The Dark Side Of Madrid – The Human Zoo Of Retiro Park

Madrid Resident Barry Haslam-Walker FRICS explores the extraordinary story of Madrid´s Human Zoo.

WHY did Madrid host a Human Zoo and where and when did this ‘spectacle’ take place?

The where is the Retiro Park (Parque del Buen Retiro), literally Park of the Pleasant Retreat. The Park was established by King Philip II when Madrid became the capital of Spain in 1561 and for the next two centuries was the privileged private retreat of the Royal family.

In the 1630’s several iconic buildings were erected, two of which are still standing: the Casón del Buen Retiro which served as a ballroom, and the Salón de Reinos (Hall of Kingdoms), its wall decorated with paintings by Velázquez  and frescoes by Luca Giordano.

Water was a distinguishing trait of the Park from the outset: the great pond, Estanque del Retiro, which served as the setting for mock naval battles and other aquatic displays, the great canal, the narrow channel and the chamfered or bellflower pond, created —along with the chapels— the basic layout of the Park and its gardens.  Buen Retiro was described as “The world art wonder of the time when Spain was the foremost power in the world”.

The Park was opened to the public in 1767 and became the property of the Municipality in 1868.

Countless statues, including statues of the Gothic Kings of Spain (read edition Why Statues of the Kings of Spain) and commemorative monuments have filled the park and converted it into an open-air sculpture museum.

Near the Rosaleda (rose garden) there stands a unique statue, the Fountain of the Fallen Angel, erected in 1922, whose main sculpture El Angel Caído is a work by Ricardo Bellver  which represents Lucifer falling from Heaven. It is claimed that this statue is the only known public monument of Satan.

AND even more weird the statue stands 666 metres above sea level – the number of the beast!

The Crystal Palace (Palacio de Cristal) was built along with its artificial pond in 1887 for the Philippine Islands Exhibition, a glass pavilion inspired by the Crystal Palace in London, undoubtedly the gardens’ most extraordinary building.

During the late 18th and 19th centuries, the period in history of colonial expansion, western civilisations held a fascination of the natives, exotic animals and plants in those colonies.  Madrid was second only in Europe, after Vienna, to open an Animal Zoo in the Retiro Park in 1787.

AND with the opening of the Crystal Palace in 1887 hosting the largest and most complete Human Zoo in Europe.

45 natives from the Igorot tribe, people from various regions of the Philippine archipelago, mostly the mountainous island of Luzo, whom the Spanish colonialists were keen to display in the Retiro Park.

An entire village was built to exhibit these unfamiliar people in their ‘natural habitat’, with thousands of curious spectators paying for a glimpse into their exotic world. The darkest corner of Retiro Park -Madrid’s erstwhile human zoo.

 One hundred and thirty-one years ago, some might have argued that this was an innocent deal – the Igorot people were paid good money to come to Spain and promised a return ticket. They were also shown around the country that had conquered theirs – and they got to meet the Queen.

But when they were then taken to a replica village vaguely similar to their own and told to wear their traditional clothes and act out their daily life in front of thousands of curious visitors, they might have got a hunch that they weren’t just on the trip of a lifetime.

Boats were built, and the small lake that we see in front of the Crystal Palace was extended and stocked with fish. This enabled the human exhibits to fish using methods passed down from their ancestors. Meanwhile, the public watched closely in morbid enchantment with their ‘native’ techniques.

Even though many in society found the concept of a human zoo distasteful, public fascination for the exotic world was gaining steam and other human zoos were built in the capital cities of Europe.

There are various articles claiming that Madrid looked after their humans better than many other human zoos in Europe at the time. There was a relatively low death rate with ‘only’ four out of 45 natives dying as a result of poor living conditions in the Park.

Madrid’s natives in the human zoo were promised a return journey, which they were granted, but only after Madrid rejected Paris’s request to exhibit the Igorot people.  Madrid feared that conditions in France’s capital would further jeopardise their health and therefore agreed to pull the plug on the human zoo, sending its inhabitants back to the Philippines by boat.

Barry Haslam-Walker FRICS


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