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The forgotten human zoo

In 1907, Paris played host to an expo in which colonial natives were put on show: one million people came to look

At Vincennes, on the edge of Paris, visitors may stumble across the relics of the 1907 colonial exhibition, held in the tropical gardens established in 1899 for experiments on exotic plants. French authorities have neglected the site, a sombre reminder of Europe’s colonial past, which is now in danger of being irreparably lost.

The Gallic rooster at the entrance of the Jardin Tropical has seen better days. Once destined to preside over one of Paris’s main avenues, the central figure of the monument to the glory of colonial expansion has lost a leg and is now covered in moss. But it still stands proudly, strutting on a globe representing the earth, on a bed of weapons and travelling instruments.

“It’s the junkyard of French colonial history,” says historian Pascal Blanchard. “The memory of France’s relations to its colonies over the past century is concentrated here.”

There is little logic in the site’s layout. Buildings of Paris’s 1907 colonial exhibition stand alongside memorials to soldiers who died in the First World War, when the gardens saw service as a hospital for colonial troops. Embarrassing reminders of a sombre period in European history, the buildings have been left to rot away, paint peeling, roofs falling in, overrun with brambles.

Traces of the exotic can still be found, in the shape of an etched palm tree on Benin’s pavilion or a couple of mosaics on Tunisia’s pavilion. Typical world fair pavilions, but with a more sinister story. Many historians now call such colonial exhibits “human zoos”.

Men and women from the French colonies were brought to Europe and rented out to zoological and tropical gardens, where they were put on show alongside exotic animals. Kanak warriors and their families were shipped over from French New Caledonia. African families were recruited in Senegal, Niger, Guinea and Dahomey (in what is now
Benin) to live in replicas of their villages.

They were given mock traditional costumes, and told to dance or play music for the visitors. Such ethnological exhibitions were hugely popular at the beginning of the 20th century. They served the interests of the owners of tropical gardens, as well as the purposes of colonial administrators and anthropologists at the time.

The Jardin Tropical is the only remaining site in France where the displays have not been razed to the ground. The garden could be a great teaching tool for historians, many say, but it remains largely unknown and ignored.

“The exhibit has been neglected. I know Parisians who have lived all their life near Vincennes and who have never once set foot in it,” says Benjamin Pelletier, a writer and intercultural management trainer.

At the beginning of the 20th century, colonial Europe staged big spectacular events to whip up enthusiasm for the colonial effort and to encourage a sense of racial superiority.

“Sprinkling a couple of natives on these pavilions was their way of showing that they controlled and dominated people from the colonies,” says Mr Blanchard.

And the crowds loved it. One million people trekked through the colonial exhibition in 1907. Mr Blanchard estimates that one and a half billion people visited universal or colonial exhibits throughout the world from 1870 to 1930. For the visitors, going to the colonial exhibitions was akin to going to the circus, with exotic freak shows on offer for a couple of francs.

Postcards show women gushing over African babies and men ogling barebreasted African women, says art historian Isabelle Levêque. Men and women from the colonies were lured into joining paid troupes that toured international exhibitions from Marseille to New York, where they were exploited by agents, colonial administrators or village chiefs.

“It was a business, straightforward capitalism,” says Mr Blanchard. “The natives on show were free and they were paid to take part in the show, but they were oppressed by the visitor’s gaze that forced them into a role that was not theirs. And this role gave visitors the impression they were looking at someone who was a symbol of a race.”

Degrading living conditions, disease and low temperatures meant that many died on tour. At Paris’s Jardin d’Acclimatation, 27 men and women died on show and were buried in the garden, says Mr Blanchard.

One hundred years later, the exhibit is an example of the pervasive racism at the time, a time France wants to forget.

“It’s a clear sign of our collective amnesia,” says Blanchard, “and it’s here you can see our memory decaying in front of our eyes. The French state, the local authorities, the Paris town council, they are all responsible and they have all agreed to do absolutely nothing.”

It is surprising that France, usually so proud of its heritage, has neglected the Jardin Tropical, says Mr Pelletier. He believes the Paris town council is caught in a double-bind. “They daren’t restore or enhance the site, because that would be tantamount to elevating a sombre chapter in French history,” he says. “On the other hand, they daren’t destroy it, because it is part of our heritage.”

In 2006, it was estimated that the renovation of the site would cost €6.5 million. But the funds were never allocated, former deputy mayor Yves Contassot says.

“Soon afterwards, the Paris mayor said he didn’t want to fund the restoration of the garden,” says Mr Contassot, a member of the Green Party. “He was very clear: if people want to pay for it, they can, but it was not his priority.”

The Paris city council denies there was any backtracking and says €1million was allocated to renovating the Indo-China pavilion, which is to be completed this year. The town hall is currently seeking partnerships to renovate the rest of the Jardin Tropical.

The renovation project will not explore the details of the exhibition of human beings during the 1907 colonial exhibition, it says.

Nothing will be hidden, the council says, but it prefers to promote good relations between the northern and the southern hemisphere. But reluctance to act means the site is disintegrating rapidly. In 2004, Congo’s pavilion was destroyed in a fire.

“This indecision is harmful, because the weather is taking its toll on the pavilions and they are disappearing,” says Mr Pelletier.


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