Colonialism’s Cages: When Indigenous People Were Placed In Human Zoos

Published March 9, 2017
Updated March 12, 2021

These haunting images taken inside human zoos reveal the dark secret of Europe and America's not-so-distant colonial past.

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Colonialism’s Cages: When Indigenous People Were Placed In Human Zoos
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In the thick of late 19th and early 20th-century colonialism, across Europe and the United States, people -- along with animals -- could be found in zoos. There, white families could gawk at individuals who had been dragged from foreign countries and placed inside cages, where they acted out a performance of their "daily life" for the onlookers' entertainment.

Indigenous peoples of Africa, Asia, the Americas -- and almost anywhere else that non-white people could be found -- served as the exhibits' subjects.

After being taken from their homes and hauled across the ocean, these individuals would be placed (sometimes behind fences or wires) in enclosures designed as artificial replicas of their "natural habitats," including a fake ecosystem and prop versions of their former homes. Visitors could then peer into their cages to see how the "other half" lived.

How the subjects of these human zoos lived was, of course, an orchestrated performance, one full of dubious rituals and ceremonial dances designed to make the subjects' cultures seem as exotic and strange as possible. Some subjects, for example, would declare a new chief every day, or stage a wedding or a religious dance for the delight of their audience.

When the show ended, the subjects could be taken out of the zoo and carted around the world to another one. Perhaps they would move on to another "Negro Village" at the World's Fair, for one. Some would become permanent displays in public zoos or oddities at freak shows.

It was the oddity that really captivated people so much – the strangeness of another culture, plucked out of its natural environment and put on display.

Often, the people displayed would be chosen for the uniqueness of their bodies. Many were displayed in the nude and treated as scientific subjects, studied to develop guides of the physical characteristics that, the researchers claimed, defined primitivism and savagery.

Some subjects would even be displayed under signs calling them a missing link in human evolution – a lower stage of humanity, somewhere between apes and white people. This kind of thinking gave a certain scientific "legitimacy" to the rapid and vicious expansion of colonialism around the world.

The people in these cages likely did not always understand what they represented to the visitors who came to see them. They just saw the white faces staring in, watching them with pity, curiosity – or disgust.

The dehumanizing world of human zoos wasn't so long ago, with many existing well into the 20th century. Today, we still have a photographic record of what it was like to peer in on somebody's life – and what it was like to look out on the eyes watching you.

Intrigued by this look at human zoos? Next, read up on Ota Benga's short tragic life as an exhibit inside human zoos. Then, for more glimpses into the brutal inequalities of colonialism, read three letters that former slaves sent to their masters and wonder why Belgium's genocidal King Leopold II isn't as reviled as Hitler or Stalin.

Mark Oliver
Mark Oliver is a writer and teacher, and father whose work has appeared on The Onion's StarWipe, Yahoo, and Cracked.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
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Oliver, Mark. "Colonialism’s Cages: When Indigenous People Were Placed In Human Zoos.", March 9, 2017, Accessed June 16, 2024.