Inside Paris’s Belle Époque-Era Human Zoo

human zooMessy Nessy Chic on a surreal symbol of the history of colonialism — the human zoo:

In the furthest corner of the Vincennes woods of Paris lies the remains of what was once a public exhibition to promote French colonialism over 100 years ago and what we can only refer to today as the equivalent of a human zoo.

In 1907, six different villages were built in the Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale, representing all corners of the French colonial empire at the time– Madagascar, Indochine, Sudan, Congo, Tunisia and Morocco. The villages and their pavillions were built to recreate the life and culture as it was in their original habitats. This included mimicking the architecture, importing the agriculture and appallingly, inhabiting the replica houses with people, brought to Paris from the faraway territories.

Over one million curious visitors [attended] from May until October 1907 when it ended. Today, the Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale is kept out of sight behind rusty padlocked gates, abandoned and decaying.

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  • Lady of the Snows

    The modern distaste for this is just liberal sensibility about race taken to a ridiculous extreme, as these weren’t zoos in the sense of those on display being in captivity. Participation in the exhibits was always voluntary and it was a nice easy job for those on display, effectively providing a living educational diorama for the public to study by behaving as they would at home. A parallel might be the reconstructed Iron Age villages with actors playing ancient Britons, as a way to to educate people.

    The only moral problem with this was that the people involved naturally became exposed to western pathogens to which they had no resistance. Unfortunately, some of the performers actually died after contracting infections, but there was still no malicious intent involved in the ‘human zoos’ even if there was irresponsibility involved.

    I’d like to visit the remains of the Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale.

    Normally the name of Ota Benga gets brought up when this subject is brought up, even though he did not take part in a living ethnographic exhibition like the Paris one. Still, if you look at his life he was going to be killed by other pygmies until he was granted a new lease of life, this is a detail which gets forgotten. Also Hagenbeck is sometimes accused by the anti-racists of being part of a human trade in Africans because he ran ethnological exhibits in the 1870s. Its all a lie though, because doing so would have been illegal in German Africa and the participants all came voluntarily. The ethnographic exhibitions had nothing to do with slavery and no one was locked in a cage at his Tierpark, it was consensual and everyone recieved a wage.

  • BuzzCoastin

    if this was the only negative effect of French colonialism
    we could all congratulate the French for their restraint

    • http://twitter.com/SnackPackThief Brian Schwab

      It was/is most definitely not.

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