Igorot people and their cattle

The ‘human zoo’ of Madrid

Read article in French.

Deep in the heart of Retiro Park, glimmering against an oasis, lives the Crystal Palace: a beautiful glass mansion with a year-round tropical climate. Originally built to house exotic plant life from the farthest corners of the Spanish empire, it adjoined a small lake where ancient tribes from these faraway lands would fish just as their ancestors did.

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. Welcome to the darkest corner of Retiro Park: Madrid’s erstwhile ‘human zoo’.

The lake where the humans fished


It all started fairly modestly with a few artisanal objects from the Philippines displayed in museums. The idea was to educate locals about the deepest corners of their empire, but animals were quickly added to the collection and then, 43 Igorot people. Those possessing the skills to produce these artisanal products were specifically brought over to Madrid, as they made for better viewing.

Igorot people are from various regions of the Philippine archipelago, mostly the mountainous island of Luzo – the largest of the Philippine islands. Even to this day they have a rich culture, which Spanish colonialists were keen to display in Retiro Park.

The Igorot people

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.

Even though many in society found the concept of a human zoo distasteful, public fascination for the exotic world was gaining steam and, in 1887, Queen María Cristina declared the ‘human zoo’ open for business.

The opening ceremony

The exhibition of the Philippines

The exotic gardens inside the Crystal Palace

The Crystal Palace today


A small village was laid out next to the Crystal Palace for the Igorot people. There were streets, raised bamboo homes to avoid snakes, farms and even places of worship.

A hut in Retiro Park made for living in

Boats were built, and the small lake that we see in front of the Crystal Palace today was dug and filled with water. Fish were introduced to the lake so that the human exhibits could fish using methods passed down from their ancestors. Meanwhile, the public watched closely in morbid enchantment with their ‘strange’ techniques.

Igorot people and their cattle

Farms were built, and cattle were brought in to plough the land – and the fact that Madrid had a totally different climate to where the Igorot people were from didn’t seem to factor into their replica world.

A human at work

Cattle brought in for farming

The Minister of the Colonies, Don Víctor Balaguer, observed the Igorot people and wrote of his marvel at them. He talked of the shape of their skulls, the beautiful objects they produced, and the way in which they did so – as if they were from another planet. He also described their fascinating ways of fishing, their fine fabrics and embroidery, their huge and whimsical shells, their cotton and tobacco samples, their weapons, their houses and their tombs.

A human holding a spear

In the illustration below, you can see a pavilion made from bamboo canes, where – it’s claimed – justice was administered to the inhabitants of the village. The drawing in the middle shows a spear-throwing competition, with the male humans in their traditional dress.

The Pavilion and spear-throwing

Later, as seen in the illustration below, small workshops were built, where the humans would make paper from banana leaves grown inside the Crystal Palace and roll tobacco leaves to make cigars in front of their inquisitive visitors, who would later be able to purchase them.

Workshops and cockfight

On the top left, you can see a bamboo hut workshop. On the bottom left, the Igorot people are performing their traditional dance, and on the bottom right the public are watching a cockfight. In the middle we see a shaded walkway, its supporting bamboo poles adorned with Spanish flags.


I’ve found 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 here, with ‘only’ four out of 43 humans dying as a result of poor living conditions in Retiro Park. Madrid’s humans were also 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.

The humans were also taken on tours of Madrid and invited to the royal palace, whereas in other countries they were depicted as savages and studied by researchers looking to further highlight their racial superiority – of which they were so convinced.

The human zoo in Brussels…

The Human Zoo in Brussels

Barcelona’s human zoo…

Barcelona's human zoo

Translated from Barcelona’s human zoo poster above: Rare Australian cannibals, disfigured, the most brutal you’ve ever seen. Bloody battles, subhuman customs, furious pygmies that attack visitors, giants from Patagonia and Aztec children, naked black people of the western colonies.

'From Africa's darkest depths'

The human zoo in Cologne…

The human zoo in Cologne

The human zoo of Paris…

The human zoo of Paris


The Crystal Palace and the lake in front are profound remains of one of Madrid’s darkest stories, and now that you know it, you’ll never look at this beautiful corner of Retiro Park in the same way again.

More Reading

Post navigation

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.