Savage is a story of the victims of the so-called human zoos, which were public ethnological exhibitions of “exotic” humans from outside Europe and the US. These exhibitions were particularly popular during the period of colonial empires between 1830 and 1958 and it is estimated that they were attended by about 1.4 billion Westerns.
One of the first notable examples of a human being exhibited to a wider public was that of Saartjie Baartman, nicknamed the “Hottentot Venus”, who was brought to London in 1810 and spent 4 years travelling the United Kingdom as a “performer”. In 1814 she was sold to a Parisian animal trainer who put her on display in the Palais-Royal. During that time she was also examined by Georges Cuvier, founder and professor of comparative anatomy at the Museum of Natural History, who searched for proof the missing link between animals and human beings. Baartman, who lived in poverty and at times had to wear a collar around her neck, died of an undetermined disease a year later. After her death, Cuvier dissected her body, and displayed her remains. For more than a century and a half, visitors to the Museum of Man in Paris could view her brain, skeleton and genitalia as well as a plaster cast of her body. Her remains were returned to South Africa in 2002 and she was buried in the Eastern Cape on South Africa’s.
In the following decades entrepreneurs like P.T Barnum made large profits on exhibiting other “exotic” human beings - like Maximo and Bartola, two physically disabled children from El Salvador, who were known around the US and Europe as “Aztec Lilliputians”, Joice Heth, a supposedly 161 years old African-American slave who was claimed to be the nanny of George Washington, or the Siamese twins Chang and Eng Bunker.
However, it wasn’t until the 1870s that human exhibitions became a veritable large-scale industry across the West. The man who stood at the forefront of this development was Carl Hagenbeck, a Hamburg-based merchant in wild animals, who quickly realised that in the climate of imperialist hysteria prevalent in Europe at the time exhibiting humans was more profitable than selling animals. Hagenbeck organised a number of very successful exhibitions of various peoples: Samoans, Samis, Nubians, Inuits, and others. They toured European capitals, sometimes put on display in Zoos with exotic animals.
After Hagenbeck’s successes in the 1870s, human exhibitions became an integral part of all major world fair’s and colonial exhibitions. The 1889 Parisian World Fair, which was attended by over 28 million visitors, displayed 400 indigenous people as a part of a Village nègre. Similar practices were adopted around the world during the grandiose exhibitions in France, the UK, Belgium, Holland, Germany, the US, and even Japan. Human beings were often put on displayed nude or semi-nude, sometimes in cages. “Exotic villages” and recreations of famous colonial landmarks were a major part of world fair’s until the 1930s (the 1931 Parisian exhibition was attended by 34 million visitors) and the last famous example of an African village on display was at the 1958 Brussels Expo.
It is estimated that about 35 thousand human beings were exhibited during the century and a half of the existence of human zoos, and about 7 thousand of them died as a result.
We made Savage with these 7 thousand victims of inhumane treatment in mind - for a long time human exhibitions were a dirty secret which people in the West did not want to talk about, but it seems that researchers around the world are now doing more to shine some light on this shameful part of colonial history, which has unfortunately shaped the way the West perceives people from other parts of the world.