This post was most recently updated on October 7th, 2018
While we’ve known for a fact that our ancestors were often looked down upon by their colonizers as dark-skinned uneducated savages, the lowest point of this centuries-old discrimination came in the form of America’s human zoos in the early 1900s.
This is when thousands of Filipino tribesmen were taken from their homeland and displayed in exhibits for the American people to gawk at.
To put this shocking story in context, the 19th and early 20th century were periods of expansion by Western powers who were eager to display just how advanced their civilization were compared to the rest of the world.
While exhibits featuring people from conquered territories have been recorded as early as 1400, the modern human zoo kicked off with infamous showman P.T. Barnum’s exhibition of Siamese twins Chang and Eng Bunker on February 25, 1835.
Going by this logic, the US government—also eager to justify its reason of annexing the Philippines—imported 1,300 indigenous Filipinos from different tribes to the tune of $1.5 million and displayed them at the St. Louis Exposition in 1904.
There the tribespeople—introduced to visitors as primitive dog-eating headhunters to emphasize the US government’s stance that Filipinos were not ready for self-government—were made to live out their daily lives in full view of the public.
Of course, a few enterprising Americans looking to make some money also brought in their own tribesmen.
With the official sanction of the government, medical/showman/former lieutenant governor of Bontoc Truman Hunt brought with him a troupe of Igorots in 1905 to the US mainland where they traveled around and put on human exhibits.
He was rivaled in his endeavor by another American, former cigar salesman Richard Schneidewind who was married to a Filipina. As rivals, both tried to outdo each other in showmanship by doing as many tours as they could.
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Then, in 1906, Hunt’s enterprise came to an end when he was arrested after rumors broke out how he held the Igorots’ wages he had earlier promised them and that two of the tribesmen in his group who had died were left unburied.
Eager to prevent a scandal showing how a “civilized” society like the US could mistreat a group of “uncivilized” people, authorities shut down Hunt’s operation and sentenced him to 18 months for defrauding the Igorots.
Schneidewind’s end of his business came much later in 1913; as with Hunt, controversy arose after some Igorots he had brought to Ghent, Belgium were found walking the streets and complaining of being left unpaid and starved. In the aftermath, the American consul arranged for the Igorots to go home.
The export of tribesmen was finally outlawed by the Philippine Assembly in 1914 when it passed a comprehensive anti-slavery law. With that, the concept of human zoos largely faded from public consciousness.
Prentice, C. (2014). The Igorrote Tribe Traveled the World for Show And Made These Two Men Rich.Smithsonian.com. Retrieved 28 July 2015, from http://goo.gl/JAchn0