The Human Zoo

For hundreds of years in Europe and America, “exotic” human beings were exhibited like animals. One of the most famous examples was Sarah Baartman of South Africa, who toured throughout England and France, kept captive by her promoters. She was subject to nude performances and examinations by doctors looking to further their agenda of scientific racism, her curvy body proof of “sexual primitivism.” Living exhibitions such as Baartman could be seen in freak shows, World’s Fairs, and even actual zoos. A Congolese man named Ota Benga lived in the Bronx Zoo with the chimpanzees and orangutans and was labelled “The Missing Link.” But human zoos, like the one at the Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale, became common during a surge of imperialism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

In 1899 the French government allotted three hectares of land just outside Paris in Nogent-sur-Marne to become the Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale, an experimental botanical garden that aimed to find new methods to grow colonial crops such as coffee, vanilla, cacao, and banana. In 1907 the grounds were transformed into a colonial exposition, a fair of sorts which featured themed pavilions of France’s major colonial holdings as well as five “living villages:” Indochinese, Madagascan, Congolese, a Sudanese farm, and a Tuareg encampment. Men, women and children were imported to the park to live behind fencing, under constant observation, in what can only be called a human zoo. The 1907 Nogent-sur-Marne colonial exposition was open from May to October and in that time, it received two and a half million visitors.

What, fundamentally, is colonization? To agree on what it is not: neither evangelization, nor a philanthropic enterprise, nor a desire to push back the frontiers of ignorance, disease, and tyranny, nor a project undertaken for the greater glory of God, nor an attempt to extend the rule of law. To admit once and for all, without flinching at the consequences, that the decisive actors here are the adventurer and the pirate, the wholesale grocer and the ship owner, the gold digger and the merchant, appetite and force.

The quote, from Aime Cesaire’s Discourse on Colonialism, contradicts all that the colonial exposition purported to represent. Each pavilion was in the colonized country’s architectural style, and inside they showcased various natural resources being harvested by the French; in the Guyanese pavilion, there were precious woods, tanned bark, and a maquette of the extraction of gold. The attitude at the time was that unless the Europeans stepped in, the resources were going to waste, the country’s inhabitants unaware and ungrateful for what the earth had given them. The straw-roofed villages with semi-nude women and men doing warrior dances reinforced visitors’ ideas of European benevolence—the French were bringing “civilization” to the primitive people.

But besides the colonies’ wealth of resources, and the excuse of the white man’s burden, there was another sinister justification for France’s presence across the globe, articulated here in Carl Siger’s Essai sur la colonisation, published in Paris, 1907, the same year as the Nogent human zoo:

The new countries offer a vast field for individual, violent activities which, in the metropolitan countries, would run up against certain prejudices, against a sober and orderly conception of life, and which, in the colonies, have greater freedom to develop and, consequently, to affirm their worth. Thus to a certain extent the colonies can serve as a safety valve for modern society. Even if this were their only value, it would be immense.

To put Siger in plainer speech, brutish French men could go to the colonies to purge their violent urges without consequence to them or to French society.

Now the remains of Nogent’s spectacularly popular colonial exposition deteriorate behind overgrown bamboo and other tropical flora that are slowly, gently, pushing through windows and cracks to finally finish the destruction of the pavilions. The buildings are fenced off to keep the sparse visitors away from danger, although there are traces of squatters in a few of them. There are educational signs that gloss over the human zoo and highlight the park’s next function as a colonial military hospital during World War I. Over 72,000 colonial combatants died during the Great War, and the survivors convalesced—separate from their French fellow soldiers—in the pavilions. Memorials to the fallen soldiers were placed at the site of their country’s former “village.” Eventually, the Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale went back to its roots of an agricultural research facility and was renamed after Rene Dumont, a sociologist disgusted with colonization and an agronomic engineer, who is credited with coining the term “sustainable development.” The agricultural research was again short-lived and again the park became deserted. The Indochina pavilion was renovated and was supposed to re-open in 2011 as an arts and education facility, but it has not happened as of 2017.

The pavilions crumble, but not fast enough to brush their remains under the rug. Like many monuments and statues throughout the former imperialist powers, they are physical reminders of barbarism that a modern country would rather forget. But to forget is to risk repeating mistakes already made. There must be a way to remember and educate without honoring a dehumanizing past. Aime Cesaire on what was lost and should be remembered:

I am talking about societies drained of their essence, cultures trampled underfoot, institutions undermined, lands confiscated, religions smashed, magnificent artistic creations destroyed, extraordinary possibilities wiped out…
I am talking about millions of men torn from their gods, their land, their habits, their life—from life, from the dance, from wisdom.