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The unsettling colonial history of India’s Malabaris exhibited in human zoos

A set of colonial exhibition postcards and stamps. These attest to the commercial practice of exhibiting non-European people and cultures in human zoos. Courtesy S Harikrishnan
31 January, 2023

On a cold autumn day in 1902, Parisians flocked to the Jardin Zoologique d’Acclimatation—Garden of Acclimatisation—in large numbers to witness a spectacular installation of a gopuram, an entrance gateway to a Hindu temple typical of south Indian temple architecture. The installation was part of an ethnographic exhibition by the Hagenbeck brothers, titled Les Malabares—The Malabaris. It was one among various colonial exhibitions in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that displayed non-European people and cultures from different parts of the world to entertain their European audience at home.

Established by a fishmonger, who bought and sold exotic fish in Hamburg in the mid-nineteenth century, the Hagenbeck company had, by the 1870s, grown to become the largest trader in exotic animals. Carl Hagenbeck inherited the company from his father and expanded the business, to procure “indigenous peoples” from all over the world for, as one record puts it, “presentation in highly profitable spectacles to European scientific societies and the general public.” Humans became a visible part of such exhibitions in the nineteenth century, and, in central and eastern Europe, this trend peaked between the 1880s and the outbreak of the First World War. By the time the Malabaris were exhibited in 1902, Paris had seen many similar events. Particularly since 1877, when Carl Hagenbeck exhibited a group of Nubians from Northeast Africa in front of the animal stalls which proved to be a success.

Les Malabares appears to have incorporated installations, humans, arts, crafts and performances that covered—despite what the name suggested—the entire Indian subcontinent. Small straw huts were constructed around the temple structure, where artisans and weavers from India produced and sold a variety of Indian products. One photograph shows the setting: the temple installation amid autumn trees, with a gathering of people standing in the foreground, posing for the camera. The men are bare-chested and wearing turbans; the women stand towards the back, some of them holding babies. Men perform acrobatics on bamboo poles, and a young child is seen atop a shorter bamboo pole, in a backbend. In the front, another child poses in a similar contortion. Towards the left, a white man dressed in a suit and a hat—probably one of the Hagenbeck brothers—stands out among the crowd. Some other European visitors can be seen in the background.

In September 1902, reporting about Les Malabares, the magazine La France illustrée introduced the Malabar region to readers as extending from “Cape Comorin along the western coast of India, at the foot of a mountain range called ‘Ghats’ and on which France has the Mahe port.” And, writing a detailed account of the exhibition, the renowned sports journalist Édouard Pontié noted that Les Malabares had brought to the very gates of Paris “true representatives of ancient and mysterious India, the cradle of the world of which so many things disconcert and astonish us.” The articles also make some intriguing observations about the lives and livelihoods of the people of Malabar. La France illustrée wrote, for instance, that Malabaris “live mainly on the highlands … [and] love jewellery, the value of which, in many families, represents a fortune,” and that their “national dish” was a stew of mutton and rice, which they relished “using their hands for spoons and forks, which they wash very carefully after each meal.” Pontié also noted that Malayalam was “sweet to the ear.”