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People In a Zoo

Posted by addisethiopia on June 19, 2009

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Hamburg, Germany 1874-1931_______________________________________________________


Just less than 100 years ago, one  could visit a Zoo near Hamburg, Germany, where, alongside the animals, were displayed Lapps and Nubians, Ethiopians and Indians.


During the times of Emperor Wilhelm ll when Zoos were keen to show, not only wild animals, but, men, women and children from exotic countries – displayed like cattle. Africans and Asians were exhibited as human figures with kinship to specific animal species, thus literalizing the colonialist zeugma yoking “native” and were less than human.

People came in droves to watch the controversial spectacle

“You could not exactly call our guests beautiful”, jokes the animal dealer Carl Hagenbeck in the summer of 1874 on the extension of the park to the latest delivery from Lapland “Their skin color is a dirty yellow, the skull is round with firm black hair overgrown, they have slant-eyes, the nose is small and flat.”


The idea was a resounding success, and Hagenbeck was proud of his Human-Zoo/Menagerie project: “It was granted to me, The first exhibits in the civilized world of this sort were granted to me,” said the entrepreneur in his own memoirs. Though, people from other continents have been presented since the Middle Ages at fairs and Prince farms, but, Carl Hagenbeck was the first animal-dealer and subsequent Zoo-founder who made the idea a commercially success – and the first organizer of large-scale “anthropological-zoological exhibits,” as he himself called his spectacles.

“Hottentots” for Science

The concept of Hagenbeck’s ethnic-event in the Menagerie was something completely new: For the first time in human history, a complete group of people, including animals, housing and equipment was shown together. The intention of such an exhibition was to let the European observers make for themselves a realistic picture of the daily life of each ethnic group. After the sensational success with the Northern Lapps, Hagenbeck’s agents advertised all over the world more exotic “guests” to the white audience: Nubians from Sudan, Inuits from Greenland and Canada, Ethiopians, Somalis, Indians and Sinhalese, even “Hottentots” from the German colony of Southwest Africa. Hagenbeck and his peoples-show will soon be on tour throughout Europe with a pleasant shiver in front of the “savages” to admire.


The famous doctor from Berlin, Rudolf Virchow, through his ethnological studies, gave an academic coating or application to these commercial performances. Virchow, now considered as one of the founding fathers of modern medicine, was also chairman of the German Society for Anthropology, Ethnology and prehistorical Studies. He examined many of the participants of the peoples-shows, surveyed their body and head shapes, and made assumptions about the intelligence of the various specimens of exotic people.


Thus, he was in line with the science of his time, which tried to define the human “races” and to examine them in a hierarchical order. In one article, Virchow praises the scientific importance of Hagenbeck’s exhibitions: “This sort of imagination about people is very interesting for anyone who wants to be convinced about the position, human in Nature ever takes in, and on the development, which the human race has traversed.


Such expositions gave Utopian form to White supremacist ideology, legitimizing racial hierarchies abroad and muting class and gender divisions among Whites at home by stressing national agency in a global project of domination.


This successful Peoples-Exposition took place at the peak of European colonialism, just before the beginning of the First World War. This was an era in which Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany demanded a “Place in the Sun” for Colonial Germany. Most contemporaries, as well as Hagenbeck himself, did sense the issue of exhibiting exotic people parallel to exotic animals not as offensive – after all, they were firmly convinced of the superiority of the “white man”. Carl Hagenbeck’s sons continued displaying the Exposition even up until 1931, visitors were forced to look away from the famous exhibition, when Cinema, in the late 1930s, had replaced the productions as a venue for exotic.

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