08 August 2023

The inhuman ‘elephant’ in a human zoo

There was a man once, one of many, who was taken to the United States of America to be part of a human exhibition. He, like others from territories and cultures unknown or lesser known to the average North American would-be viewer, was shown off, much like a reptile, mammal, bird or fish that was foreign and on account of rarity considered ‘exotic.’

I don’t know if the ‘collection’ saw this man as just another specimen as any other creature on earth or in air or underground. I don’t know if he and others like him ascribed a greater value on account of being closer in similarity to them, the ability to converse, gather, create homes, cultivate crops etc.  The generous view is that given ignorance they assumed some kind of inferiority and concluded, ‘lesser species.’ It was probably not just that, considering the narratives of various invaders, slave traffickers, slave owners, mass murderers and sackers of continents. Even this particular exhibitor used the word ‘human’ and a pernicious streak is certainly evident.

It is really hard to put it down to ignorance and erroneous conclusions about species hierarchies. Hundreds of thousands of Europeans delighted in visiting ‘human zoos’ in Paris, London, Berlin, New York, Hamburg, Antwerp, Barcelona and Milan. The trauma these incarcerated people suffered, the diseases they were afflicted with, the humiliation, insults, pain of mind etc cannot be fathomed. Many probably died in captivity.  We know that outside the Catholic Church in Tervuren, Belgium, there are seven stone graves holding the remains of six Congolese men and one woman who were exhibited like zoo animals during 1897. They were exposed to the rains and died of influenza and pneumonia. Apparently they, along with 260 other men, women and children had been brought to Tervuren for a colonial exhibition.

The graves hold the remains of six Congolese men and one woman who were exhibited like zoo animals in a nearby park in Tervuren during the rainy summer of 1897 and who died of influenza and pneumonia after being forced to spend their days outside. They were among the 267 men, women and children transported to Tervuren for a colonial exhibition ordered by the Belgian king, Leopold II.

[Leopold II. Responsible for approximately 10 million deaths in the Congo Free State. Hitler and other European mass murderers, counted among whom are several war-criminals who head their respective states and have turned other countries into slaughterhouses, would have to collectively step back in awe at the colossus that is Leopold II the Butcher.]

A necessary parenthesis, that.

Those who supplied ‘attractions’ to places like Tervuren, those who commissioned such crimes, the lords, ladies and priests who promoted such things or were silent, the ‘scientists’ who treated the human being incarcerated as lab rats to propound theories of racial superiority and inferiority, and of course those who visited these facilities are all guilty.

One could call it ‘inhumanity,’ but I wonder if that is not what we truly are as a species. I wonder if our ‘humanity’ is just that: arrogant, superior and at best condescending.

We haven't really, as a species, resolved the issue of perceptions pertaining to people who are different in terms of language, location, skin color, belief systems etc. It’s a trait that as a species we imprint on all we touch, including the ways in which we engage with other species.

What is the difference between human exhibits/exhibitions and zoos? The assumption of superiority and inferiority is at its heart. We judge in terms of our conceptualization of right and wrong, good and bad, holy and unholy. And so we rank countries and communities, vocations, intellect and humanity. If the overriding determinants were humility, kindness, compassion and tolerance, where would the human species stand in this world of creatures big and small, visible and invisible to the naked human eyes?

We inhabit a human zoo. We are as a species a collection of zoos where we imprison and are imprisoned in turn. Perhaps it is because we cannot bear this truth we find succour in defining other creatures as somehow being inferior.

They, simply, don’t speak our language. That’s all. It is not a determinant of intelligence or species nobility. We constitute the proverbial elephant in the human zoo and we are not different to that American of the United States who took a Lankan ‘specimen’ to be exhibited in New York over 100 years ago. And we are that man who was exhibited as well. Only, we don’t have the eyes to see the cage we live in.  Or we look away.  

Wait, not an elephant. A rogue elephant.

Finally, this: A note that could be read to elephants of all species one day by a kind person who knows elephant-language. 'Sorry.'


['The Morning Inspection' is the title of a column I wrote for the Daily News from 2009 to 2011, one article a day, Monday through Saturday. This is 190th article in the new series but it was not published perhaps because it was seen to be controversial. Links to previous articles in this new series are given below] 

Other articles in this series: 

Ivan Art: Ivanthi Fernando's efforts to align meaning

Arwa Turra, heart-stitcher

Let's help Jagana Krishnakumar rebuild our ancestral home

True national anthems

Do you have a friend in Pennsylvania (or anywhere?)

A gateway to illumination in West Virginia

Through strange fissures into magical orchards

There's sea glass love few will see 

Re-residencing Lakdasa Wikkramasinha

Poisoning poets and shredding books of verse

The responsible will not be broken

Home worlds

Ownership and tenuriality of the Wissahickon

Did you notice the 'tiny, tiny wayside flowers'?

Gifts, gifting and their rubbishing

History is new(s)

Journalism inadvertently learned

Reflections on the young poetic heart

Wordaholic, trynasty and other portmanteaus

The 'Loku Aiya' of all 'Paththara Mallis'

Subverting the indecency of the mind

Character theft and the perennial question 'who am I?'


A degree in people

Faces dripping with time

Saji Coomaraswamy and rewards that matter

Revolutionary unburdening

Seeing, unseeing and seeing again

Alex Carey and the (small) matter of legacy

The Edelweiss of Mirissa 

The insomnial dreams of Kapila Kumara Kalinga 

The clothes we wear and the clothes that wear us (down) 

Every mountain, every rock, is sacred 

Manufacturing passivity and obedience 

Precept and practice 

Sanjeew Lonliyes: rawness unplugged, unlimited 

In praise of courage, determination and insanity 

The relative values of life and death 

Feet that walk 

Sarinda's eyes 

Poetry and poets will not be buried 

Sunny Dayananda 

Reunion Peradeniya (1980-1990) 

What makes Oxygen breathable?  

Sorrowing and delighting the world 

The greatest fallacy  

Encounters with Liyanage Amarakeerthi 

Beyond praise and blame 

Letters that cut and heal the heart 

Vanished and vanishing trails 


A forgotten dawn song from Embilipitiya 

The soft rain of neighbourliness  

The Gold Medals of being 

Jaya Sri Ratna Sri 

All those we've loved before 

Reflections on waves and markings 

A chorus of National Anthems 

Saying what and how 

'Say when' 

Respond to insults in line with the Akkosa Sutra 

The loves of our lives 

The right time, the right person 

The silent equivalent of a thousand words 

Crazy cousins are besties for life 

Unities, free and endearing 

Free verse and the return key

"Sorry, Earth!" 

The lost lyrics of Premakeerthi de Alwis 

The revolution is the song 

Consolation prizes in competitions no one ever wins 

The day I won a Pulitzer 


Ella Deloria's silences 

Blackness, whiteness and black-whiteness 

Inscriptions: stubborn and erasable  


Deveni: a priceless one-word koan 

Enlightening geometries 

Let's meet at 'The Commons' 

It all begins with a dot 

Recovering run-on lines and lost punctuation 

'Wetness' is not the preserve of the Dry Zone 

On sweeping close to one's feet 

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California

To be an island like the Roberts... 

Debts that can never be repaid in full

An island which no flood can overwhelm 

Who really wrote 'Mother'? 

A melody faint and yet not beyond hearing 

Heart dances that cannot be choreographed 

Remembering to forget and forgetting to remember 

On loving, always 

Authors are assassinated, readers are immortal 

When you turn 80... 

It is good to be conscious of nudities  

Saturday slides in after Monday and Sunday somersaults into Friday  

There's a one in a million and a one in ten 

Gunadasa Kapuge is calling 

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California 

Hemantha Gunawardena's signature 

Pathways missed 

Architectures of the demolished 

The exotic lunacy of parting gifts 

Who the heck do you think I am? 

Those fascinating 'Chitra Katha' 

The Mangala Sabhava 

So how are things in Sri Lanka? 

The most beautiful father 

Palmam qui meruit ferat 

The sweetest three-letter poem 

Buddhangala Kamatahan 

An Irish and Sri Lankan Hello 

Teams, team-thinking, team-spirit and leadership 

The songs we could sing in lifeboats when we are shipwrecked 

Pure-Rathna, a class act 

Jekhan Aruliah set a ball rolling in Jaffna 

Awaiting arrivals unlike any other 

Teachers and students sometimes reverse roles 

Matters of honor and dignity 

Yet another Mother's Day 

A cockroach named 'Don't' 

Colombo, Colombo, Colombo and so forth 

The slowest road to Kumarigama, Ampara 

Sweeping the clutter away 

Some play music, others listen 

Completing unfinished texts 

Mind and hearts, loquacious and taciturn 

I am at Jaga Food, where are you? 

On separating the missing from the disappeared 

Moments without tenses 

And intangible republics will save the day (as they always have) 

The world is made of waves 


The circuitous logic of Tony Muller 

Rohana Kalyanaratne, an unforgettable 'Loku Aiya' 

Mowgli, the Greatest Archaeologist 

Figures and disfigurement, rocks and roses 

Sujith Rathnayake and incarcerations imposed and embraced 

Some stories are written on the covers themselves 

A poetic enclave in the Republic of Literature 

Landcapes of gone-time and going-time  

The best insurance against the loud and repeated lie 

So what if the best flutes will not go to the best flautists? 

There's dust and words awaiting us at crossroads and crosswords 

The books of disquiet 

A song of terraced paddy fields 

Of ants, bridges and possibilities 

From A through Aardvark to Zyzzyva  

World's End 

Words, their potency, appropriation and abuse 

Street corner stories 

Who did not listen, who's not listening still? 

The book of layering 

If you remember Kobe, visit GOAT Mountain 

The world is made for re-colouring 

The gift and yoke of bastardy 

The 'English Smile' 

No 27, Dickman's Road, Colombo 5 

Visual cartographers and cartography 

Ithaca from a long ago and right now 

Lessons written in invisible ink 

The amazing quality of 'equal-kindness' 

A tea-maker story seldom told 

On academic activism 

The interchangeability of light and darkness 

Back to TRADITIONAL rice 

Sisterhood: moments, just moments 

Chess is my life and perhaps your too

Reflections on ownership and belonging 

The integrity of Nadeesha Rajapaksha 

Signatures in the seasons of love

To Maceo Martinet as he flies over rainbows 

Sirith, like pirith, persist 

Fragrances that will not be bottled  

Colours and textures of living heritage 

Countries of the past, present and future 

A degree in creative excuses

Books launched and not-yet-launched 

The sunrise as viewed from sacred mountains 

The ways of the lotus 

Isaiah 58: 12-16 and the true meaning of grace 

The age of Frederick Algernon Trotteville 

Live and tell the tale as you will 

Between struggle and cooperation 

Of love and other intangibles 

Neruda, Sekara and literary dimensions 

The universe of smallness 

Paul Christopher's heart of many chambers 

Calmness gracefully cascades in the Dumbara Hills 

Serendipitous amber rules the world 

Continents of the heart
The allegory of the slow road