Savages on Arte: the horror of human zoos told in a shocking documentary – Actus…

Do not miss this April 5 on Arte the documentary “Savages, in the heart of human zoos”. A terrible and painful dive into the past where human beings torn from their native land were exhibited for the joy of an audience in search of exoticism.

Their names are Petite Capeline, Tambo, Moliko, Ota Benga, Marius Kaloïe and Jean Thiam. Fuegian from Patagonia, Aborigine from Australia, Kali’na from Guyana, Pygmy from Congo, Kanak from New Caledonia, these six, like 35,000 others between 1810 and 1940, were torn from their distant land to respond to the curiosity of a public in search of exoticism, in the great Western metropolises.

Presented as fairground monsters, even as cannibals, exhibited in veritable human zoos, they were a source of distraction for more than one and a half billion Europeans and Americans, who came to discover them with their families at the circus or in reconstituted native villages, during the great universal and colonial exhibitions…

From “barbarian” to “savage”

“Barbarism is first of all the man who believes in barbarism” wrote the great French anthropologist and ethnologist Claude Levi-Strauss in his famous book Race and Historypublished in 1952. This quote, placed at the very beginning of the documentary Sauvages, at the heart of human zoos, constitutes the anchor point and the common thread of the film directed by Pascal Blanchard and Bruno Victor-Pujebet.

It is important to place this quote in context. The starting point of Lévi-Strauss’ reflection was the radical refutation of the thesis developed by Arthur de Gobineaufamous for his book The Essay on the Inequality of Human Races, which will have a considerable impact on racialist theories in the 19th and 20th centuries.

In this work published in 1853, he postulated the existence of three primitive races (white, yellow and black), whose interbreeding led to the decadence of the human species. In this essay, the white race was granted “the monopoly of beauty, intelligence and strength”.

For Claude Lévi-Strauss, the diversity of cultures was never assimilated as a natural phenomenon, but more as a monstrosity. He was pointing out the evolution that took place when Western civilization substituted the term “barbarian” for “savage”; the other different cultural forms being in this logic viscerally rejected and systematically placed in a situation of inferiority.

From scientific racism to popular racism

“Human zoos are the transition from scientific racism to popular racism” explains historian Pascal Blanchard, specialist in the French colonial empire and the history of immigration, and co-author of the documentary.

We thus remember with horror this terrible opening sequence of the film Vénus noire by Abdellatif Kechiche, which evoked the authentic and tragic story of Saartjie Baartman, a Khoisan woman originally from South Africa, exhibited in Europe at the beginning of the 19th century. century for her wide posterior, where she was known by the nickname “Hottentot Venus”.

In an amphitheater, the famous French naturalist, Georges Cuvier, showed the genitals of a woman he had just extracted, before releasing a little further: “I have never seen a human head more ape-like.” An audience of distinguished colleagues applauded the demonstration. It was in 1817.

His story, often taken as an example, is revealing of the way in which Europeans at the time considered those they designated as belonging to “inferior races”. The skeleton and cast of the body of the unfortunate woman will thus be exhibited until 1976 at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris, and it will be necessary to wait until 2002 for her remains to be returned to South Africa, the land of her ancestors.

Savages on arte: the horror of human zoos told in a shocking documentary - actus...
ACHAC Research Group

The phenomenon of human zoos was really born in the years 1870-1880. “These human beings fascinate, because they are represented as wild. Presented as abnormal, as having deformities, or having particular mores, like cannibals. Fascination is fundamental to explain the success of these human zoos” comments Sandrine Lemaire, historian and contributor to the documentary.

Influenced by the American PT Barnum, the famous organizer of several “ethnological” shows and exhibitions of phenomena, men like the German Carl Hagenbeck (1844-1913) made a fortune by organizing these shows in Europe, including London, that time, the world capital of human zoos.

In 1906, Hagenbeck’s fortune was such that it enabled him to finance from his own funds the construction of a gigantic zoo in Hamburg, which still exists to this day. PT Barnum meanwhile will continue to regularly import populations deemed sufficiently exotic, as in 1883 when he brought a whole group of aborigines from Australia, who at that time were, according to the official terminology, “wildlife and flora”…

Human zoos, a tool for asserting colonial power

These human zoos will play a very important role in asserting the colonial power of France and Great Britain. It was necessary to make known to others, to public opinion, this imperial power. These human zoos thus constituted for the Authorities the opportunity to make the imperial conquests “live” for all those who could not travel. The Jardin d’Acclimatation in Paris will be one of the high places of reception for all these unhappy men and women from the end of the world and the confines of the empire.

They will then be further staged, during the infamous colonial exhibitions. The Universal Exhibition of Paris in 1900 will attract more than 50 million visitors, who will rush to discover the 80,000 exhibitors, with obligatory detours by the reconstituted African village and populated by “cannibals”…

Beyond the case of PT Barnum, the United States, at the end of the 19th – beginning of the 20th century, did not want to remain on the periphery of the European colonial empires. They too aspired to extend their influence, and founded a colonial empire by taking the island of Cuba from Spain in 1898, then the Philippines. In 1904, at the gigantic international exhibition held in Saint Louis, Missouri, the United States will bring 1000 Philippine Igorots. Never seen. During this exhibition, the famous Apache chief Geronimo will also be exhibited, in a tepee…

Savages on arte: the horror of human zoos told in a shocking documentary - actus...
ACHAC Research Group

But what the scientific community and the population of the time liked most were the pygmies of the Congo, who were considered to be part of the least civilized ethnic group on the planet. The Department of Anthropological Studies at the University of Saint Louis thus commissioned a famous former missionary turned explorer, Samuel Philipps Verner, to capture a few specimens and place them in an enclosure during this exhibition. After obviously passing through the hands of scientists, who rush to take all possible anthropometric measurements on them.

The case of the pygmy Ota Benga, exposed in the documentary, carries an emotional charge to split the stones in two. After being exhibited for ten years in the United States in various international, cultural or scientific events, but also in ethnographic shows or human zoos, and even for a month in the Bronx Zoo, in New York, he regained his freedom in September 1906, thanks to a public protest campaign, indignant to see him reduced to a zoo enclosure.

Freed, he is housed in orphanages, where he learns English. He even found a small job in a tobacco factory in Lynchburg, Virginia. Free, yes, but deeply unhappy. The only survivor of his clan, he understands that he will never be able to assimilate and flourish within this American population; even less return one day to his country of origin. On the morning of March 20, 1916, shortly after leaving his house, he shot himself in the heart with a pistol he had borrowed. He was buried two days later in Lynchburg Public Cemetery, in an unmarked grave.

A changing look

The beginning of the decline of human zoos will begin – and the gaze on them – with the First World War: the colonial peoples will be an important supplier of troops in the war. Indochinese fighters, Senegalese or Moroccan skirmishers, all are sent into the cauldron of a Europe on fire and blood. The French General Charles Mangin was also convinced of the value of the Senegalese troops. He found them not only enduring in combat, but in addition, they scared the Germans, he said. The Germans were now the new savages.

In the 1920s, the public got tired of these exhibitions and the public authorities wanted to renew their form, while the rise of cinema, even more when it became meaningful, now captured the attention of a population longing for exoticism. Inequalities, stereotypes and racism will now (but not only) be fixed on film. Human zoos were eventually banned by the colonial administration in the interwar period: Hubert Lyautey will impose the end of any exhibition of a racial nature within the framework of the International Colonial Exhibition in Paris in 1931.

This did not prevent, from time to time, the holding here and there of these infamous exhibitions, until the 1950s. from the village of Bamboula, in a relative indifference and amnesia of the society of the time, and with the blessing of the public authorities…


For a remains of Saartjie Baartman returned with honors to his native land, how many remains of these unfortunate and unfortunate exhibited, dissected in the name of science, still sleep in the archives of museums around the world, waiting for their countries to origin claim their remains? Hundreds, sure. Maybe more. Terrible and painful testimonies of unspeakable suffering, of which it belongs to the new generations “to bring this story out of oblivion to soothe the memories”, releases this exceptional and moving documentary as an epilogue.

“Wild, in the heart of human zoos”, broadcast this Tuesday, April 5 at 8:55 p.m.

Available in replay on Arte TV until June 3, 2022.

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