Ceylon & The Colonial Freak Show

Ceylon & The Colonial Freak Show

Mapping Sri Lanka’s Connection to the Controversial Human Zoo

What makes a person Sri Lankan? To understand it is important to consider the impact colonialism has had on our cultural notions of Lankanness. Even though this question underpins many of the political debate post-independent Sri Lanka has been grappling with, Natalie Soysa highlights how the question impacts people on an individual level – specifically to a small group of Ceylonese who were shepherded to Europe as exhibits during the era of the human zoo.

Sit down, you’re a Burgher.


oll call in school was a nightmare in the 80’s for a fair girl with a Sinhalese surname. Each morning, the Sinhalese girls were asked to stand or raise their hands first to be counted, followed by the Tamils, the Muslims and finally the Burghers. But I wasn’t burgher.

I was 7 years old.

Being born and raised in Sri Lanka meant I was well acquainted with the concept of the other before I needed to. But this overwhelming need to separate ourselves from those who look different isn’t a new concept, nor is it exclusive to the Sri Lankan psyche. I would find reminders of this otherness recurring throughout my life, lurking in the most unlikely places – like the Dehiwala Zoo.

John Hagenbeck (left)
John Hagenbeck (left)

The Dehiwala Zoo was originally the property of John Hagenbeck and not always state-owned as we assume. The property functioned as holding quarters for live exhibitions collected from around the region, waiting to be sold to performances in Europe and North America. The official state website confirms this, telling us that John was also the brother of the world’s most famous animal trainer Carl Hagenbeck. What the website omits is that the Hagenbeck name is synonymous with Human Zoos and Ceylon played a pivotal role in this colonial freak show.

Carl Hagenbeck
Carl Hagenbeck

Curious, I began to dig deeper. This story – pieced together from photo libraries, media archives and an interview with the descendent of a Sri Lankan taken to Germany by John Hagenbeck in 1906 as part of the human zoo – is a narrative that, I believe, could find resonance in today’s world as we still grapple with notions of identity and belonging.

1924: John Hagenbeck's Village da Ceylan (The Ceylon Village)
1924: John Hagenbeck’s Village da Ceylan (The Ceylon Village)



he late 1800s brought with it an age of wonder and discovery. The industrial revolution was in full steam, exotic lands were being discovered while the intellectual and religious leadership grappled with the implications of Charles Darwin’s seminal Origin of Species’. One side-effect of publishing Origin was the birth of the Eugenics Movement, spurred on by a cousin of Darwin himself. Eugenics was based on the idea of a superior race, applying evolution theory on a racial and social level, justifying the notion that Caucasians were more progressive and visually pleasing. The darker you were, the lower your position on the evolutionary ladder. The science ideas behind eugenics helped shape the colonial narrative: the white race was intellectually, culturally and aesthetically superior and it was necessary to subjugate the savage.

Science was also to become the linchpin for the earliest forms of showbiz. Names like Ringling Brothers, P.T. Barnum and Hagenbeck were becoming synonymous with live entertainment that helped solidify, intentionally or otherwise, Eugenic concepts. These early forms of entertainment known as Ethnographic Expositions or ‘human zoos’ soon took flight as Africans, Asians and other exotic slaves were put on display. Behind fences and inside constructed villages, these live exhibits seemed to go down well with thrill-seeking masses. Performers were dressed in costume and asked to ‘act’ the part of a savage or barbarian to confirm their inferior status to the public. People thronged to these exhibits. The age of the Freak Show was born.

John Hagenbeck (left) with two Singhalesen Dorf (Sinhalese Village) performers
John Hagenbeck (left) with two Singhalesen Dorf (Sinhalese Village) performers

Of the Hagenbeck brothers (John, Carl and a third brother Gustav) in the business, Carl received the highest praise for having revolutionised the architecture of the modern zoo, allowing animals and humans to be housed in natural-looking environments instead of sterile cages. John and Gustav followed in Carl’s footsteps.

1886: Ad for the International Exhibition in Liverpool on natives of India and Ceylon
1886: Ad for the International Exhibition in Liverpool on natives of India and Ceylon

Today these exhibitions are labelled dehumanising avenues created to exploit non-Caucasian races. Some argue that human zoos were a necessary evil, providing economic benefits to the less privileged while affording white races an opportunity to be educated – not entirely different to a troupe of Kandyan drummers performing around the world today.

As slavery was being abolished around the early 1900s, the intellectualised ‘ethnographic exhibition’ was given a facelift and rebranded to become what we commonly know to be the circus today; performers were even paid meagre wages, given bigger opportunities and offered schooling for their growing number of children.

In many cases, those who boarded ships and left their loved ones behind were poor folk; daredevils and performers looking for adventure. The need to push an agenda of eugenic superiority however, seemed very much intact – though much subtler than its human zoo avatar: a Ceylonese elephant trainer would still be made to perform as a savage or demon dancer, depending on the need of the show.

1906: Ceylonese Exposition in Paris
1906: Ceylonese Exposition in Paris

The Ceylonese were regarded as particularly fascinating and more attractive than Negroid races. John Hagenbeck had coincidentally fallen in love with Ceylon – and a Sinhalese girl. He settled here, married her and started a family. He collected and shipped live exhibits from Ceylon and India for his brothers’ shows, in addition to producing many of his own. Among the Ceylonese taken to Europe, stars were born. They went on to become celebrated performers around the western world, listed among the biggest names in show biz to date. Some went on to America, working with performing troupes like the Ringling Brothers or Barnum & Bailey. Here too, in this New World that styled itself as a bastion of freedom, they encountered deep racism and old attitudes still clinging to the land. Others opted to remain in Europe, never seeing Ceylon again.

That is how Ganesha Vidane comes into the story.



Ganesha Vidane

Ganesha Vidane is the granddaughter of one Epi Vidane who travelled to Germany with John Hagenbeck, performing in the latter’s VÖLKER-SCHAU in 1906. Epi travelled with his troupe of elephants and went on to become one of the world’s most famed elephant trainers. His sons, Harro and Banda, were born in Germany, becoming renowned performers and elephant handlers. Banda’s daughter Ganesha was also born and brought up in a circus. I spoke with Ganesha to try and get an idea of her family story and how her family’s history has helped shape her sense of identity.


What was it like to be in a Hagenbeck Exposition?

1926: Singhalesen Dorf (The Sinhalese Village) of the VÖLKER-SCHAU
1926: Singhalesen Dorf (The Sinhalese Village) of the VÖLKER-SCHAU

This is a picture of the VÖLKER-SCHAU (Peoples Show) where my grandfather performed.

All artists here were from South India and Sri Lanka. They acted “native” and had to perform everyday chores like making fire, weaving clothes, tribal dancing and so on. They were paid and lived in brick quarters with shared toilets.

When they were not performing, they could wear “normal” clothes, but during performances they had to behave “wild”. That’s what they got paid for after all. Even my grandad had to act like a Veddah for certain shows even though he was not one. Basically, it was a show to fool the white men into believing that wild tribes lived a certain way.

1885: Young Ceylonese in the Hagenbeck show
1885: Young Ceylonese in the Hagenbeck show

The families had their own quarters and their children schooled in English, but single males were put together in groups of 5-6 to share a room.

My grandad Epi was sent around the world by John Hagenbeck who made him famous. John paid all the expenses and made money with selling the acts to theatres and shows around the globe. More money than my grandad made! But Epi’s life improved in comparison to what he left behind in Sri Lanka. He was taken care of when sick and even the hospital bills were paid.

Apparently, some of his colleagues died. My uncle said it was due to their poor conditions and not outside conditions that made them fall ill or have an accident while performing. But everyone knew what they were getting themselves into and were risk seekers.

What were the Hagenbecks’ like?

John Hagenbeck was the maker, the doer. Carl was a businessman; money came first. But apparently, they held a good balance. John felt more Sri Lankan than German – they used to say he has Asian fever.

My grandad Epi knew and worked with John and never described him as a bad person. Maybe a bit mad, but certainly not bad. He was totally in love with Sri Lanka and Asia in general. Epi only met Carl once or twice. John has fallen out with Carl and was working on his own by this time. Carl was older, from a different mother and a businessman as opposed to John who was a dreamer with big ideas. Epi never met Gustav. Epi was with them for over ten years, until he was sent to America in 1930 where there was much racism and it felt like apartheid.

1930: Circus Poster for John Hagenbeck's 'Indier und Singhalesen Karawane' (India and Ceylon Caravan)
1930: Circus Poster for John Hagenbeck’s ‘Indier und Singhalesen Karawane’ (India and Ceylon Caravan)

When Ceylonese were taken to Europe, did they merely perform or were they also on display in human zoos?

Yes, it was a display of different ethical groups; open-air fields, where huts were built as per the origin of each group, Inuit, Indians, Africans, Asians etc. It was usually made to be a little village and the people had to act normal, as if they were at home just living in this village. But of course, it was not normal. The surroundings were always fake and the things they were doing had nothing to do with their real lives.

The international media claims that people brought to Europe were captives/captured and held as slaves or prisoners, forced to perform. How do you respond to this?

1882: Hagenbeck's Singhalesen (Sinhalese) of the VÖLKER-SCHAU
1882: Hagenbeck’s Singhalesen (Sinhalese) of the VÖLKER-SCHAU

As I stated before, the people had normal lives outside the show, and only had to act wild when the zoos were open. Maybe Epi got there quite late, when things had improved already. It is possible that it was worse before during 1890-1900, but we wouldn’t know. The performers signed a contract and had to stay for at least one season (otherwise transporting them back and forth would have been too expensive). They got paid but for sure not enough to pay for their own travel back in those days, let alone know how to communicate and purchase a ticket from the cashier. The kids were schooled and the adults could have participated too, but preferred to drink – very Sri Lankan.

1884: The Singhalesen (Sinhalese) in Berlin
1884: The Singhalesen (Sinhalese) in Berlin

In some cases, we see pictures of Buddhist Monks as part of the Hagenbeck troupe. Were they real monks or people asked to ‘perform’, like your family playing different roles for different shows?

Epi never said anything about monks as far as I can remember. He never mentioned anyone religious. They did perform a Perahera daily, so I guess they were just performers in costumes. I doubt they were real monks.

WE SEe pictures of children in Hagenbeck’s collections. Were they accompanied by their parents or taken from them?

1926: Singhalesen Dorf (The Sinhalese Village)
1926: Singhalesen Dorf (The Sinhalese Village)

Yes, kids came with their parents which is how they were casted. They would need 5 fire jugglers, 3 elephant guys, 10 to climb poles, a snake charmer, 3-4 families with small children and so on. Whoever wanted to go abroad had to fit into one of the categories needed.

Having Sri Lankan lineage and being born German, how do you identify today?

Growing up in a circus, my identity wasn’t determined by a nationality. I grew up as a circus child, that alone was a title. We all came from another country, so we were all foreigners or not. I only developed a sense of nationality when I started school in Germany. I had a German passport, went to a German school and spoke German. But my looks made people wonder how that was possible. I started questioning my own identity. Was I German? And if not, what was I? I asked my family why we were different coloured and the answer was: your grandad was from Sri Lanka. But Sri Lanka had no meaning to me.

1908: Poster for the Franco-British Exhibition on The Ceylon Village
1908: Poster for the Franco-British Exhibition on The Ceylon Village

The older I got, the more of an issue it seemed: where are you from? I always thought that this question had no real depth, because you can’t determine a person by a birthplace. Anything can make you a good person or a bad person, but that has nothing to do with where you were born for sure. I hated the questions but nevertheless had to come up with something that would shut people up. So, I told them of Sri Lanka, this island far, far away with stories of fantastic landscapes and wild animals.

1923: Carl Hagenbeck with The Sinhalese Village performers
1923: Carl Hagenbeck with The Sinhalese Village performers

As a prepubescent teenager, I wanted to investigate if Sri Lanka could give me answers to questions I had about life, love, meaning and so on. I searched for books, films, stories and anything I could get from my family. The more I learned, the more I wanted to go there. But my father had never been to Sri Lanka and the civil war was happening so we stayed put and remained Sri Lankans only by hearsay.

I started to look up other Sri Lankans here but those in Europe said they were Indian or African. They denied their nationality because it was difficult to be Tamil or Sinhala during a war carried out in both names. When I moved to London at 21, it all changed. There were so many Sri Lankans. I hung out with all of them and learned everything I could about the island.

1926: Singhalesen Dorf (The Sinhalese Village)
1926: Singhalesen Dorf (The Sinhalese Village)

By the time my son was born when I was 25, I had still not been to Sri Lanka because the war was still scaring me. All the Sri Lankans I had met reassured me that I was 100% Sri Lankan. I looked it, lived it and even smelt like it. But still, I was without any knowledge of the beauty, lushness, diversity and madness of my people until I met this lady Jenny at a party and we began to talk. In Germany, it takes 3 questions before the question: where are you from. It was no different with Jenny. My answer as always was Sri Lanka, but her reaction was something I’d never expected. She was elated and I was being hugged before I knew it. She’d grown up in Dubai and spent a lot of time with Sri Lankans there and felt a connection to the island. The next question she asked me was: do you want to fly with me to Sri Lanka next month?

I did. And instantly, I was hooked on the noise, the smell, EVERYTHING. I’ve since returned twice without her. With each visit to the island, my heart was more at ease. I am finally in a place where I loved everything. Even with the war going on, I was home. For the first time, I didn’t have to explain where I was from because to most it was clear; she is Sri Lankan. She only lives in another part of the world.

Banda & Ganesha Vidane
Banda & Ganesha Vidane

Being able to come to Sri Lanka has made all the difference between being a German (which I was only on paper) or a Sri Lankan.

My father carried that feeling far longer inside of him until I brought him to Sri Lanka with me. Suddenly, he felt he belonged. There were no questions, just total acceptance from everyone. But then again, it’s easy to feel Sri Lankan, to bond to a place that is more than paradise to you. It’s so easy to identify but much harder to live up to.

I felt Sri Lankan, without any knowledge of cultural or religion attached to me and even without knowing a word of the local language. It’s the place and the people which have captured me. I have finally arrived.


The Timeline:
The History of Human Zoos
& the Vidane Family


The first online archive on human zoos

POSTFACE BY Clemens Radauer – Curator, HumanZoos.net

Human zoos fascinated me from the very moment I found out about them.

During my studies of cultural and social anthropology at the University of Vienna I stumbled upon the phenomenon of human zoos. And I decided to write my master thesis on the topic, specifically a group of Kalmyks that performed in Germany and France in 1883. In order to illustrate my thesis I bought a few postcards. The more I researched about human zoos the more the topic fascinated me: the many individual stories of specific groups or people involved, the influence in many aspects of western civilization (art, science, etc.) and the fact that this phenomenon was almost forgotten. So after finishing my studies I continued to read every book on the topic I could get my hands on and to buy items linked to human zoos. My collection grew with time and at one point I decided it would be a shame not to share all this collected information. So with the help of a friend I put the homepage together in early 2014 and that’s how my online archive came to be.

My goal is to spread the knowledge of the long forgotten once so popular human zoos and support everybody who is interested in this phenomenon of the colonial era. I am truly happy that scientists, students, journalists and museums from all around the world are using the archive for their research.







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