First human zoos

In the Western Hemisphere, one of the earliest-known zoos, that of Moctezuma in Mexico, consisted not only of a vast collection of animals, but also exhibited unusual humans, for example, dwarves, albinos and hunchbacks.

It is said Cortez marveled at Montezuma's zoo, where handmade bronze cages housed jaguars and pumas, and visitors threw food at human exhibits.

During the Renaissance, the Medicis developed a large menagerie in the Vatican. In the 16th 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 "Barbarians", speaking over twenty languages and there were also Moors, Tartars, Indians, Turks and Africans.

As early as 1501, ‘Eskimos’ were being shown in Bristol, and in 1603, native Americans were displayed in their canoes on the Thames. Many of these human exhibits ended up being seen as human curiosities. It was the examples of African humanity, however, that held the greatest fascination for European visitors.

One offshoot of the large-scale trafficking of people across the Atlantic was a constant demand for 'Pygmies', 'Zulus', 'Amazon' warrior-women from Dahomey, albinos and others for display.

African bodies (dead and alive) were always displayed with the understanding that their humanity was questionable, that they were distanced intellectually and morally from all other population groups. These notions had some of their roots in the earliest European misconceptions about African people. For instance, the first maps of Africa were decorated with images of tailed half-men and even wilder headless creatures with eyes and mouths in their chests

One of the first modern human exhibitions was P.T. Barnum's exhibition of Joice Heth on February 25, 1835 and, subsequently, the Siamese twins Chang and Eng Bunker. These exhibitions were common in freak shows. However, the notion of the human curiosity has a history at least as long as colonialism. For instance, Columbus brought indigenous Americans from his voyages in the New World to the Spanish court in 1493. Another famous example was that of Saartjie Baartman of the Namaqua, often referred to as the Hottentot Venus, who was displayed in London and France until her death in 1815. During the 1850s, Maximo and Bartola, two microcephalic children from Mexico, were exhibited in the US and Europe under the names "Aztec Children" and "Aztec Lilliputians".

At London's Great Exhibition of 1851, people of African origin appeared in a replica of an African village. By this time, the demand for 'human curiosities' from Africa was so great that people of African heritage who had been born outside Africa often posed as 'wild men', 'Amazons' and 'savages'. From 1859 onwards, as Darwin's theories of evolution were being debated, Africans were constantly viewed as occupying a lower place to Europeans on the 'Great Chain of Being'.

However, human zoos would become common only in the 1870s in the midst of the New Imperialism period.

1870s to World War II

Exhibitions of exotic populations became popular in various countries in the 1870s. Human zoos could be found in Hamburg, Antwerp, Barcelona, London, Milan, New York, and Warsaw with 200,000 to 300,000 visitors attending each exhibition. In Germany, Carl Hagenbeck, a merchant in wild animals and future entrepreneur of many European zoos, decided in 1874 to exhibit Samoan and Sami people as "purely natural" populations. In 1876, he sent a collaborator to the Egyptian Sudan to bring back some wild beasts and Nubians. The Nubian exhibit was very successful in Europe and toured Paris, London, and Berlin. He also dispatched an agent to Labrador to secure a number of "Esquimaux" (Inuit) from the settlement of Hopedale; these Inuit were exhibited in his Hamburg Tierpark.

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             Eskimo Inuit Family                                             Carl Hagenbeck

In his memoirs, Carl Hagenbeck praised himself, writing, "it was my privilege to be the first in the civilized world to present these shows of different races."

Geoffroy de Saint-Hilaire, director of the Jardin d'acclimatation, decided in 1877 to organize two ethnological spectacles that presented Nubians and Inuit. That year, the audience of the Jardin d'acclimatation doubled to one million. Between 1877 and 1912, approximately thirty ethnological exhibitions were presented at the Jardin zoologique d'acclimatation.

Both the 1878 and the 1889 Parisian World's Fair presented a Negro Village (village nègre). Visited by 28 million people, the 1889 World's Fair displayed 400 indigenous people as the major attraction. The 1900 World's Fair presented the famous diorama living in Madagascar, while the Colonial Exhibitions in Marseilles (1906 and 1922) and in Paris (1907 and 1931) also displayed humans in cages, often nude or semi-nude. The 1931 exhibition in Paris was so successful that 34 million people attended it in six months, while a smaller counter-exhibition entitled The Truth on the Colonies, organized by the Communist Party, attracted very few visitors—in the first room, it recalled Albert Londres and André Gide's critics of forced labour in the colonies. Nomadic Senegalese Villages were also presented.

Native people of Suriname were displayed in the International Colonial and Export Exhibition in Amsterdam held behind the Rijksmuseum in 1883.

Similar human displays had been seen at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition and at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, where Little Egypt performed bellydance, and where the photographers Charles Dudley Arnold and Harlow Higginbotham took depreciative photos, presenting indigenous people as catalogue of "types," along with sarcastic legends.

To increase the number of visitors, the Cincinnati zoo invited one hundred Sioux Native Americans to establish a village at the site in 1896. The Sioux lived at the zoo for three months.

In 1904, Apaches, Igorots (from the Philippines) and the famous Ota Benga were displayed, dubbed as "primitive", at the Saint Louis World Fair. The USA had just acquired, following the Spanish-American War, new territories such as Guam, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico, allowing them to "display" some of the native inhabitants.


Geronimo Apache Chief Front View, seated. Louisiana Purchase Exposition, St. Louis Fair, 1904.

To further illustrate the indignities heaped upon the Philippine people following their eventual loss to the Americans, the United States made the Philippine campaign the centrepoint of the 1904 World's Fair held that year in St. Louis, MI [sic]. In what was enthusiastically termed a "parade of evolutionary progress," visitors could inspect the "primitives" that represented the counterbalance to "Civilisation" justifying Kipling's poem "The White Man's Burden". Pygmies from New Guinea and Africa, who were later displayed in the Primate section of the Bronx Zoo, were paraded next to American Indians such as Apache warrior Geronimo, who sold his autograph. But the main draw was the Philippine exhibit complete with full size replicas of Indigenous living quarters erected to exhibit the inherent backwardness of the Philippine people. The purpose was to highlight both the "civilising" influence of American rule and the economic potential of the island chains' natural resources on the heels of the Philippine-America War. It was, reportedly, the largest specific Aboriginal exhibit displayed in the exposition. As one pleased visitor commented, the human zoo exhibit displayed "the race narrative of odd peoples who mark time while the world advances, and of savages made, by American methods, into civilized workers."

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         Batwa pygmies and Ota Benga 2nd left                                         Ota Benga

In 1904, Ota Benga was brought to the United States by the missionary and explorer Samuel Phillips Verner. Verner had been hired by the St. Louis World's Fair to bring back pygmies for one of their ethnographic exhibits.

Verner's story is recounted by his grandson Phillips Verner Bradford in the book ‘Ota Benga: The Pygmy in the Zoo’. According to this account, Verner purchased Ota Benga from African slave traders - his wife and children had been killed in a massacre. Verner brought Benga, seven other pygmies and a young Congolese man to St Louis where they proved to be one of the most popular attractions at the fair. The crowds gawked, jeered and at one point threw mud pies at the human exhibit.

From St Louis, the group travelled to New Orleans just in time for Mardi Gras, and finally back to Africa. Benga - expressing a desire to learn to read - asked Verner to take him with him when the explorer returned home.

Verner and Ota Benga arrived in New York in August 1906. Verner, looking for a place for Benga to live, finally brought him to the Bronx Zoo, where, at first, he walked the grounds and helped the workers. But in early September, it was decided to move Benga's hammock into an orangutan's cage, where he was encouraged to play with the orangutan and weave caps out of straw and to shoot his bow and arrow. The zoo was encouraged by prominent eugenicist and head of the New York Zoological Society Madison Grant and a sign soon read:

The African Pigmy, ‘Ota Benga.’

Age, 23 years. Height, 4 feet 11 inches.

Weight, 103 pounds.

Brought from the Kasai River, Congo Free State, South Central Africa, by Dr. Samuel P. Verner.

Exhibited each afternoon during September

Renowned clergyman Reverend Dr Robert Stuart MacArthur of the Calvary Baptist Church in New York was outraged and was quoted in The New York Times on Sept. 10, 1906 as saying, ‘The person responsible for this exhibition degrades himself as much as he does the African. Instead of making a beast of this little fellow, he should be put in school for the development of such powers as God gave to him. It is too bad that there is not some society like the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. We send our missionaries to Africa to Christianise the people, and then we bring one here to brutalise him.’

African American church leaders also expressed outrage. ‘Our race, we think, is depressed enough without exhibiting one of us with the apes,’ wrote one such minister, James H. Gordon to the mayor of New York. ‘We think we are worthy of being considered human beings, with souls.’ Gordon was to become Ota Benga’s guardian after the zoo ultimately bowed to public pressure and had Benga removed.

Ota Benga after Bronx Zoo

Ota Benga came under the guardianship of Gordon, who placed him in the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum, a church-sponsored orphanage.

In January 1910, Gordon arranged for Benga's relocation to Lynchburg, Virginia.  His teeth, which he had filed to points in the  Congo, were capped and he was dressed in American-style clothes. His English improved and he eventually began working at a Lynchburg tobacco factory. Despite his small size, he proved a valuable employee because he could climb up the poles to get the tobacco leaves without having to use a ladder. His fellow workers called him ‘Bingo’ and he would tell his life story in exchange for sandwiches and root beer.

He began to plan a return to Africa but when the First World War broke out, a return to the Congo became impossible, and he became depressed.

On March 20, 1916, at the age of 32, Ota Benga built a ceremonial fire, chipped off the caps on his teeth and shot himself in the heart with a stolen pistol. The death certificate listed his name as ‘Otto Bingo’.

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