John Hagenbeck (former owner of the Dehiwela Zoo) exported animals and humans from Sri Lanka for display overseas -Ceylon & The Colonial Freak Show
Posted on August 10th, 2018


One of the most prominent of the human zoo operators was the Hamburg animal trader Carl Hagenbeck. He would go on expeditions in foreign countries and bring back both animals and people for European collections and display. The zoo in Hamburg still bears his name. In his memoirs, Carl Hagenbeck praised himself, writing, it was my privilege to be the first in the civilized world to present these shows of different races.”   Carl Hagenbeck, decided in 1874 to exhibit Samoan and Sami people as purely natural” populations. In 1876, he sent a collaborator to the Sudan to bring back some wild beasts and Nubians. John Hagenbeck (1866-1940) settled in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in 1891, when he was in his mid-twenties. He was a younger half-brother of the great German animal entrepreneur Carl Hagenbeck (1844-1913), “King of the Menagerie Owners” and founder in 1907 of the world’s first open-plan zoo at Stellingen, near Hamburg, Germany.

The National Zoological Gardens of Sri Lanka was founded by  John Hagenbeck in the late 1920s. It was closed at the beginning of World War II in 1939 because the owner of  Zoological Gardens company was a German national. During the second world war, The Ceylon Zoological Gardens Company was liquidated in 1936 and confiscated by the Ceylon Government as “enemy property” and renamed  as Dehivela Gardens in Ceylon (Sri Lanka).  After the liquidation of the Zoological Garden Company in 1936, the  Ceylon (Sri Lanka) government acquired much of the animal collection and added it to the Dehiwala Zoo (Zoological Garden of Ceylon) collection. Although the Dehiwala  Zoo officially began operating in 1939. An impressive animal collection already existed there as part of Hagenback company’s holding area.  John Hagenbeck  who established the Ceylon Zoological Gardens Company kept animals  and  sometimes humans in transfer before being exported to Europe and the US.

Carl Hagenbeck was a German exotic animal businessman, who became famous for his conquering of the animal trade market during the mid to late 1800’s. Due to the costs of acquiring and keeping animals, the financial implications started to worry Hagenbeck, and he began looking for other ways to alleviate the company’s monetary strains. Heinrich Leutemann, an old friend of Hagenbeck suggested bringing along the people from the foreign lands to accompany the animals. The idea struck Hagenbeck as brilliant and he had a group of Laplanders accompany his next shipment of Reindeer. Carl Hagenbeck staged a public display in 1886 of Sinhalese autochthones from Ceylon (Sri Lanka).

Besides owning several tea plantations in Ceylon, John Hagenbeck collected and exported exotic animals to the family zoo, as well as arranging for groups of Ceylonese to travel abroad with the wildly-popular Hagenbeck “ethnographic” exhibitions in the USA and elsewhere. John appears in Leonard Woolf’s Growing, the memoir of the author’s years in early twentieth century Ceylon as a civil servant: in 1909, while Woolf was stationed in Hambantota,

Human zoos, also called ethnological expositions, were 19th-, 20th-, and 21st-century public exhibitions of humans, usually in a so-called natural or primitive state. The displays often emphasized the cultural differences between Europeans of Western civilization and non-European peoples or with other Europeans who practiced a lifestyle deemed more primitive. Some of them placed indigenous populations in a continuum somewhere between the great apes and Europeans. Ethnological expositions are sometimes criticized and ascertained as highly degrading and racist, depending on the show and individuals involved.

Ethnology studies in Germany took a new approach in the 1870s as human displays were incorporated into zoos. These exhibits were lauded as educational to the general population by the scientific community of the time

The creator of the American  Barnum & Bailey Circus continuously sensationalized atrocities for his own financial gain. Barnum essentially founded American circus cruelty. In 1850, Barnum sent two men from Boston to capture wild elephants in Ceylon (now known as Sri Lanka). The mission killed large numbers of the huge beasts,” Barnum claimed in his autobiography. The elephants who died on the 12,000-mile long journey on ships from Colombo to New York City were dumped overboard. With a life of traveling and performing behind them, the elephants of the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus will live out their lives in retirement at the Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation, a sanctuary near Orlando, USA.

The following articles explore some of the methods used to capture animals (Elephants, crocodiles, peacocks etc)in Ceylon. It is estimated that Hagenbecks exported over 250 elephants from Ceylon.

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