, are not identical to human zoos. The freak show on the whole displayed unfortunate people from our own culture, they were ‘monsters’ – but European monsters. The human zoo introduced a new and sensational aspect to the curious mind, that of barbarity. This interest in indigenous races had a history at least as long as colonialism, ever since Columbus brought indigenous Americans from his voyages in the New World to the Spanish court. During the Renaissance, the Medici family developed a famous menagerie in the Vatican. In the sixteenth century, Cardinal Hippolytus Medici had a collection of people of different races as well as exotic animals. He is reported as having a troup of so-called Barbarians, speaking over twenty languages; there were also Moors, Tartars, Indians, Turks and Africans in his collection.

The word barbarian dates back to ancient Greece when it was used to refer to less civilized peoples. In his Politico, Aristotle suggested a dichotomy of Greeks and non-Greeks. The latter, named the ‘barbaroi’, were those who lived outside the polis. They lacked culture and government as they were ruled by passions and instincts. The word was applied in a similar manner by authors of Roman times. After the discovery of the New World the term was gradually replaced by that of savage. In English, the word savage appears around 1300 and was derived from the French term ‘sauvage’, meaning wild, undomesticated, or untamed (of animals and places). The Latin origin is ‘salvaticus’ or inhabitant of the woods. While the ancient use of barbarian had a strictly European context in relation to a higher or lower stage of civilization, the new application of savage was geographical and colonial, pointing to the untamed nature of indigenous peoples of remote continents. In book 18 of L’esprit des lois (1758) Montesquieu would be the first to make the suggestion that culture evolves from the simple to the complex, and that all societies pass through three stages of development: from savagery through barbarism to civilization. Before that, there was a subtle change in interpretation of ‘savage’ life which had considerable implications for the development of European socio-cultural criticism. Diderot’s imaginary supplement to the voyage of Bougainville has been interpreted as a utopian text. Inspired by the latter’s idyllic depiction of Thahiti as an earthly paradise, Diderot stressed the seductive virtues of simple island life. His sexually uninhibited Tahitians represent the pure natural life free of the constraints of modern civilization. Their contentment contrasts with European corruption. This reading makes the author an ally of Rousseau, singing the praises of natural man and condemning the follies of civilization. Primitivism in philosophical terms is an outlook on human affairs that sees history as a decline from an erstwhile condition of excellence (chronological primitivism) or holds that salvation lies in a return to the simple life (cultural primitivism). The first interpretation suggests that man was better off in earlier day; the second that primitive tribal life offers conditions that are better than those of civilized existence.

There are two contrasting opinions about the natural state of man. One view conceives of primitive life as a golden age of plenty, innocence, and happiness. It is as civilized life should be, but purged of its vices. The other theory projects primitive life as a subhuman existence of struggle and hardship. Civilized life stripped of its virtues. The contrast has been described as ‘soft’ versus ‘hard’ primitivism. The interest in savage life was not just the passion of the anthropologist. The noble savage was, particularly in French literature and philosophy, both an idealized and a polemical figure. The nineteenth century created the ideal of the ‘uomo universale’ in an age of specialism and divisiveness; the eighteenth century projected the free spirit of the noble savage as an antidote for the intolerant absolutism of European religion and politics. In France, the noble savage became an effective weapon in the battle against the ancien régime. The savage had been the victim of European greed and violence. Were many people in European society not suffering a similar fate under various repressive regimes? The construct of the noble savage became an integral part of early European socio-cultural criticism. The distinction between the ‘Noble Savage’ and the ‘Not so Noble Savage’ is also a European projection of theories of the nature of man and the kind of government society needs. It is Hobbes versus Shaftesbury, Joseph de Maîstre versus Rousseau. It is the view of human beings as basically selfish creatures who tend to act on evil impulses and who are in need of strong, controlling government versus Rousseau’s social contract, which is founded on the general will as the political authority. The phrase ‘Noble Savage’ was introduced into English by Dryden in 1672.

In eighteenth-century social thought hunting and gathering societies such as the American Indians or horticulturalists such as the Pacific Islanders have, from opposing angles, been pictured as a complete contrast to European civilization. As a result a double image appeared. On the one hand, these societies were depicted as primitive, stagnant, and cruel. The savage needed to be educated and European intervention was justified and beneficial. On the other hand, there emerged a nostalgic image of the savage living in a natural state, free from the social and sexual restraints of civilization. Savage society preserved what had been lost in the developing process of European civilization. Intervention was fundamentally wrong and colonization had proved to be disastrous. Until the age of imperialism the two images were inseparable in European thought. Who then was this ‘savage’? In the various accounts he may be the North American Indian, the Inca, the Hottentot, the Greenlander, the inhabitant of one of the islands of Polynesia – in short, he was one of those primitive souls who were not European. Rousseau published his second Discourse in 1755. A Hottentot-vignette decorated the title page of his essay. To the author, the Hottentot represents the savage uncontaminated by civilization whose senses surpass those of cultured European. Such imagology made an impact. For a while, the Hottentot was presented as the ‘noble savage’ which intrigued the European mind of the later eighteenth century. Published anonymously in 1787, Franz Heinrich Bispink’s Briefe eines Hottentotten über die gesittete Welt attempts to give a critical assessment of European civilized life from an African perspective. Yet, the image of the ‘ignoble savage’ was never far removed. When looking for a dramatic terminology to describe the pandemonium of the French Revolution, the fictitious Hottentot seemed to fit the bill. In his elegy ‘Das Neue’ (1793), Klopstock coins the phrase ‘a hottentotade for the feast of the sansculottes’ in comparing revolutionary events in France to the imagined savagery of the Hottentot. In Balzac’s La peau de chagrin (1831) the use of the word Hottentot signifies ignorance and stupidity.

The emergence of social Darwinism, and by implication of scientific racism, swept away any notion of the noble savage and led to establishment of human zoos. Exhibitions of exotic populations became common in the 1870s in the midst of the imperialist ambitions and pride. In September 1906 William Hornaday, Director of the New York Bronx Zoo, exhibited a Congolese pygmy Ota Benga in a cage with chimpanzees, and subsequently with Dohong, an orangutan. The scientific purpose was to show the ‘missing link between man (white) and ape. The exhibition triggered protests, but the public loved it. Non-Western life was considered an animal park. The social Darwinist was a human zookeeper.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: