The History of Human Zoos in America [Full Documentary]

An Indigenous child from the Philippines is put on display in New York City for visitors to leer at.

In 2018 the Discovery Institute premiered its documentary film, Human Zoos: America’s Forgotten History of Scientific Racism. The film exposes the American scientific community’s long, abhorrent history of treating entire races of people as subhuman, from justifying their being put on display in cages, to the eugenics movement which led to the forced sterilization of tens of thousands of people in the early 20th century. While the film’s director, Dr. John West, holds that science is a wonderful thing, “human zoos, scientific racism, and eugenics were shocking betrayals of science.” He made the film so that “people will be encouraged to stand up for human dignity even when it comes under attack in the name of science.”

For the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, thousands of Indigenous people were taken from Africa, Asia and the Americas to be put on display for the amusement of white people. Some of them were placed behind fences and introduced to over a million spectators as lower forms of humans. Scientific experiments were performed on Indigenous Americans to test their threshold for pain. These atrocities were all done in the name of science and had nearly the full backing of the scientific community. William McGee, a leading American scientist, was chosen to lead the anthropology department for the World Fair. He used discredited theories, taken seriously by mainstream scientists at the time, to promote the idea that Black and Indigenous people were at the bottom of the “racial scale”. Such theories of racial inferiority would eventually lead to the American Eugenics movement, a “human purity” movement which resulted in the forced sterilization of at least 60,000 people deemed by science at that time to be either racially, mentally, or physically inferior to other human beings. (This movement would serve as an inspiration to the man who would become Nazi Germany’s Chancellor, Adolf Hitler.) It would be the religious communities who brought forth the strongest opposition to these horrifying practices.

The most famous person to ever be put on display as a tourist attraction would be a young man from the Congo named Ota Benga. Benga was kidnapped as a teenager from what was then the Belgium-controlled “Congo Free State” ruled by the bloody Belgium King Leopold II, a mass murderer responsible for the deaths of 10-12 million Congolese people. Benga was taken by a man named Samuel Verner, who claimed to have purchased the young African off a slave market, to the United States. There he was exhibited at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904 and advertised as an “African Pygmy from the Congo Free State”. After the World’s Fair ended, instead of returning Benga to the Congo as originally planned, Samuel Verner decided he could further exploit his young captive by putting him permanently on display inside a cage with a monkey. In 1906, Ota Benga was caged in New York City’s Bronx Zoo where up to 500 people would come at a time to gawk and leer at the young man from the Congo. On September 6, 40,000 visitors came to observe Ota Benga after he was allowed outside the cage for a day. Visitors chased him, poked him in his ribs and tripped him, all the while laughing as they did it.

Ota Benga circa 1904

Ota Benga had been put on display and forced to suffer humiliation after humiliation as a means of stigmatizing the entire Black race, as evidenced by the statements of the so-called “progressive men of science” of the time and echoed by the New York Times editorial board. It would be African American ministers who spearheaded the campaign to free Ota Benga from captivity, and after months of controversy they secured Benga’s release to a Brooklyn orphanage on September 28, 1906. Less than four years later, in January, 1910, he left Brooklyn for Lynchburg, Virginia where he was to receive an education. As hard as he tried to build a new life in the United States, it would never feel like home for Ota Benga. Heartbroken, homesick and traumatized from years of captivity, torture and abuse, Ota Benga took a gun on March 16, 1916 and shot himself through the heart.

If there’s one thing Dr. John West wants viewers to take away from this film, it’s that “too often people think that ideas don’t matter. Human zoos shows otherwise, investigating how false ideas about science can lead to false ideas about our fellow human beings.” Unfortunately the white supremacist Alt-right movement in the United States has resuscitated these horrific ideas that belong in the dustbin of history. Human Zoos proves that the racist ideas of the Alt-right can have devastating consequences for humanity, and those who promote these ideas must be challenged and confronted each and every time they try to spread them.

Further reading:

The man who was caged in a zoo – The Guardian

The horrifying Human Zoos – Daily Mail

Reassessing the ‘Hottentot Venus’

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