The History of Racism and The Human Zoo

Politics of Racism SS3015 Open Essay
Céire McCarthy – 112315001


Racism is deeply embedded in our culture and existence. With racial tensions continuously rising, it is quite important to acknowledge the broad history of the term ‘racism’. Race is a social and ideological construct. It is a form of ‘boundary definition’ that has developed between diverse social groups. It has infamously evolved within certain historical and social contexts. In fact, races do not actually objectively exist; the human race is not scientifically sub-divisible (Hogan, 2015). We, the people of the world, are one – the human race. Not the white race, not the black race, not the yellow race – the human race.

Although my statement reads that only one race should exist, the term ‘race’ is a useful term only because racism continues to negatively exist in society. The term ‘race’ cannot be used without consequences.  The term has become institutionalised into societal structures; children learn race not only from their families, but from the societal norms that exist around them.

The term initially arose around 1200-1500 and was used in a similar sense to the term ‘clan’. Up until the 18th Century, the term was associated with aristocratic descent to and membership of a specific dynasty of ruling house (Hogan, 2015).  Following the beginning of the 18th Century, ‘clans’ were classified into various racial groups:

1. Negroid (Africa, South of the Sahara Desert)

2. Caucasian (European, Western Asia, Northern Africa and the Indian subcontinent)

3. Mongoloid (Central and Eastern Asia)

4. Australoid (Australia)

It was during this time that racial subdivisions and the discourse of white supremacy emerged. Racialization became evident in different societies. Racialization can be defined as the process through which the supposed inferiority of black, colonized, non-whites, and non-western people is constructed (Hogan, 2015).

Phrenology – A Scientific Advancement

A phrenological diagram

Scientific racism is “the use of scientific techniques and hypotheses to sanction the belief in racial superiority, inferiority or racism” (Citelighter, 2015).

Phrenology emerged and came into general use in the early 19th Century. Phrenology was a science of character divination, faculty psychology, theory of brain and what the 19th Century Phrenologists called ‘the only true science of mind’ (Wyhe, 2011). Phrenology which is the reading of skulls and the brain, and physiognomy which is the reading of faces, argued that man’s physical, moral, intellectual and social development could be seen in, and determined by the physiognomy i.e. the shape of his head and the structure of his jaw (Hogan, 2015).

Franz Joseph Gall (1796) believed that by studying the shape and unevenness of a head of skull, one could discover the development of the particular cerebral ‘organs’ responsible for different intellectual aptitudes and character traits i.e. high forehead indicated capacity for deep thinking, and a large skull at the base suggested a propensity for crime (Wyhe, 2011).

The Human Zoo

Ethnic cleansing of Native Americans (The Indian Removal Act), slavery of the blackrace‘ and colonialist imperialism are roots that influence the continuing of racism today. The most prominent example of the history of racism is the long horrifying history of human zoos.

 human zoo

Yes, the term literally means what it reads. Human zoos which held actual animals humans in captivity for the public’s entertainment to gawk at.

In the late 19th and early 20th Century, as scientific racism intertwined with the new colonial imperialism, ‘human zoos’ became highly popular in the West in pseudo-scientific demonstrations of physical ‘racial difference’. Some displays were no more than fenced enclosures. However, some went as far as recreating ‘natural’ habitats of those exhibited, in a way to provide onlookers with a more authentic or realistic look. Placed into ‘natural habitats’, clothed in ‘traditional dress’ and often en-caged and forced to live behind gates, people from ‘exotic’ lands were put on display in human zoos next to chimpanzees and other primates in Europe and America for the entertainment of the public. The zoos featured indigenous people, putting them on display in pretty much the same way as animals are exhibited in animal zoos today.   

Often, people were kidnapped or coerced and forcefully exhibited in the zoos. Others agreed to join the human zoo in return for a wage. It was not uncommon for the human exhibits to be treated inhumane, held prisoners in cages, behind gates or wire fences, where they were subject to malnutrition and inadequate housing and sheer human cruelty. Regularly, these people died quite quickly upon joining the zoo, some within a year of captivity (David, 2013).

 Humans zoos are arguably partially the origin of the ‘monkey chants’ and banana skins that are still regularly aimed at black sport figures today. Below shows a picture of a young black African girl being fed a banana by a white woman in a human zoo, just like as one would feed a monkey

human zoo 2

One of the earliest known human zoos was that of Moctezuma in Mexico. The zoo consisted of a vast collection of both animals and humans i.e. dwarves and albinos (Marvin & Mullan, 1998). This collection continued to expand in zoos that followed. Cardinal Hippolytus Medici, along with exotic animals, held people of different races on exhibit in his zoo. It was reported that the zoo held many Barbarians who spoke a wide range of languages, Africans, Indians, Moore and Tatars.

This human curiosity regarding indigenous races had a history at least as long as colonialism and the Age of Discovery. Explorers such as Columbus brought indigenous people (Native Americans) from his voyages in the New World to the Spanish court in 1493. The Spaniards were able to examine their odd dress and different customs (Channel Four Television Corporation, 2009).

But, even during this time, scientific racism was far from developed. The great line dividing humanity remained a matter of culture and religion. People noticed differences in human appearances and often questioned things such as could the climate affect behavioral disposition? This was normal as, back then; definitions of ‘race’ were quite broad (Clark, 2015). For example, the Requerimiento, used to justify everything from colonization to slavery to genocidal massacre, acknowledged that all the men of the world, were and are all descendants of Adam and Eve (Clark, 2015). This belief slowly began to change with the coming age of reason, where natural rights were accompanied by notions of natural law; if natural laws differentiated species in nature, did it mean there were natural divisions of humanity? (Clark, 2015). These questions began to arise alongside the developing African slave trade and an increasingly “race-based” bondage system fundamental for creating empires out of the “New World.” This assemblage of events developed new ideas of “race” as a perhaps abiding biological difference of mankind, and part of a “natural” hierarchical system (Clark, 2015).  

One of the first modern public human exhibitions was P.T. Barnum’s exhibition of Joice Heth on February 25, 1835. Heth was an African American slave and suffered from severe disabilities; she was blind and almost completely paralyzed, although she did have limited movement in her right arm (Channel Four Television Corporation, 2009). Barnum purchased Heth toward the end of her life and exhibited her in his zoo claiming she was the 160 year old nurse of George Washington. The famous Siamese twins Chang and Eng Bunker were also subject to a tragic life of partaking in human ‘freak shows’ (Channel Four Television Corporation, 2009). Another quite 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 (CFTC, 2009).

Human zoos became more common in Europe in the 1870s in the midst of the New Imperialism period (CFTC, 2009). The zoos could be found in many places throughout America and Europe such as New York, Warsaw, Barcelona, London, Milan and Hamburg. It emerged that the white race was the superior race, and the black race was inferior.

These human zoos formed part of the western propaganda that justified bringing civilization to Africa – that is, killing more than 10million people in the Congo, practically exterminating the Herero and Nama peoples and installing apartheid regimes in much of southern Africa, which is to say nothing of the millions of individuals shipped across the Atlantic (Akala, 2014).

The zoos entertained on average 200,000 to 300,000 visitors who attended each exhibition in each city. Carl Hagenbeck of Germany ran exhibits of what he referred to as ‘purely natural’ populations, typically East Asian Islanders, but in 1876, he also sent a collaborator to the Sudan to bring back ‘wild beasts and Nubians’. The travelling Nubian exhibit was a huge success in cities such as Paris, London and Berlin (David, 2013).

In 1889, The World’s Fair was visited by 28 million spectators (David, 2013). The people queued up to witness 400 indigenous people as the major attraction. Along with the Colonial Exhibitions in Marseilles (1906 and 1922) and in Paris (1907 and 1931), The 1900 World’s Fair was not much different. They continued to display naked or semi-naked indigenous humans in cages. Paris saw 34 million people attend their exhibition in six months alone. As much as one hundred individuals were held in the human zoos (David, 2013).

Above is a picture of Ota Benga, who was a member of the Mbuti pygmies. A pygmy is a member of a rare ethnic group whose average height is less than 150cm tall. The term ‘pygmy’ is most associated with nomadic native tribes in equatorial Africa such as the Mbuti tribe. The tribes are typically nomadic hunter-gatherers and are usually the first inhabitants of the region. They are ‘forest dwellers’, they know the forest, plants and animals intimately, and believe the forest to be a kindly personal God (Africa Guide, 2015).

Benga’s story has highlighted and shamed significantly darker periods in human history. A time where indigenous and ‘native’ people were taken from their natural habitats and paraded as human exhibits, therefore, fuelling the spread of white supremacy and arguably, even contributing to the rise of Nazism(Hale, 2009).

Tragically, Benga became the victim of one of the most inhumanly acts of exploitation ever known to man. In 1904, Benga was brought from his tribe in the Congo to The United States by the missionary and explorer Samuel Phillips Verner (Channel Four Television Corporation, 2009). Verner had been hired by William McGees’ St. Louis World’s Fair to bring back pygmies for one of their ethnographic exhibits. Verner’s story is recounted by his grandson Phillips Vernor Bradford in the book ‘Ota Benga: he Pygmy in the Zoo’.

According to Bradfrod, Verner purchased Benga from African slave traders for a roll of brass wire and some salt. His wife and children had been murdered in a massacre. Verner brought Benga, six other pygmies and a young Congolese man to St. Louis World’s Fair where they proved to be one of the most favoured attractions due to their ethnographic exhibits. Crowds jeered and threw mud pies at the human exhibit (Channel Four Television Corporation, 2009).The fair was designed to be one of the largest scientific experiments ever undertaken and would be spectacular public entertainment for the white onlookers (Hale, 2009).

In August 1906, the prominent eugenicist Madison Grant, head of the New York Zoological Society, put the Congolese pygmy Benga on display at the Bronx Zoo in New York City (CFTC, 2009). He was put on display in a zoo as an unfortunate example of what scientists, at the time, proclaimed to be an evolutionary inferior race – the human black race. Benga initially walked the grounds and assisted the workers, but in September 1906, Benga’s hammock was forcefully moved into an orangutan’s cage, where he was encouraged to interact with the animals, weave caps out of straw and to shoot a bow and arrow (CFTC, 2009). Benga was no more than a novelty put on display in a monkey pen. At the time, the New York Times reported that “there were 40,000 visitors to the park on Sunday. Nearly every man, woman and child of this crowd made for the monkey house to see the star attraction in the park – the wild man of Africa” (cited by Hale, 2009). It reported that the onlookers chased Benga around the grounds, howling, jeering and yelling at him, with some onlookers even poking him in the ribs and tripping him (Hale, 2009).

Subsequently, the human zoo played into the hands of white supremacists, teaching the public a profound lesson of racial differentiation and inferiority. The zoos taught society that there was a strict hierarchy of not only gender, but also race, obviously with the white man at the top and all others beneath him. This was a form of retaining both colonial and racial order.

In his book The Trend Of Human Progress (1899), McGee wrote: ‘Those who know the races realise that the average white man is stronger of limb, fleeter of foot, clearer of eye, than the average yellow or red or black.’

Contradicting Darwin’s theory of evolution, McGee recognised each race as a stage in human evolution. McGee argued that pygmies were the least evolved of the species. With his rudimentary Victorian understanding of science, he referred to scientific racism and contended that pygmies were the vital ‘missing link’ between apes and humans (Hale, 2009)

Although Human Zoos began to subside after World War II, they were not completely abolished. One of the last reported human zoos still existed in Brussels World Fair (1958).The Congolese display was a final attempt to hold on to the human zoos, which were successfully coming to and end (Cobelco, 2002). And, although the inhumane acts have come to an end, it seems they have not lost their appeal altogether. In 1994, the safari park Planète Sauvage attempted to open an Ivory Coast human exhibit to be displayed alongside their animal exhibits. The attraction was to create an “authentic” Côte d’Ivoire village complete with contracted employees who, weather permitting, would be allowed to roam the park topless for the park visitors. Fortunately the idea was scrapped due to an overwhelming outcry from anti-racist groups (Clark, 2015).

In 2005, the idea of Human Zoos arose again in the southern German city of Augsburg. Visitors could witness “black tribesmen in grass-skirts” alongside elephants and rhinos in their “natural” environment (The Scotsman, 2005). This was part of an attempt to get visitors to discover the “Dark Continent.” The human exhibits were permitted to sell African crafts and foods within the village. The zoo’s director denied the exhibit promoted racism, but instead viewed as beneficial and educational (The Scotsman, 2005). 

The legacy of Human Zoos and its racial context are nearly impossible to overcome. In 2014 two Human Zoos were scrutinised. One, by a white South African artist in London (Boycott the Human Zoo, 2014), and the second by a black Sudanese and white artist duo in Norway (The Guardian, 2014). Both denied anything to do with promoting racism, but again, said to be beneficial and educational in highlighting extreme difficulties suffered by those in the past. In London, the South African artist sparked strong protests against the zoo.

A protest campaign, with the hashtag:

#boycottthehumanzoosuccessfully attained huge attention surrounding the issue.

Too much of our modern history is tied up in these outrageous acts of human cruelty and neglect. Perhaps, we are unable to escape our past. Racism is still a huge issue today, not only in Ireland but worldwide. Whether we like it or not, these racial labels of the white race, the black race, the yellow race and so on, hold great power in society. Unfortunately scientific racism does in fact still exist, dividing humanity into a hierarchy of gender, race and intelligence.


Africa Guide (2015) Pygmy People. [Last accessed: 09/05/2015] Accessed from:
Akala (2014) The Huffington Post. The Human Zoo and the Masturbation of Human Guilt. [Last accessed: 09/05/2015] Accessed from:
Boycott the Human Zoo (2014) Press Release: Boycott Human Zoo. [Last accessed:10/05/2015] Accessed from:
Channel Four Television Corporation (2009) The Human Zoo. [Last accessed: 10/05/05] Accessed from:
Citelighter (2015). Scientific Racism. [Last accessed: 09/05/015] Accessed from:
Clark, P (2015) People are Alike All Over: The Human Zoo. [Last accessed: 10/05/2015] Accessed from:
Cobelco (2002) Belgium human zoo ; “Peut-on exposer des Pygmees?”.
David, M (2013). Popular Resistance, Deep Racism: The Forgotten History of Human Zoos. [Last accessed: 10/05/015] Accessed from:

Hale, B (2009). The Daily Mail. Caged in the human zoo: The shocking story of the young pygmy warrior put on show in a monkey house – and how he fuelled Hitler’s twisted beliefs. [Last Accessed: 11/05/2015] Accessed from:–fuelled-Hitlers-twisted-beliefs.html#ixzz3a6qWB7Fp

Hogan (2015) Lecture Notes.

Marvin, G., Mullane, B., (1998) Zoo Culture: The Book About Watching People Watch Animals, 2nd ed. University of Illinois Press: Illinois.

McGee, W., (1899). “The Trend of Human Progress”, American Anthropologist. V. 1 (3). Wiley on behalf of the American Anthropological Association: USA.

The Guardian, (2014) Norway to restage 1914 ‘human zoo’ that exhibited Africans as inmates.

The Scotsman (2005) Scotland on Sunday, Zoo sparks row over ‘tribesmen’ pops for animals.

Whye, John (2011). The history of phrenology on the web

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