The Guardian issued the following article in 2018, and I just found a PASSPORT of a man who was “exhibited” in the HUMAN ZOO during the WORLD EXHIBITION 1958 in Bruxelles, Belgium.
More than sixty years ago, 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. Passport last human zoo
It was the world’s last “human zoo”!
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. Belgian politicians saw expo ’58 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 reply to Paris’s Eiffel Tower, and the centerpiece 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. 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. Passport last human zoo
“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 broader 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 recognized it to be, closed down, and the rest of the fair carried on.
Such a zoo was not to be staged anywhere again, and on June 1960, 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.
On 1 December, following a €75m renovation, the RMCA will reopen five years after it last opened its doors to the public. There are a new visitors center and a vast underground space that has doubled the museum’s exhibition area to 11,000 sq meters. 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 colonization, the story that was told was of Belgium bringing light where there was darkness. Passport last human zoo
“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 civilize 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 civilization.’”
There are some voices from the Congolese diaspora calling for the “decolonization” 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.” Passport last human zoo
•This article was amended on 17 April 2018. Congo gained independence in June 1960, not January 1959.
An outstanding document of passport history!
FAQ Passport History
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1. What are the earliest known examples of passports, and how have they evolved?
The word "passport" came up only in the mid 15th Century. Before that, such documents were safe conducts, recommendations or protection letters. On a practical aspect, the earliest passport I have seen was from the mid 16th Century. Read more...
2. Are there any notable historical figures or personalities whose passports are highly sought after by collectors?
Every collector is doing well to define his collection focus, and yes, there are collectors looking for Celebrity passports and travel documents of historical figures like Winston Churchill, Brothers Grimm, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Read more...
3. How did passport designs and security features change throughout different periods in history, and what impact did these changes have on forgery prevention?
"Passports" before the 18th Century had a pure functional character. Security features were, in the best case, a watermark and a wax seal. Forgery, back then, was not an issue like it is nowadays. Only from the 1980s on, security features became a thing. A state-of-the-art passport nowadays has dozens of security features - visible and invisible. Some are known only by the security document printer itself. Read more...
4. What are some of the rarest and most valuable historical passports that have ever been sold or auctioned?
Lou Gehrig, Victor Tsoi, Marilyn Monroe, James Joyce, and Albert Einstein when it comes to the most expensive ones. Read more...
5. How do diplomatic passports differ from regular passports, and what makes them significant to collectors?
Such documents were often held by officials in high ranks, like ambassadors, consuls or special envoys. Furthermore, these travel documents are often frequently traveled. Hence, they hold a tapestry of stamps or visas. Partly from unusual places.
6. Can you provide insights into the stories behind specific historical passports that offer unique insights into past travel and migration trends?
7. What role did passports play during significant historical events, such as wartime travel restrictions or international treaties?
During war, a passport could have been a matter of life or death. Especially, when we are looking into WWII and the Holocaust. And yes, during that time, passports and similar documents were often forged to escape and save lives. Example...
8. How has the emergence of digital passports and biometric identification impacted the world of passport collecting?
Current modern passports having now often a sparkling, flashy design. This has mainly two reasons. 1. Improved security and 2. Displaying a countries' heritage, icons, and important figures or achievements. I can fully understand that those modern documents are wanted, especially by younger collectors.
9. Are there any specialized collections of passports, such as those from a specific country, era, or distinguished individuals?
Yes, the University of Western Sidney Library has e.g. a passport collection of the former prime minister Hon Edward Gough Whitlam and his wife Margaret. They are all diplomatic passports and I had the pleasure to apprise them. I hold e.g. a collection of almost all types of the German Empire passports (only 2 types are still missing). Also, my East German passport collection is quite extensive with pretty rare passport types.
10. Where can passport collectors find reliable resources and reputable sellers to expand their collection and learn more about passport history?
A good start is eBay, Delcampe, flea markets, garage or estate sales. The more significant travel documents you probably find at the classic auction houses. Sometimes I also offer documents from my archive/collection. See offers... As you are already here, you surely found a great source on the topic 😉
11. Is vintage passport collecting legal? What are the regulations and considerations collectors should know when acquiring historical passports?
First, it's important to stress that each country has its own laws when it comes to passports. Collecting old vintage passports for historical or educational reasons is safe and legal, or at least tolerated. More details on the legal aspects are here...
Does this article spark your curiosity about passport collecting and the history of passports? With this valuable information, you have a good basis to start your own passport collection.
Question? Contact me...