Belgium comes to terms with ‘human zoos’ of its colonial past

A ‘human zoo’ in Belgium in 1897. Photograph: photo R Stalin (Inforcongo), 1958, RMCA Tervuren

Sixty years ago, Belgium set up a live display of people from Congo for the 1958 world fair. Now the country is rethinking that legacy

Sixty years ago on Tuesday, Belgium staged the opening of the 1958 world fair, a glittering 200-day celebration of postwar social, cultural and technological advances.

It is said to retain an “important place in the collective memory of the Belgian nation”. A series of events are being held in the Atomium, the futuristic landmark built for the spectacle, in recognition.

Yet as the Belgian capital indulges in nostalgia, one exhibit staged at the time is not being revisited: a live display of black men, women and children in “native conditions” laid on for the education and amusement of white Europeans.

It was the world’s last “human zoo”.

The human zoo, Belgium, 1958.
58. Photograph: photo R. Stalin (Inforcongo), 1958, RMCA Tervuren

As of 1958, Belgium still ruled Congo, a piece of territory some 80 times its own size, and a source of great pride to the country. The mineral-rich central African state was not only hugely economically rewarding but garlanded Belgium, a small European nation in the shadows of Britain and France, with standing in the world.

Expo ’58 was seen by Belgian politicians as a chance to burnish this achievement, sealing what was seen as a special bond with Belgian Congo.

At the foot of the Atomium, a rejoinder to Paris’s Eiffel Tower, and the centre piece of the exhibition, eight hectares of land peppered by seven pavilions were dedicated to the themes of mining in Congo, its arts, transport and agriculture, among others. It was known as the Kongorama.

In its three hectares of tropical gardens, Congolese men, women and children were put on show day-after-day, in “traditional” dress behind a bamboo perimeter fence.

Human zoos were in no way a novelty to the west and had been held regularly earlier in the century in London, Paris, Oslo and Hamburg. In New York in 1906, a young Congolese man with sharpened teeth was given a home in the monkey house in the Bronx zoo.

In the summer of 1897, King Leopold II had imported 267 Congolese to Brussels to be on show around his colonial palace in Tervuren, east of Brussels, paddling in their canoes on the royal lakes; 1.3 million Belgians, out of a population of 4 million, visited, walking over a rope bridge to get the best view.

The 1897 human zoo in Belgium.
The 1897 human zoo in Belgium.

That summer was bitterly cold and seven of the Congolese died of pneumonia and influenza, their bodies dumped in an unmarked mass grave in the local cemetery. But such was the popularity of the zoo and other exhibits that a permanent exhibition was to be later established at the site. Initially called the Museum of the Congo, it is now the Royal Museum for Central Africa.

The 1958 exhibit was smaller in scale, but similar in content. A “typical” village was set up, where the Congolese spent their days carrying out their crafts by straw huts while they were mocked by the white men and women who stood at the edge.

“If there was no reaction, they threw money or bananas over the closure of bamboo,” one journalist wrote at the time of the spectators.

Another report told of people gossiping about “seeing the negros at the zoological gardens”.

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 bussed 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 recognised it to be, closed down, and the rest of the fair carried on.

Such a zoo was not to be staged anywhere again, and in January 1959, Congo won its independence. But for Guido Gryseels, the director general at the Royal Museum for Central Africa (RMCA), the permanent exhibition that grew from 1897, combating the prejudices that were at the core of the zoo and still, he says, persist, is the focus of his working life.

Guido Gryseels, the director general of the RMCA
Guido Gryseels, the director general of the RMCA. Photograph: Daniel Boffey for the Guardian

On 1 December, following a €75m renovation, the RMCA will reopen five years after it last opened its doors to the public. There is a new visitors centre and a vast underground space that has doubled the museum’s exhibition area to 11,000 sq metres. But beyond the physical transformation, a much more significant change is about to be undertaken.

When Gryseels took over the museum in 2001, the permanent exhibition had barely changed since the 1920s, he said. Along with Leopold II’s double L motifs looking down on visitors in almost every room, and the royal quotations celebrating the higher moral plane of the colonisation, the story that was told was of Belgium bringing light where there was darkness.

“For 100 years we have been a colonial institution”, Gryseels said. “For most Belgians their first encounter with Africa is our museum. The initial impression of Africa by most Belgians was made here in this museum, and that is that the white person is better than the black person. We were there to civilise them. The Africans we portray here are naked with a spear without a culture of their own.”

A reason for the inertia at the museum, he believes, is that in reality Belgian society has not wanted to rethink its colonial past. “It is very emotional here because every Belgian family has a family member who worked in Congo. All of them. A missionary, a teacher, an administrator. You ask any Belgian and they all have. So it is a very emotional debate.”

Gryseels said discussions about the colonial past didn’t start in Belgium until the publication of the Adam Hochschild’s book King Leopold’s Ghost in 1998. “Bit by bit there was more discussion”, Gryseels said. “But, [the] curriculum in Belgian schools until recently was ‘we brought civilisation’.”

There are some voices from the Congolese diaspora calling for the “decolonisation” of his institution, and its closure. But Gryseels says his job in the next nine months is to tell a new story about Belgium in the Congo.

On the opening day, the minister of foreign affairs is expected to give a speech on Belgium’s colonial past in the presence of the royal family. “We have a responsibility for cultivating an attitude that a lot of Belgians have of being superior to black people”, Gryseels said. “And that is changing. But it is going to take a while.”