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Human Zoos — International, Still Being Airbrushed

Human Zoos

That darker-skinned people were once displayed in zoos as a demonstration of evolutionary stages in human development is largely but not completely unknown. The new documentary Human Zoos, directed by John West, has helped to correct the record. Dr. West was in St. Louis recently and had the opportunity to investigate the site of the 1904 World’s Fair where hundreds of indigenous people from America’s Philippine colony were caged:

As West points out, there’s no historical marker to be seen in the pretty, upper-middle-class neighborhood. The history has been effectively airbrushed. He also notes that the human zoos were not strictly an American thing. They were an international phenomenon.

Actually, this fact has caught some attention recently. Last month NPR reported on painful reawakened memories in Belgium of crimes committed against the country’s Congolese colonial subjects, including, yes, displaying natives in a zoo.

The Royal Museum for Central Africa began as a temporary exhibition in 1897 in Tervuren, where [Belgium’s King] Leopold had his country estate.

The most talked-about part of the exhibition was the “human zoo” — a mock African village set up in the estate’s woods and ponds. King Leopold, who never set foot in Congo, imported 267 Congolese men, women and children to Tervuren and displayed them behind a fence.

“When Leopold heard they were getting sick because of candy they were eating that was tossed to them by the crowd, he put up an equivalent of a ‘Don’t Feed the Animals’ sign at a zoo, saying, ‘the blacks are fed by the organizing committee,’” [author Adam] Hochschild said in a documentary based on his book.

That this demonstrates the shameful history of racism and colonialism is obvious. But guess what gets left out? You got it: any mention of the prestige science of the day, Darwinism, that emphatically classed Africans as barely a step above animals. The NPR story caught the attention of paleoanthropologist John Hawks, who highlighted it on his blog. With his specialty in human evolution, Hawks too missed the evolutionary angle.

“Missing Links”

At least he makes no mention of it. Yet the Belgian human zoo sounds exactly like the St. Louis equivalent just a few years later, where Philippine tribesmen were promoted to a gawking public as evolutionary “missing links.”

An interesting footnote: A friend points out that the St. Louis World’s Fair connects to political personalities of our own time. Among the organizers was prominent local businessman George Herbert Walker, the grandfather and great-grandfather of two U.S. Presidents, contributing the “W.” in both of their names. His summer home in Maine, Walker’s Point, was the “Summer White House” under President George H.W. Bush. Small world.

Find Human Zoos on Amazon or see it now on Amazon Prime Video. More background about the St. Louis World’s Fair is available at the Human Zoos website.