Human Zoo- A Haunting Past in Paris’ Bois de Vincennes
The disturbing idea of a human zoo really changed my viewpoint of this forgotten garden of the Colonial Exposition. The epitome of racism, the garden hides its sordid history in the corner of the Bois de Vincennes.
This place of public exhibition promoted French colonialism. Le jardin d’agronomie tropicale René Dumont or Jardin Tropicale for short is a curious mix of the remains of various colonial villages and World War I memorials.
Here we entered through a Chinese pagoda-style arch to find statues and remnants of statues abandoned to the elements.
In the late 1800s, this was a tropical garden devoted to cultivation of plants from the French empire: Congo, Indochina, Madagascar, Morocco, Sudan, and Tunisia. During the Colonial Exposition in 1907, recreated indigenous villages represented life in the colonies. That whole idea absolutely breaks my heart. The more I read, the more sad I became. These indigenous people lived their lives on display and many died of diseases and were buried here – far from their homeland and families.
The remains of this Gallic rooster stands on a globe and a bed of weapons, one leg apparently broken.
Human Zoo – Ethnological Expositions in the Western World
These ethnological exhibitions were not just relegated to just Paris.
Between 1870 and 1930 these exhibits were world wide. I was horrified to discover that St Louis’s World Fair had a human zoo exhibit. Then I discovered Hamburg, Antwerp, New York, London and Milan to name a few also had these ethnological exhibitions. The postcards below show the human zoo found in the Jardin d’Acclimation located in Bois de Boulogne, Paris.
People were recruited from the French colonies, paid (it begs the question as to just how much were they paid), given traditional costumes and expected to live their lives on display. Some were enticed here with lies of seeing the world and visiting Paris, something that never happened. According to French historian Pascal Blanchard “Sprinkling a couple of natives on these pavilions was their way of showing that they controlled and dominated people from the colonies… We reckon that 1.4 billion people were exposed to these exhibitions of so-called ‘savages’, at universal exhibitions, fairs, circuses or theatres,” between 1810 and 1958″.
Human Zoo – Indigenous Villages
As we wandered on, we found ourselves in an area of the garden that pays tribute to a military hospital and the hospital mosque. This mosque remained open until 1926 when Paris completed the Grand Mosque. A beautiful obelisk honors the Cambodians and Laotians who died for France.
Dinh Esplanade and Indochinese Temple
We followed the path to a clearing, where we found the two buildings below. The first building in the photo was on our right and the second building on our left. Unlike most of the buildings here, these have evidently had some level of preservation done to them. In fact, the red temple below is a reconstruction and not the original.
In this same clearing there is a war memorial.
If it seems that I have a random organisation of the photos, I promise you they are not random. We entered the park, and walked counter clockwise through it. What is random is the actual placement of the buildings in the park itself. Possibly the organisation made more sense during the Colonial Exposition.
The Tunisan pavillion above housed the Ecole Nationale Supériere d’Agriculture Colonial (ENSAC) in 1902. Although not in as good of shape as some of the other buildings, I liked this one the best because of the artistic design.
The Indochina pavillon housed representations of animals, vegetables, and minerals as well as industrial and artisanal products of Laos, Cambodia, Cochinchine (southern third of current day Vietnam), Tonkin and Annam (central Vietnam today). It is really a beautiful building and it is clear that it has had a recent coat of paint.
The greenhouse above is the la serre de Dahomey or the Dahomey greenhouse. I had to do a bit of research to find out exactly what the sign referred to. It seems that Dahomey was an African kingdom which is present day Benin. At the time of the exposition it was France’s most recent acquisition. Here is the most interesting thing I discovered. They built their economy on conquests and slave labor. Their all-female military gets the credit for this. The indigenous people refused to allow photography during the exposition.
The Greenhouses and Beyond
As we approached the far side of the garden we found this beautiful modern day statue that reflects the Tunisian pavillon.
Virtually adjacent to the above pond was another pond with a delightful waterfall. Note that the bridge over this water feature is constructed to look like tree branches.
These greenhouses were used for cultivation during the Colonial Exposition. At this point, they seem to have taken on a life of their own.
Adjacent to the abandoned greenhouses sets this house with an abundant garden. I have been able to find nothing about this place that appears to be someone’s private home here at the edge of the Jardin Tropicale. What a curiosity in and of itself!
This is not a very descriptive photo of the Moroccan pavillon except for its clear state of dilapidation. There was no good viewpoint because of all the vegetation. I included it here instead of above with the indigenous villages because I wanted to remain true to the order we found things in the garden.
It took a bit of climbing through the overgrowth to get this photo. Who? What? Why? I have no idea the answer to these questions and although I’m sure there is a plaque at the base, I was not going to dig through all the undergrowth to find it!
Directions to the Human Zoo
To find the remnants of the human zoo, exit the Château de Vincennes, and take an enjoyable stroll through the Bois de Vincennes. Keep to the left side of the park until you eventually arrive at the garden. It is a beautiful walk if not a somewhat convoluted way to get to your destination.
If you don’t want to explore the woods, then the easy approach is to arrive via the metro. At the RER metro stop Nogent-sur-Marne, exit the station left on to Avenue des Marronniers. Turn right on Avenue des Chataigniers into the woods and take the first turn on your left.