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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
1. 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
(firstname.lastname@example.org), 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.
2. On this point, see our article "Les pièges de la mémoire
coloniale", Cahiers français, La documentation Française,
juillet-août, 2001, pp. 75-82.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. On this subject see Paul Greenhalgh, Ephemeral Vistas. The Expositions
Universelles, Great Exhibitions and World's Fairs, 1851-1939, Manchester:
Manchester University Press, 1988.
6. 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
7. See P. Blanchard and N. Bancel, De l'indigène à l'immigré,
Paris: Gallimard, "Découvertes", 2001, 128 p. (new edition
revised and expanded).
8. 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.
9. 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.
10. 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.