History of Human Zoos: How ‘Exotic Africans’ Were Displayed in Zoos in the West

Human zoos, also known as ethnological expositions, were a practice that took place in the West from the late 19th century to the mid-20th century. During this time, people from various non-European cultures were brought to Europe and the United States and displayed in zoos as examples of “exotic” and “primitive” peoples. These exhibits were meant to reinforce the idea of European superiority and to further the colonizing efforts of Western powers.

Human Zoos: How ‘Exotic Africans’ Were Displayed to the Public

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the shocking display of human beings of various African ethnicities was in vogue in the West, especially in the colonial empires of Great Britain, France, and Belgium.

These human zoos allowed westerners to see these ‘exotic peoples they’d only heard of from explorers. These displays later became so popular that they attracted thousands of people every day.

Human Zoos

Human Zoos started During the Age of Exploration, then Spanish and Portuguese explorers would often bring back foreign plants, animals, and even people, to prove that their voyages to Africa were a success and not a facade. These displays, however, were accessible only to the elites, as they were only exhibited at the royal courts.

As the European powers began to establish colonies across the world, especially in Africa, there was growing appetite among westerners back home for displays of the conquered peoples, who were perceived as savages and uncivilized.

This demand led to the creation of the first human zoos, which were featured at international fairs and exhibitions and depicted mock native villages. These shows were held across the Western world and aimed to highlight the cultural differences between Europeans and those deemed primitive.

Sarah Baartman

Human Zoos: How ‘Exotic Africans’ Were Displayed to the Public
A caricature of sarah Baartman, Born to a Khoisan family, she was displayed in London in the early 19th century

Saartjie Baartman, also known as the “Hottentot Venus,” was a South African woman who was taken from her home and exhibited in Europe in the early 19th century as a spectacle due to her unique physical features, including her large buttocks.

Sarah Baartman displayed

Englishmen and women paid to see Sara’s half naked body displayed in a cage that was about a metre and half high. She became an attraction for people from various parts of Europe.

In September 1814, she was transported from England to France, and upon arrival was sold to a man who showcased animals.

Sarah Baartman arrives France

He exhibited her around Paris and reaped financial benefits from the public’s fascination with Sara’s body.

At a point he began exhibiting her in a cage alongside a baby rhinoceros.

Her “trainer” would order her to sit or stand in a similar way that circus animals are ordered.

At times Baartman was displayed almost completely naked, wearing little more than a tan loincloth, and she was only allowed that due to her insistence that she cover what was culturally sacred. She was nicknamed “Hottentot Venus”.

Sara Baartman died in France in 1816 at the age of 26. But even death couldn’t stop the French from displaying her.

After her death, George Cuvier, a naturalist dissected her body. He made a plaster cast of her body, pickled her brain and genitals and placed them into jars which were then placed on display at the Musée de l’Homme (Museum of Man) until 1974.

Her remains remained in France until the South African government negotiated their return in 2002.

Her body was finally brought to South Africa where she was buried On 9 August 2002, the ceremony coincided with national Women’s Day.

“The story of Sarah Baartman is the story of the African people,″ President Thabo Mbeki said at the funeral. “It is the story of the loss of our ancient freedom … It is the story of our reduction to the state of objects who could be owned, used and discarded by others.″

Hundreds of people attended the funeral in the rural town of Hankey, about 470 miles east of Cape Town, where Baartman was born in 1789.

Ota Benga

Ota Benga

Ota Benga was yet another African victim of the cruel and inhumane practice of displaying human beings in zoos as if they were mere animals. He was taken from his home in Congo and brought to the United States where he was put on display in the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904 and later in the Bronx Zoo in New York City in 1906.

His teeth were filed to points, as was customary in his tribe, and the floor of his cage was littered with bones placed there by zookeepers to make him look more threatening. He played the role of the savage and in time was displayed in a cage with apes.

Ota Benga pictured with an Ape

More than 40,000 people came to see him every day and he was often subject to mocking from the crowd.

Ota Benga exhibition

The continued exhibit of Ota Benga sparked growing concern and then outrage, alarms were sounded at the Colored Baptist Ministers’ Conference, and a number of prominent pastors were outspoken about what they viewed as a monstrous disrespect. Rev. James H. Gordon, superintendent of the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum in Brooklyn was one of the most vocal opponents of the exhibit. “Our race, we think, is depressed enough, without exhibiting one of us with the apes,” he wrote. “We think we are worthy of being considered human beings, with souls.”

Ota Benga was freed eventually but in 1916, after failing to adjust to American life, he took his own life by shooting himself in the heart.

St Louis World Fair

Unidentified African man displayed as an exhibit at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair in Missouri, USA
Unidentified African man displayed as an exhibit at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair in Missouri, USA

The 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri, is infamous for its display of people from various cultures in a so-called “human zoo.” This exhibit featured indigenous peoples from Africa, Asia, and the South Pacific who were displayed in re-creations of their supposed “native habitats.” Visitors could observe these individuals, often dressed in culturally stereotypical costumes, performing various cultural dances and other activities for the entertainment of fairgoers.

Savage Olympics Exhibition

The image above, displays indigenous African people participating in archery in 1904 in St Louis, Missouri, USA at an event shockingly named the ‘Savage Olympics Exhibition’.

1958 Brussels World’sFair

A small African girl in western dress. She’s fed by a white woman as others watch in amazement.
A small African girl in western dress. She’s fed by a white woman as others watch in amazement.

The African girl above was shown at the 1958 Expo in Brussels, Belgium. The exhibition featured a ‘Congo Village’ with visitors watching her from behind wooden fences.

The 1958 World’s Fair, also known as the Brussels World’s Fair, was held in Brussels, Belgium. Like other World’s Fairs of the time, the 1958 event included exhibits that presented people from colonized countries as exotic specimens for the entertainment and education of fair-goers. The exhibit in Brussels featured a “Congo Village” that was created to showcase the culture and lifestyles of the Congolese people. The village included traditional huts, performances of music and dance, and displays of artifacts. However, the way the Congo Village was presented was heavily stereotypical and reflected the colonial attitudes of the time. The people on display were often brought from the Congo against their will and were not permitted to leave the fair grounds.

African family to be taken to Berlin zoo

German zoologist Professor Lutz Heck (left) is pictured above with an elephant and an African family he brought to the Berlin Zoo, in Germany in 1931.

Africans exhibited at the 1914 Jubilee Exhibition in Christiania Oslo, Norway.
Africans exhibited at the 1914 Jubilee Exhibition in Christiania Oslo, Norway. (Anne-Sophie Ofrim / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
The World's Fair in Brussels, Belgium in 1958 featured this mocked-up Senegalese village
The 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels, Belgium showcased a mock Senegalese village.

The conditions in these exhibitions were often deplorable, with people being housed in cramped, unsanitary conditions. They were forced to perform stereotypical activities, such as dancing or hunting, to entertain the crowds. The displays were often racist and dehumanizing, further perpetuating negative stereotypes and attitudes towards non-European cultures.

The rise of anti-colonial and anti-racist movements in the mid-20th century eventually led to the decline of human zoos. Although these exhibitions are a thing of the past, their impact endures and continues to shape attitudes and beliefs about the African and other non-Western cultures to this day.

Talk Africana
Talk Africana
Fascinating Cultures and history of peoples of African origin in both Africa and the African diaspora


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