10 things to know about the horror of human zoos, horror exhibits

Humanity is capable of composing magnificent symphonies, of writing vibrant texts, of building breathtaking monuments and also of the worst horrors imaginable. Among the most gruesome things mankind has created are human zoos, a monstrous concept of “exposing” people who have been taken from their native lands for the entertainment of others. A subject that is not necessarily easy to tackle, but that we still suggest you discuss.

1. A concept as old as antiquity

If we go back in history we can find the first traces of human exhibitions in Antiquity. Navigators, explorers, merchants or travelers bring captives of other nationalities back to their lands to show them to a public who rarely leaves their own region. The Greeks expose slaves and prisoners coming from other countries and with different physical features, but this is also the case of the Egyptians who do it with people brought back from Sudan.

2. People stolen by explorers

This type of exhibition is spreading in several regions of the world in several forms: in Mexico, for example in Moctezuma, a human zoo opens its doors and presents people with dwarfism, albinism or who have physical malformations such as hunchbacks. Some exhibit both humans and exotic animals brought from various parts of the world and the concept quickly takes off.

3. From exhibition to show for the elite of the population

In Europe this business is quickly flourishing and reserved for the elites by being presented in the courts. Christopher Columbus, for example, presents Amerindians to the King of Spain, but the phenomenon is not isolated, in France, Germany or Denmark the same kind of exhibitions take place. As the “staging” evolves, a setting is placed around these poor people to simulate their way of life in an extremely caricatural way.

4. Growing popularization

In the 19th century the concept is no longer reserved for the elite but is aimed at the general public. Circuses and fairs are diversifying and working more and more on their decorations by selling a “trip” to distant lands for a small price. European colonialism helps to import people and exhibitions with increasingly important scenographies become a flourishing business.

10 things to know about the horror of human zoos, horror exhibits
Photo credits (Public Domain): Unknown (maybe O. Hacquart, photographer editor, according to this other version and other photos from the same collection at the Departmental Archives of the Somme).

5. Incredible success in France

As the concept is more and more important in France, people from all over the world are exhibited: Sudan, Congo, Madagascar, Morocco, Indochina… As many countries as people who have not asked for anything and find themselves exposed in front of a noisy audience as they were taken from their native land. These colonial exhibitions recreate “native villages” where people are costumed and forced to parade for several hours a day in front of laughter and racist mockery from the public.

6. Atrocious living conditions

Many scandals have already erupted over the immoral nature of the practice but also over the living conditions of those exposed. Many died of cold, caught diseases and were not cared for, slept in unsanitary places on the ground or piled up, were undernourished or malnourished… Some bodies were even buried directly on the exhibition grounds. It’s absolutely atrocious, yes.

7. The progressive disinterest of the public of the 20th century

Until the 1930s the public continued to visit exhibitions and frequented human zoos in large numbers. But the arrival of the cinema quickly lost interest in this horrible concept and the end of colonialism precipitated the closure of several sites. By the middle of the 20th century the vast majority had closed and only a few exhibitions remained around the world which in turn closed during the second half of the century.

8. “The village of Bamboula”, the last human zoo in France

In 1994, near Nantes, the human zoo “Le village de Bamboula” was opened. Yes, in 1994. It’s the brand of cookies Saint Michel and his cookies Bamboula who sponsor the creation of the park. At the base, one can see exotic animals like lions and giraffes there, then it is decided to create an Ivorian village there with clay houses and to simulate life there in Côte d’Ivoire (in a way completely caricatural and racist that goes without saying).

9. People trapped in the park

Quickly it is necessary to “populate the village” and we install there women, men and children who dance, make music or manufacture tools. But the living conditions denounced by musicians who work in the park quickly bring in unions and associations which realize that many abuses are taking place (beyond the openly racist concept of the project).

The “inhabitants” of the village see their passports confiscated, they are forced to live in the park in small houses, the children are separated from their parents, the inhabitants are treated by veterinarians, they have no social protection and receive less than a third of the minimum wage, sleep in appalling conditions and several cases of abuse and sexual assault take place.

10. Closure of the park

A long battle between the managers of the park and a collective called “No to the human reserve” breaks out, and after several months the collective manages to take the case to court. The park was condemned in 1997 for several violations of labor law and finally it was the non-respect of workers’ rights that disturbed more than the immorality itself of a human zoo. The park was then transformed to become “Wild Planet”, a traditional zoo still open today.

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