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Tucked away in the farthest corner of the Bois de Vincennes slumbers one of the darkest secrets of France: The Jardin d’Agronomie Tropical.
The park opened in 1899 as a research station. As a colonial empire, France was interested in cultivating exotic plants like coffee, bananas, or vanilla. The research was thus mainly about experiments on propagating. So far, so innocent.
Colonial Exhibitions – the funfairs of the last centuries
Since 1879, it became very popular amongst the colonial empires to host colonial exhibitions, which had the function to show off their empire, promote colonialism, boost trade, and entertain the western population.
Just imagine how small the world was back then! It was decades before the Titanic set sail, and the concept of a colony far away was nothing more than an abstract idea.
The Colonial Exhibition in Paris 1907
After Sydney, Berlin, London, and New York, the colonial exhibition of 1907 took place in Paris — in the already mentioned Jardin d’Agronomie Tropical. How convenient; the exotic plants and flowers were already there.
One might think that it must have been insanely exciting for the locals from the western world in the early 20th century to see exotic plants, teas, and original artifacts from the overseas colonies. It surely was, but apparently not enough.
To illustrate the wildness and exotic nature of the faraway territories, the colonial exhibitions had one more feature: reproductions of indigenous villages, including architecture, agriculture, animals — and you are presuming right: men, women, and even children from the colonies.
The colonial exhibitions were nothing else than a human zoo.
Of course, France wasn’t the only empire that took pleasure in this cruel spectacle. Over the years more than 35 thousand people left the colonies to join colonial exhibitions — to live in replicas of their villages, wearing their traditional costumes, and putting on a show for the visitors.
Even though they came to Europe of their free will and were paid for their participation, it is impossible to dismiss the fact of exploitation. The people on display got not only gawked at by visitors but also observed by anthropologists that found a welcome chance to gather evidence for their theories of racial superiority. Theories, that until today, are providing the cornerstone for stereotypes and racism.
The sad truth is, as well, not a few villagers died of smallpox or measles; sicknesses that were alien to their immune system.
It is unknown how many people made it back home in safety after the peak time of the colonial empire. Some just never returned and joined circuses and freak shows.
The Jardin d’Agronomie Tropical — what is left from the Human Zoo of Paris?
For many centuries, it wasn’t possible to visit the Jardin d’Agronomie Tropical. It was locked and not accessible to the public. Maybe, no one dared to tear the place down, fearing accusation of attempting to cover up a shamefully past – and maybe no one dared to open it either, fearing putting this horrible part of French history on display.
Anyway, it changed in 2006 when the park actually did open its gates for the public under its old name “Jardin d’Agronomie Tropical.
Many of the pavilions that represented the different colonial villages are still there. Some are nicely renovated, like the Tunisian or Indochina Pavilion because they are still used by the Agriculture Research Center or for art exhibtions.
But some are completely in ruins, for example, the Pavilion of Morocco. Others just disappeared, like the Pavillon of Congo that burnt down 20 years ago. The pavilion of French Guyana seems to be a break room for employees and park rangers.
The park belongs to the city of Paris, like the entire Bois de Vincennes, hence they are responsible for maintenance and vegetation. But I found several information boards throughout the park illustrating how the site looked during the colonial exhibition. So, I assume an association or the department for monument preservation is involved as well.
Visit the park to explore the history
It’s a truly surreal place. Not scary or creepy, but a bit eerie and very unlike anything else you have seen in Paris, or maybe ever. One moment you stroll through a deciduous forest and then the next you stand in a bamboo field. Be prepared to get surprised by a changing landscape, complete with ponds, rivers, bridges, temples, and even a Stupa. And sometimes you stumble even upon war memorials, erected for soldiers from the colonies that died during WWI.
I visited the park for the first time in autumn 2021, and I can confirm, that it is not a place you would stumble upon by chance. Not even if you’d set off to explore the Bois de Vincennes. Until very recently, I didn’t even know it existed.
How to get to the former Human Zoo of Paris?
The Jadin d’Agronomie is located close to the RER station Norgent-sur-Marne, roughly 10 km outside Paris. But this should not stop you at all, because the RER A is quick. It’s only a 15 minutes ride from the station Châtelet/Les Halles until Norgent-sur-Marne.
If you are looking for some really special off-the-beaten-track adventure, I strongly recommend visiting the Jardin d’Agronomie Tropical. It is a beautiful park, history-loaded, interesting and very hidden. In fact, we have been almost the only visitors, on a Saturday afternoon!