Believe it or not, people in France, Belgium, Germany and even the U.S. used to keep human beings in cages, usually with animals, for exhibition in local zoos. Spectators wanted a taste of the exotic settings of dark skinned humans in ‘native’ clothing interacting with wild animals.
Hundreds of thousands of white visitors would come and view minorities who were on display like animals all around Europe and eventually the U.S. These humans zoos were very popular and 18 million people came to visit them at the World Fair in 1889, which was held in Paris. At this exhibit, more than 400 Aboriginals and Africans were displayed in front of a large crowed of people. They were paraded around half-naked in cages.
Humans zoos were most popular in Europe during the late 1800s until the mid 1900s. North America got into the human zoo business a little later, in the early 1900s.
The pygmy exhibit at the Bronx Zoo, for instance, was very popular for its exclusive exhibit with a Congolese man named Ota Benga (see the photo of him holding a monkey). He was a Mbuti pygmy known for being featured in an anthropology exhibit at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, Missouri in 1904.
In a controversial human zoo exhibit in 1906 at the Bronx Zoo, Benga was thrown into cages with other animals, forced to carry apes and even wrestle with an orangutan. When he wasn’t with the animals, he would weave twine and shoot things with a bow and arrow.
There was outrage from black clergymen about how Benga was treated as well as the rest of the Africans in the zoo. The pygmies, including Ota, were also forced to dance for visitors. Even though Benga was free to do as he pleases before and after the exhibit work, he became very depressed, even after his release when he could not return to Africa. He committed suicide at the age of 32.
The women chosen for these exhibits were even more scantily dressed than Benga — they were naked for the most part. In fact, they were usually chosen for their “unusual” curves and large bottoms. However, the New York Times reported at the time, “few expressed audible objection to the sight of a human being in a cage with monkeys as companions.”
It was true that few people were offended by the human zoos in the 1900s, but now when the public finds out about the history of these human zoos they are shocked, even in disbelief, at the dehumanizing racism of the practice.
Human zoos started to lose business in Europe after the Second World War. Ironically, Adolf Hitler was the one to ban them in Germany. The last human exhibition was held in Belgium circa 1958.