The May edition of the Dutch professional magazine for the perfoming arts ‘Theatermaker’, features my article ‘Gevangen in de beeldtaal. Afrikaanse mensvertoningen in Nederland’ (‘Locked up in the imagery. Human exhibitions of Africans in The Netherlands’). Kindly I would like to thank Floortje Bakkeren for initiating this opportunity, Simon van den Berg for his patience and constructive feedback and editor Katharina Veraart.
Scramble for Africa
In 2009, Bert Sliggers, at the time curator of the Teylers Museum Haarlem, was the first to compose an overview of human exhibitions in The Netherlands. Using posters in city archives and reports in print media, he counted 34 human displays in 46 cities during the years 1825-1913. More than a decade after Sliggers’ publication, online databases allow for an expansion of Sliggers initial overview. Thus far I traced 68 human exhibitions in 366 Dutch cities in the period 1809-1951, mainly through advertisements and reports in the database Delpher.
Almost half of the exhibited groups involved Africans, which is consistent with findings for human exhibitions worldwide. The peak of the human displays coincided exactly with the ‘Scramble for Africa’: between 1880 and 1914, the continent was colonized and divided among European powers.
In Dutch newspapers the human exhibitions were announced as African villages and ‘ethnographic exhibitions’, implying a truthful representation and educative experience. However, these human exhibitions were first and foremost a construction based on European notions of Africa and therefore staged in minute detail. Stemming from social Darwinism was the persistent conviction that Africans were the most primitive humans on the evolutionary scale. They were perceived to be closer to the animal kingdom and, by extension, very far removed from the apex of human evolution: the Occidental ‘white race’. Consequently, zoological gardens were regarded as a most suitable environment for the exhibitions of Africans.
The zoological garden of The Hague was the location for human exhibitions. In 1889 Dutch journalists described the Angolese women and men that were exhibited by Louis Joseph Goddefroy as “charcoal black creatures with their ape- like movements”, the face of one of the women was compared to that of a gorilla, her baby son to an orangutan.
Some of the people that were exhibited by Goddefroy were serviçais : the property of Portuguese slaveholders. In his memoirs, Goddefroy recounted he bought one of the men after he was imprisoned after he tried to escape. The Angolese exemplify one end of the spectrum: people who were forced, sometimes after kidnapping, to be displayed.
The other end of the spectrum comprises Africans who willingly chose to take part in the exhibitions. A case in point is Sam Emanuels from Sierra Leone. Since 1902 he was a member of the group ‘Mandigo Warriors’, Amsterdam was part of their tour in 1909.
Anne Dreesbach mentions in her dissertation that Emanuel became an organizer of human exhibitions himself. He defined himself as a professional actor and impresario for ‘ethnic villages’ and seemed to have created agency and opportunities for himself and the men, women, and children in his group. Nevertheless, I argue this agency was limited since Emanuel remained chained to deeply rooted European perceptions of Africans as inferior.
As can be seen on the poster for Emanuels’ show. the women wear costumes with uncovered arms and open neck; markers of unrestrained sexuality. The woman in the foreground smiles seductively at the viewer. Moreover, she carelessly holds a spear in her hands, while young children learn to handle the weapons. The combat scenes, ‘martial exercises’ and ‘sacrificial dances’ in the human exhibitions arose from ideas about the innate compulsion to brutality of Africans.
The overview of Sliggers ended with the First World War, but in the 1920s elements of human exhibitions remained ingrained in popular culture. A poster from the Theatre Collection of the Allard Pierson Museum shows Hans Stosch-Sarrasani, a legend in the circus world. He is portrayed in the costume in which he, seated on an elephant, made a grand entrance into the arena. The turban, glittering jewellery and the decorations adorning his chest seem to be expressions of the exuberant imagination that made a visit to his circus such a colourful experience. German historians offer a different perspective. They interpret the inclusion of elements of human exhibitions in circus acts as a ‘colonial fantasy’.
Cultural historian Marline Otte (1999) states that Sarrasani dressed as a maharaja because he considered himself the enlightened ruler of a circus empire of native Americans, Arabs and Bedouins, Ethiopians, Indians, Chinese and Japanese. The cultural stereotypes from the human exhibitions thus became interwoven with an ideology based on racial superiority.
Dutch collections contain photographs of the 1930 Dutch tour of ‘Capitain’ Alfred Scheider and ‘Dawudu’s’, a prelude to the interweaving of the core ideas of human exhibitions with national socialism.
Schneider is still renowned for his lion acts, but since 1921 he was organizing human exhibitions, known in Germany as Völkerschauen. In 1930, the so-called ‘Dawudu’s’ were men who had served in the German military in the former African colonies, African-American Clarence Walton, and women of mixed Afro-German descent. His experience with Völkerschauen made Schneider, an early member of the NSDAP, eligible to briefly become the leader of the Deutsche Afrika-Schau in late 1936. The Deutsche Afrika-Schau was founded around 1934 by Afro-Germans to protect themselves against overt hostilities and racism after the NSDAP came to power.
According to historian Susann Lewerenz (2006), some of the Afro-Germans had worked in theatres and the variety circuit. Initially, they performed cabaret, acrobatics, and vocals in the Afrika-Schau from their own repertoire. Schneider removed their own artistic repertoire and situated the Schau in the familiar setting of an African village: on the one hand to portray perceptions of inferiority, and on the other as propaganda for German colonialism. The photographs in Dutch collections have not yet been included in publications about the Deutsche Afrika -Schau and are thus a visual source of the history of this specific human exhibition.
- Dreesbach, Anne, Gezähmte Wilde: die Zurschaustellung ‘exotischer’ Menschen in Duitschland, 1870 – 1940 (Frankfurt 2005).
- Van Laak, Dirk, ‘Der lange Schatten der ‘Tropensehnsucht’’, Tagesspiegel (05.01.2019) https://www.tagesspiegel.de/wissen/deutscher-kolonialismus-der-lange-schatten-der-tropensehnsucht/23825568.html
- Lewerenz, Susann , Die Deutsche Afrika-Schau (1935–1940). Rassismus, Kolonialrevisionismus und postkoloniale Auseinandersetzungen im nationalsozialistischen Deutschland, (Frankfurt am Main 2006).
- Otte, Marline, ‘Sarrasani’s Theatre of the World: Monumental Circus Entertainment in Dresden, from Kaiserreich to Third Reich’, German History 17/ 4 (1999), 527 – 542.
- Thode-Arora, Hilke, ‘From Samoa with love? Colonial power displays, commodities and state presents – contextualizing and exhibiting the Samoa collection in the Fünf Kontinente Museum, Munich’, in: Deutschen Museumsbund (ed.) Museumskunde band 81 1/16 (2016) 28-34.
- Winkler, Dietmar, “Kapitän” Alfred Schneider : ein Sachse unter 100 Löwen : eine dokumentarische Biografie (Gransee 2014).