From human zoos to colonial apotheoses:

The era of exhibiting the Other

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It is important to analyse how the Other was viewed in the colonial era if we are to understand the prejudices still at work today. Human zoos offer one very good example.

Many aspects of colonial history remain inaudible today. They are impossible to accept in a country that is only just beginning to face this traumatic past. France’s extreme difficulty in addressing its colonial history probably results from several factors which need to be analysed. First of all, the healing that comes with time – the famous « grieving process » that usually takes one or two generations – has barely begun.2 Secondly, colonial history challenges many of the social imagination’s identity markers. It is this challenge that poses a problem because it means that these same markers have to be (re)constituted, (re)formulated. This simultaneously requires a rewriting of history to make the inclusion of colonial memory compatible with the social imagination. This process also requires that the context – the reasons for colonisation – be revisited. Human zoos and their continuum, or at least the analysis of them, are part of this process.
The memory of colonisation and of phenomena like the human zoos also has very real, direct effects on France’s postcolonial history. At the start of the new century, economic crisis, the settling of part of the immigrant population, the tensing of the republican model of integration, the rise of ultra-nationalism (or fanaticism), and the rejection of African (or North African) immigration have, in the context of a colonial history with which we have not yet come to terms, favoured the emergence of a dual reference image of the Other: that of the « archetypal foreigner » – who can potentially be assimilated – and that of the archetypal immigrant – a hangover from the colonial image of the archetypal native. This dual representation of the Other has supplanted the Seventies’ image of the worker-immigrant and has become the implicit or explicit reference in debates on immigration. Different from the French, the archetypal foreigner is also different from other foreign populations.3 In our opinion, the reasons behind this current situation go back to the turn of the last century.
The example of the human zoos4 allows us to trace the entire process through which popular (and colonial) racism penetrated Western society. Theorised in the previous century when it exclusively concerned the science world, in less than fifty years, the vision of a world organised according to the hierarchy of races became the dominant ideology in the West. Its vector – or media, as we would say today – wasn’t so much the popular press or literature as this fabricated « encounter » with the other.
Human zoos, the incredible symbols of the colonial period and the transition from the nineteenth to twentieth century, have been completely suppressed in our collective history and memory. Yet they were major social events. The French, Europeans and Americans came in their tens of millions to discover the « savage » for the first time in zoos or « ethnographic » and colonial fairs. These exhibitions of the exotic (the future « native ») laid the foundations on which, over an almost sixty-year period, was spun the West’s progressive transition from a « scientific » racism to a colonial and « mass » racism affecting millions of « visitors » from Paris to Hamburg, London to New York, Moscow to Barcelona…
Are we capable of accepting what these human zoos say about our culture, our mentalities, our subconscious, and our collective psyche? For countries that insist on human equality, and not least Republican France with its values handed down from the French revolution, these human zoos, ethnological fairs, or « native villages » remain difficult subjects to deal with. These zoos, where exotic individuals were exhibited in cages or pens next to animals before a public avid for entertainment, are indeed the strongest evidence of the divide between discourse and practice at the time the colonial empires were being built.
What relation is there between today’s images of Africa or the suburbs and the thousands of then widely distributed images taken from these fairs? Is our gaze so very different, hungry as it is for exoticism before the various reality shows and Big Brother programmes – programmes that appear to consecrate a new era of the image in the West? Voyeurism, sensationalism, relations to difference and normality, each century seems to get the human zoos it deserves!
By the end of the nineteenth century, a tiny minority of texts emerged expressing their distress at these fairs. Mentalities were reflected in the public’s dominant attitudes. Lots of visitors threw food or trinkets to the exhibited groups and made remarks about their physiognomies, comparing them to primates. That was the reality of human zoos at the turn of the century.
Human zoos tell us nothing about the exotic or colonised populations, of course. However, they do provide an extraordinary tool for analysing Western mentalities from the late nineteenth century to the Thirties. The vocation of these zoos, fairs, and parks was indeed to exhibit the rare, the curious, the strange, and all forms of the unusual and different. It wasn’t to provide a chance to encounter individuals or cultures. The transgression of the values and norms that Europe considered to constitute civilisation was a driving force behind the West’s « animalisation » of exotic peoples. Denied an entirely human nature, they were thus colonisable and needed to be domesticated and tamed to turn them – if possible – into civilised men. This mise en scène helped to legitimise the West’s colonial action.
The reaction of the elites to this brutal naturalisation of the Other is most striking. Very few journalists, politicians, or scientists protested at the time about these daily fairs’ sanitary conditions or the (often catastrophic) confinement of the natives, not to mention the numerous deaths amongst populations unused to the climate, for example, the Kaliña Indians who were exhibited in Paris in 1892. This goes to show just how deeply rooted popular racism had become in the West. It also helps to understand how, in the space of barely thirty years, the vast majority of Europeans accepted, validated and backed the colonial enterprise. The future was all laid out for the colonial subjects, as they were merely « savages ». It was the West’s duty to show them the light, to take them out of the very zoos it had shut them in!
Human zoos are part of a specific context. The need to exhibit the Other, the need to show him in his natural or cultural context developed at surprising speed at the beginning of the nineteenth century. It was very closely tied to the development of certain anthropological studies, to the French public’s « curiosity » – fuelled by the organisers – and, above all, to colonial expansion. This demand first culminated in France’s 1867 Exposition Universelle.5 What should have remained marginal or eccentric very quickly became a genre unto itself, as exotic fairs were systematically and regularly organised in France and throughout Europe.6
Along with the Jardin d’Acclimatation, numerous other venues soon promoted such « fairs ». Fairs were also adapted to more « political » ends, for example at the 1878 and 1889 Expositions Universelles in Paris, whose « Negro villages » with its 400 « natives » constituted one of the main attractions, or the 1900 Exhibition with its 50 million visitors and its famous « live » diorama on Madagascar, or, later still, the Marseilles 1906 and 1922 colonial exhibitions, or those in Paris in 1907 and 1931. Some venues specialised in the « recreational », with performances billed at the Champ de Mars, Folies Bergère, or Magic City. Others specialised in colonial reconstitutions, for example, the French army’s defeat of Behanzin and his Dahomeans at the Théâtre de la Porte Saint-Martin. It was in this context that travelling « troupes » soon formed, touring from exhibitions to regional fairs, and that the famous « black » or « Senegalese villages » became popular, for example at the Lyons exhibition in 1894. By now, not a single town in France missed the opportunity, on a sunny afternoon, between the farming competition, Sunday mass, and a walk around the lake, to discover a « real » reconstitution of these savage lands inhabited by exotic people and beasts.
Measuring these « savages », exhibiting them, and entertaining the public all met the different desires of the time, namely a quest for exoticism, curiosity, and the needs of human science. A long succession of stereotypes propagated through iconography was born or simply confirmed. The human zoos and « Negro villages » became the markers of a period and could be counted in their hundreds between 1875 and 1931. In a complex process through which a vision of the Other and a racist imagination were constructed, they represented the first real, daily « contact » between the exotic-Other and the West, or the « civilised-us ». These zoos were at the centre of the mechanisms that gave rise to the stereotype of the « savage African ». Three concomitant processes contributed to the emergence and later development of this fashion for exhibiting humans: firstly, the construction of a social imagination about the Other; secondly, the scientific theorisation of the « hierarchy of races » in the wake of the advances of physical anthropology; and finally, the construction of a colonial empire, which was by then in full expansion.
Iconography is essential to understanding this phenomenon. It lies at the heart of this study, inasmuch that these images – which were more immediately accessible to all – circulated widely and spread a « discourse » on the « human races » that went well beyond the « live » shows at the Jardin d’Acclimatation. All organisers’ initial aim was to create an impression of reality, a tableau, using decors and performances to reconstitute what they thought to be the Other’s day-to-day existence. One wonders to what extent these totally constructed « human zoos » thereby constituted a crossroads, a place to encounter and discover the Other that was perceived of as real? What role did they play in structuring and spreading racial thought?
At that time, physical differences were thought to be the key to the classification of the human « races ». Yet the all the measurements required for physical and social analyses had been taken at the turn of the century when ethnological exhibitions gave experts temporary access to their « specimens ». Anthropologists had no doubt entertained the idea of thereby (and thanks to the increasing number of « field » studies carried out in the late nineteenth century) establishing a veritable physical encyclopaedia that would contribute to theorising racial hierarchies. When the colonial empires were created, the force of representation of the Other asserted itself in quite a different political context and at a time of unprecedented territorial expansion. Colonisation itself remains the essential turning point, therefore, as it introduced the need to dominate, to tame, and thus to represent the Other. Although at their outset in 1877 the exhibitions were justified on an explicitly scientific level and were presented as observation posts for the whole anthropological community and as the object of unprecedented studies, the increasing importance given to this highly-popular form of entertainment and, above all, their increasingly popular and theatrical character, marked a turning point. Moreover, human zoos were seen as both symbolic and real showcases and instruments of colonial domination.
The First World War represented a turning point in the discovery of the Other and the depiction of the colonised, as it was marked by the massive arrival of contingents of colonial conscripts and workers (North Africans, Indo-Chinese, and Africans). A new character emerged in imagery of the time. Supplanting the « bloodthirsty-savage » of the previous era, it was based on the already well-established figure of the colonial soldier. The ambiguous image of the « Banania »§ conscript was its best-known translation.7 This archetype of the good, brave native of the Empire, who gave his blood for France, took root in the French visual and mental landscape. The « savage black » thus became Greater France’s adoptive child. In the interwar years, which marked the apogee of French colonial propaganda, neither the « black villages » nor the exhibitions disappeared. These events were integrated into the colonial apotheoses – the 1922 and 1931 colonial exhibitions.
« Black villages » from most of the African territories featured in the 1922 Colonial Exhibition in Marseilles at a time when the genre was beginning to lose its popularity elsewhere in Europe.8 The 1931 International Colonial Exhibition was one of the last places where ethnological villages were recreated and officially tolerated as part of a specifically colonial setting. The Exposition de Vincennes – the apogee of this mode of presentation – thus provided an inventory of Greater France with its « typically native » pavilions. Subjects of the Empire came to display their « native » crafts or perform shows. Even though the barriers had been removed, the cultural distancing was just as marked.
This was clear architecturally, first of all, as each pavilion visually represented each part of the Empire’s place both within the Greater France and on the scale of civilisation. The most flagrant example was the clear difference between the French West African and Madagascan pavilions and those of the mainland. Between the two came the « old colonies », symbolised by the architecture of the West Indian pavilions, where assimilation was supposed to have been achieved a long time ago. It was also clear in human terms. Despite the reticence surrounding old modes of exhibition – the Kanaks’ presence in the exhibition grounds indeed sparked a heated debate and was widely criticised, revealing an opposition to a mode of exhibition that the colonial authorities now considered degrading – the organisers’ basic aim was still to reduce colonial subjects to their role as actors in a cleverly orchestrated mise en scène destined to laud progress and European civilisation in general, and French civilisation in particular. The Exposition gave the French a feeling of jurisdiction over the conquered worlds and their populations, a right that, at the time, was consubstantial with the idea of the nation and the majority of French people’s adhesion to the ideals of the Republic. Beyond colonial self-congratulation, it was also an effective allegory and demonstrated an explicit desire to define French identity as capable of civilising and assimilating the peoples of whom it took charge. A national (and racial) genius, as it were, a mission devolved upon the Republic and thus on all French people. In a word, a common destiny.
Representations of alterity were needed to measure the accomplishments of the colonial powers if the highly ideological concept of the progress of Western civilisation was to be accepted within the imperial context of the exhibitions. Nonetheless, whilst earlier exhibitions played on a mix of fascination/revulsion, curiosity, and fear to attract the public, the interwar exhibitions highlighted the abdication of the « savage » and his slow but possible evolution towards civilisation. Rather than being « savage », he was instead a craftsman, a worker who, under French guidance, was putting his abilities at the service of the Greater France. The French colonial power had thus tamed the « savage ».9
This exploration of some of the complex interdependencies between the colonial phenomenon, science, and the visual appropriation of « other » cultures that were at play in the ethnographic fairs and native villages helps us to understand how populations thus presented in the West were objectified, essentialised, decontextualised, racialised, and reduced to a timeless backwardness that justified the mainland’s « civilising mission ».
Thanks to television and magazines, we can now enjoy images of this so very different elsewhere in our very own homes. We can also meet the « other » in situ, on package holidays proposed by tour operators who offer new « human safaris », or quite simply by looking at our suburbs (as we did our colonies yesterday)! But is our gaze so very different from that of our grandparents? Probably not, as human zoos still exist. On the eve of the twenty-first century, an African village built in the middle of a Safari Park in Nantes offered visitors the same images as yesterday. Moreover, it significantly boosted the park’s number of visitors. Very few people pointed out its shocking nature. We accept this, and in the same movement our children cross paths with monkeys, giraffes and « Blacks ». We still avidly consume exoticism. It is the social demand that in part creates the offer. So people continue to provide us with monsters and savages. We need them to reassure us – not to define what we are, but what we don’t want to be. This is the reality of the dark face of the land of Enlightenment that holds human equality up as one of its most essential values.
Furthermore, France’s World Cup victory – the other major moment of national unity this century – described as multiracial, colourful, tranquilly multi-ethnic, cosmopolitan, or universal, recently became the symbol of the « republican model of integration.10 Yet this very same World Cup final’s opening ceremony, with its four polyester giants (Ho the « yellow », Pablo the « swarthy », Romeo the « white », and Moussa the « black ») parading through our streets, was incontestably the biggest racist show Paris had seen since the 1931 colonial exhibition. Just like in the past, and despite the « positive » intent, the return of facies and race ethnicises the debate and reaffirms the Western bipartition of alterity with « whites » on the one hand as the guide – as was already the case in Bellenger’s 1931 exhibition poster – and coloured people on the other. In certain respects, the boundaries that the human zoos drew between the visited and the visitors still exist today. It’s Them and Us. Watching the news and following international relations these last few weeks, we are left wondering whether the show has left the zoo to enter our homes via the television. There will always be us (the West) and them (the rest), « civilisation » on the one hand, and « barbarity » on the other. As a result, societal boundaries are reinforced by a Manichaeism that accentuates alterity.

All three historians, Nicolas Bancel is a senior lecturer (University Paris XI-Orsay/UPRES EA 1609/CRESS), Pascal Blanchard has a PhD from the University of Paris I and runs the BDM in Paris, and Sandrine Lemaire is a teacher (agrégée) and has a PhD from the European University Institute in Florence. In charge of ACHAC (Association Connaissance de l’Histoire de l’Afrique Contemporaine) along with Emmanuelle Collignon ([email protected]), they have written several books on colonial representation, notably Images et Colonies (1933), L’Autre et nous (1995), Images d’empire (1997), De l’indigène à l’immigré (1998). They also coordinated the Mémoire coloniale. Zoos humains programme (with Gilles Boëtsch/GRD CNRS 2322 and Eric Deroo), which started with an international symposium in Marseilles entitled Corps exotiques, corps enfermés, corps measurés, followed on by other events in Paris from October to December 2001.
On this point, see our article « Les pièges de la mémoire coloniale », Cahiers français, La documentation Française, juillet-août, 2001, pp. 75-82.
More details on this question can be found in our dossier and articles in the journal Hommes et Migrations, « Imaginaire colonial, figures de l’immigré », n° 1207, mai-juin 1997.
Thanks to Joël Dauphiné’s recent work on this question (Canaques de la Nouvelle-Calédonie à Paris en 1931. De la case au zoo, Paris: L’Harmattan, 1998), to Didier Daeninckx’s ground-breaking novel Cannibale, to footballer Christian Karembeu’s tale of his ancestor’s presence at Vincennes in 1931 (Canal + and VSD), and to the research carried out by ACHAC over the last two years, we are just beginning to open up this chapter of our recent history.
On this subject see Paul Greenhalgh, Ephemeral Vistas. The Expositions Universelles, Great Exhibitions and World’s Fairs, 1851-1939, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988.
See the forthcoming book Zoos Humains, co-authored by N. Bancel, P. Blanchard, G. Boëtsch, E. Deroo, and S. Lemaire, Paris: La Découverte, March 2002, which deals both with the genesis of the ethnological fairs, their international dimension, and the impact of this phenomenon on contemporary society.
See P. Blanchard and N. Bancel, De l’indigène à l’immigré, Paris: Gallimard, « Découvertes », 2001, 128 p. (new edition revised and expanded).
For an analysis of the interwar colonial exhibitions, see the article « Les expositions colonials », C. Hodeir, S. Leprun, and M. Pierre, in N. Bancel, P. Blanchard, & L. Gervereau, Images et Colonies (1880-1962), Paris: BDIC-ACHAC, 1995, 302 p.
These aspects are explored in S. Lemaire and P. Blanchard’s article, « Montrer, Mesurer, Distraire. Du zoo humain aux expositions coloniales (1870-1931) in S. Moussa (ed.), La construction de la notion de « race » dans la littérature et les sciences humaines (XVIIIe-XIXe siècles), Paris: L’Harmattan, to be published in 2002.
See article « United colors of France qui gagne » by Esmeralda in the journal Quasimodo (« Fiction de l’étranger », printemps 2000), which pertinently focuses specifically on the discourse surrounding the French victory. An untouchable subject if ever there was in France today, the author interestingly signs the article under a pseudonym.
///Article N° : 5265


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