The history of the subjugation of darker-skinned peoples by Western Europeans is exemplified not only in the transatlantic slave trade that thrived from the 16th through the 19th centuries, but also in the phenomenon of global colonialism, which lasted even longer.
The colonies of Africa were among the last to gain independence from European rule, most not until the mid-20th century. Among them was the Belgian Congo, a Central African territory claimed by Belgium’s King Leopold II for his personal exploitation in 1885. Leopold’s 23-year misrule over his so-called “Congo Free State” was so flagrant that his own government wrested control of it from him in 1908. It would remain a Belgian colony until 1960.
Leopold II introduced his countrymen to a colonialist tradition that would come to be known, in retrospect, as “human zoos.” These were public showings (“ethnological exhibitions” was what they were called at the time) of indigenous people plucked from their homelands, shipped across oceans, and put on display — usually in recreated “native” habitats, but also, in some cases, literally in cages — for the edification and amusement of mostly European audiences. They were very popular attractions at international expositions (world’s fairs) during the late 19th century and early 20th centuries, when smaller versions of the same could also be found in museums and traveling shows, in the United States as well as Europe, featuring so-called “primitive” peoples from many different parts of the world, including the Americas.
Leopold mounted such a display on his estate in conjunction with the Brussels International Exposition of 1897. What it was like and what it revealed about the deep racism implicit in the colonialist mindset was captured in a National Public Radio feature in September 2018:
The Royal Museum for Central Africa began as a temporary exhibition in 1897 in Tervuren, where Leopold had his country estate.
The most talked-about part of the exhibition was the “human zoo” — a mock African village set up in the estate’s woods and ponds. King Leopold, who never set foot in Congo, imported 267 Congolese men, women and children to Tervuren and displayed them behind a fence.
“When Leopold heard they were getting sick because of candy they were eating that was tossed to them by the crowd, he put up an equivalent of a ‘Don’t Feed the Animals’ sign at a zoo, saying, ‘the blacks are fed by the organizing committee,'” [Adam] Hochschild said in a documentary based on his book [King Leopold’s Ghost].
Seven Congolese died of pneumonia and influenza at this human zoo and were buried in Tervuren. Marie-Claire Lusamba, a Congolese businesswoman living in Belgium, leaves flowers at their grave before exploring the serene park that used to be the human zoo. She says the racism she sees in Belgium is directly tied to colonialism.
“If they acknowledge that, then we can move forward,” she says. “Because it did not stop with Leopold and this human zoo.”
Indeed, 61 years later, in 1958, the spectacle would be repeated as if nothing had been learned in the intervening half-century. Among the exhibits seen by visitors to that year’s Brussels World’s Fair (“Expo ’58”) was a reconstructed Congolese village populated with hundreds of “inhabitants” brought over from Africa.
Some contemporaneous press accounts conveyed a sanguine impression of the quaint tableaux of native life presented in the Congo Pavilion. This is how it was described by an American visitor in the 30 May 1958 edition of the Battle Creek Enquirer and News:
Amid all the presentations of the future at the Brussels Universal Exposition are many exhibitions of distinctively national and regional character. Here, for example, is a Congo native farm set up on the grounds. During exhibition days natives work here, creating swords and tools with Iron Age methods, and weaving designs that vie for beauty with the most advanced shown in any of the many pavilions.
But a disquieting photograph taken at the exhibition reveals a darker side. The image often appears in historical retrospectives of Expo ’58 and is frequently shared on social media as an example of colonial racism:
— Jan Busselen (@JanBusselen) January 14, 2014
In the photograph, white exhibition-goers are seen interacting with a black child standing alone in an enclosure marked off by crude fencing. It’s unclear from the grainy image what the precise nature of that interaction was, but the standard description is plausible: Visitors were feeding the child as one might feed an animal in a zoo.
The description “human zoo” is clearly apt in a figurative sense — the human beings on display were gawked at and to some extent treated like zoo animals, but the exhibition wasn’t billed or promoted as such. The Congolese people who took part in it did so voluntarily and weren’t confined there. That they were free to go is demonstrated in what ultimately became of the Congo village display — it was abandoned.
According to Zana Etambala, a Royal Museum historian interviewed by NPR, the Congolese people who played the roles of villagers in the Congo Pavilion had come to Brussels under the impression that they were participating in a “cultural exchange.” The experience proved to be anything but:
Instead, they found themselves standing behind a bamboo fence, on live display for Europeans, some of whom made monkey noises to get their attention.
“They were throwing bananas and peanuts to [the Congolese],” says Etambala, who grew up in Belgium and Congo. “And the Congolese protested against that. They wanted to be respected and not seen as animals in a zoo.”
An account of the Congo Pavilion in The Guardian, also from 2018, noted that at a certain point the Congolese packed up and went home:
The Congolese on display were among 598 people – including 273 men, 128 women and 197 children, a total of 183 families – brought over from Africa to staff the wider fair.
The colonial office was “very nervous about what this stay of such an unprecedented number of Congolese in Belgium might do”, according to Dr Sarah Van Beurden, a historian of central Africa.
But housed in a dedicated building isolated from the Expo from which they could be bused in and out, the Congolese complained of cramped accommodation, the strict limitations on visitors or excursions from the building, and, of course, daily abuse at the fair.
By July, the Congolese artists and artisans, and their families, could take no more and some went back home. The human zoo, as the Congolese recognized it to be, closed down, and the rest of the fair carried on.
Film footage and photographs of the mock village (including the now-infamous image of white tourists gawking at the Congolese child) were featured in a 60th anniversary retrospective aired by Belgium’s Flemish Radio and Television Broadcasting Organization (VRT). As noted in VRT’s online commentary, Expo ’58’s colonialist trappings apparently had the unintended consequence of accelerating the Congo’s push for independence.
A backlash took place in the Belgian press against the treatment of the Congolese, as noted by historian Gonzague Pluvinage in his 2008 book Expo 58: Between Utopia and Reality:
Children had given bananas to the Congolese and passers-by had insulted them. This had already occurred in 1897 and the press took issue with it on both occasions. This time, in 1958, the authorities decided that the Congolese should not be exposed to such treatment. De Standaard concluded therefore that by placing Africans before a white public, this type of Exhibition led to a misunderstanding and belittling of the artists equating them with animals in a zoo.
As it happened, members of the Congolese intelligentsia also attended the fair as invited guests of the Belgian government. Among them, reportedly, was a political activist named Patrice Lumumba, who, upon returning to Africa, helped found the Congolese National Movement, which immediately pressed for decolonization.
“The fundamental aim of our movement is to free the Congolese people from the colonialist regime and earn them their independence,” Lumumba would say in a December 1958 speech, mere months after the Expo ended. “We base our action on the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man — rights guaranteed to each and every citizen of humanity by the United Nations Charter — and we are of the opinion that the Congo, as a human society, has the right to join the ranks of free peoples.”
Led by Lumumba, who would become the nation’s first prime minister, the Democratic Republic of the Congo declared its independence from Belgium on 30 May 1960.