Treptower Park’s human zoo

One hundred and twenty-five years ago, white Berliners spent a summer staring at Black people for entertainment. But the human exhibits did more than just stare back. A new audio walk tells their stories of ambition, hardship and resistance.

Image for Treptower Park’s human zoo

In the summer of 1896, The First German Colonial Exhibition at Berlin’s Treptower Park invited visitors to gawp at the dark skin of the men, women and children who inhabited this colonialist theme park. Photo: Museum Treptow Archive

During the summer of 1896, Berlin’s Treptower Park attracted around 7.5 million visitors from far and wide for a very special show. The Great Industrial Exposition of Berlin was a grand spectacle promoting Germany as an economic giant and geopolitical player, featuring thousands of exhibitors and a grandly lit venue, in one of the first showings of electric power on that scale in the world.

But the main attraction for many wasn’t the sparkling light bulbs illuminating the promenade or the industrial prowess on display; the main attraction was a model world in which 106 Black people were put on show for a paying white audience.

The First German Colonial Exhibition, situated on the banks of the Karpfenteich pond on the southern edge of the park, was a miscellany of palm trees, props and makeshift huts on a 60,000sqm patch of land. For 50 Pfennig (concessions 30 Pfennig, school children got in for free), visitors could stroll through this colonialist theme park and gawp at the dark skin of the men, women and children who inhabited it. From the straw-topped mud huts of ‘Togo village’ to the ‘South-Sea idyll’ with its skull-adorned houses on stilts, over 2 million people marvelled at this imagined world.

Families and school groups could visit the pond and watch a number of shows put on by the human exhibits, who had been brought in from Germany’s colonies, which at the time included Togo, Cameroon, German West Africa (or present-day Namibia), German East Africa (comprising Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi) and a number of Pacific territories. The day’s programme kicked off with a “Herero and Hottentot caravan”, and was followed by the chance to watch “native craftspeople” at work, weaving rugs and making pottery.

The residents’ “lunch break” involved cooking and eating under the curious eye of the people who came to see them. Later in the afternoon, the “war games” would start between the Swahili and the Maasai tribespeople, while participants shipped in from New Pomerania (today New Britain in Papua New Guinea) were told to demonstrate spear-throwing in a part of the complex inexplicably dubbed ‘Arab Town’.

The stories behind the circus

Today, no trace remains of this bizarre and racist world. No plaque, no sign. The carp pond sits in the shadow of Treptower Park’s towering Soviet War Memorial, one of the grandest examples of Berlin’s much-lauded ‘culture of remembrance’. But there are gaps in this nation’s memory when it comes to colonial-era crimes. The government only recently apologised for the slaughter of tens of thousands of Herero and Nama tribespeople in Namibia more than a century ago.

As calls for a tangible structure dedicated to this dark chapter of German history go unanswered, two activists took it upon themselves to create a different kind of memorial: an audio walk called zurückERZÄHLT, which leads listeners around the Karpfenteich and gives a voice to the 106 people brought together by that exhibition back in 1896.

The participants of the exhibition were definitely subjected to colonialist and racist violence. But that is just one part; alongside that, they had their normal lives, families, lovers and friends, desires and goals.

They were not all victims, explains Joel Vogel, the Berlin-based creator of the project, which was released in German in September 2020, with English and French versions to follow on August 1. “The participants of the exhibition were definitely subjected to colonialist and racist violence. But that is just one part; alongside that, they had their normal lives, families, lovers and friends, desires and goals,” she says, while gazing across the pond at where the pretend tribes spent the summer exactly 125 years ago. “Many actually used this colonial exhibition as a launch pad for starting up a new life Europe.”

The participants were hired in the German colonies and given a contract to sign, which set out their pay and promised that accommodation, food and clothing would be provided. They slept in on-site barracks with ovens for heating – a luxury in Berlin at that time – but the wage was paltry, rarely more than 20 marks for the month. By comparison, some of the exhibition guides were on 10 marks a day. Two Swahili girls called Hazina and Aoze, who had been purchased from their slave owners by the governorate of German East Africa, were forced to work there without remuneration to pay off their debt before being set free. It remains largely unclear under what conditions the others were recruited to join the show.

A handsome Herero prince

On the other hand, some of the wealthier Africans came to Germany with an agenda of their own. “The delegation from Namibia was interesting because they partially funded their own journey,” Vogel says. “Their goal was crystal clear: they wanted to engage in diplomacy. They even got an audience with the Kaiser!”

Friedrich Maharero, a Herero prince who led that delegation, made a strong impression on German women. According to an opinion piece written for the Deutsche Kolonialzeitung in 1909, the handsome Friedrich was sent love letters and gifts from his admirers back in Berlin long after returning to the city of Okahandja. “Thankfully he never received them,” the columnist wrote. “They were intercepted along the way. These Negro boys in Africa must learn that there is a line between them and white girls that must not be crossed.”

The Herero delegates also ruffled some feathers with their clothing, which was described in an official report on the colonial exhibition as disappointingly “European”. One woman, Martha Kamatoto, refused to wear the “traditional” clothing at the exhibition even for a short while. Felix von Luschan, a renowned doctor and ethnographer who conducted invasive medical studies on the exhibition participants, was impressed if not a little put out by his Herero subjects: “I would doubt […] that all Herero make such a thoroughly distinguished impression and accomplish such gentleman-like stature as those we saw in Treptow.”

Staring back

For Vogel and her zurückERZÄHLT collaborator, Vincent Bababoutilabo, part of the challenge of telling the stories of these 106 people was having to work with biased archives filled with racist language. “I would say we know a fair amount about the exhibition. But the question is from what perspective?” says Bababoutilabo, a Black activist who was born and raised in Berlin. The two activists spent a lot of time poring over mugshots of the Black subjects taken by von Luschan’s wife, Emma.

Bababoutilabo chuckles when he recalls reading the write-up of that research, which sought to underpin the couple’s white-supremacist pseudoscience. “There was one situation where a Black person came into the room to be photographed for racist reasons, but he gave the photographer money because he wanted pictures for his résumé,” he says. “So he reversed the hierarchy by saying, ‘I’m employing you!’” The sense of outrage felt by the researchers is palpable in the report. “Those are the moments where, even in a racist archive, you see that people came with agency and showed resistance.”

One photograph in particular made an impression on the two storytellers, who met through the Initiative of Black People in Germany (ISD), whose Berlin office shares a building with Vogel’s sound studio. “There was one [picture] of an older lady from modern-day Namibia, Katharina Margaretha Draghoener. The picture is just so impressive because you really get the feeling that she can’t be fooled!” Vogel says, as Bababoutilabo nods in agreement. “There’s everything in there: scepticism, a bit of distance, some humour,” he adds. “It’s a person who’s already seen a lot in her life and won’t be shocked by anything. It’s swagger!”

The show and its legacy

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Martin Dibobe, who was in the exhibition, went on to become a BVG conductor and a key figure in Germany’s early civil rights movement. Photo: BVG Archive

While most of the participants in the First German Colonial Exhibition of 1896 returned to their homelands once the show was over, around 20 people stayed. One of them was Martin Dibobe. From Cameroon, he went on to become a ‘model immigrant’ in Berlin by completing an apprenticeship as a locksmith and later becoming the BVG’s first Black train conductor, working on the U1 line. “There’s a picture of him hanging in the station at Hallesches Tor,” Vogel says, before adding: “He doesn’t get the same kind of recognition for his political activism.”

In 1919, Dibobe filed a petition to the German authorities demanding equal rights for Blacks and whites in Germany, and better treatment of Black people in the colonies, with no more beatings as punishment and a call to send children to school. The petition was signed by 17 other men, two of whom had participated together with Dibobe in the colonial exhibition.

When asked whether Dibobe was successful with his campaign, Bababoutilabo hesitates. “The first answer you want to give is no, because people from the colonies were not treated equally before the law.” But there is one factor that the organisers of the First German Colonial Exhibition may not have reckoned with when they invited Dibobe and others to perform: “They laid the foundations for a Black movement in Germany.”