VOL. 4, NO. 4, PGS. 31–39


The Delusional Rationalisation of Racism
The Case of “Human Zoos”
Juan M. Sánchez Arteaga

Juan M. Sánchez Arteaga is a Professor at the Federal University of Bahia. He is also the author of La razón salvaje: la lógica del dominio: tecnociencia, racismo and racionalidad.

This translation has been automatically generated and has not been verified for accuracy.

One of the most delusional manifestations1 of racism throughout history has been what some authors call “human zoos”. This particular type of anthropological exhibit was at its most developed between the 19th and 20th centuries, although there were many other types of human exhibits in numerous countries and contexts long before that period. Anthropological exhibits, particularly those that were considered to be of high scientific value, contributed, mainly between the 18th and 20th centuries, to the process of rationalisation of racism by modern science.

A long-standing practice

The practice of exposing the “Other” to view is much older than modern science, and has been carried out throughout history for multiple purposes. Sometimes the display was for commercial purposes (e.g. for the sale of slaves, who had to be exhibited beforehand). At other times, there were religious purposes (for example, to proselytise and advertise missionary work) or political ones, such as when indigenous people were brought to Europe with the idea of teaching them the language and/or religion and then returning them to their lands so that the “acculturated” natives could help as interpreters to spread the Christian faith or facilitate colonisation. This was the case of the 10 Caribbean natives brought by Christopher Columbus after his first voyage to America (of whom barely 6 arrived alive in Spain) and also of the Kawésqar Fuegian natives who, in the 19th century, were kidnapped by order of Robert FitzRoy and taken to the United Kingdom on the HSM Beagle, the same ship where the young Charles Darwin later began to develop his evolutionary ideas. From the second half of the 18th century, some of these natives began to be transported to Europe for scientific purposes. From this period onwards, certain human exhibits were considered of high (proto)anthropological value. However, until well into the 19th century, most exhibits were still exclusively for recreational and commercial purposes (as in the freak shows that became major mass spectacles in the 19th and 20th centuries).

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