The Story Behind Spain's Infamous Zoo That Featured Philippine Animals... And Then Filipinos

First, they added animals. And then Filipinos.
IMAGE Jim Anzalone / WIKIPEDIA, Fernando Debas / Museo Nacional de Antropologia

The Palacio de Cristal del Retiro (Crystal Palace of Retiro) was supposed to be a museum of exotic items from the Philippines. It sits at the heart of Madrid’s Retiro Park. The museum was thought to be a wholesome effort from the Spanish empire to educate their people of their country’s farthest colonies. 

But then, animals were added to the collection.

And then, they added 43 Igorots. 

The Crystal Palace 

Photo by Jim Anzalone / Wikimedia Commons.

The Crystal Palace was built in 1887 by Spanish architect Ricardo Velasquez Bosco for the purpose of hosting the Exposition of the Philippines. The structure is shaped like a Greek cross and is made almost entirely of glass. Its frame is made of iron and bricks.

The design was such so that exhibitions can be relocated anywhere. They just had to disassemble the frame and transport it elsewhere.

On a sunny day, the Palace would glimmer brightly beside the lake next to it. The visual effect was enthralling and made people more curious about the treasures it kept within. 

At the time, the whole Western world was fascinated with anything exotic, from animals, plants, artisanal products, and the indigenous people who made them.

The Human Zoo That Got Away

There were some people who found the Exposition of the Philippines at the Crystal Palace offensive, but the lure of the exotic was stronger than the duty to uphold human dignity. No less than the Queen Consort of Spain, Maria Cristina of Austria, declared the human zoo open for public viewing. 

Spain's Queen Consort, Maria Cristina, Who Approved of the Human Zoo

Photo by Christian Franzen Nissen, 1906 / Pubic Domain.

The star of the Palace was a group of Igorots, who were made to live beside the Palace in a replica of their village in the Philippines.

For the visitor’s pleasure, the humans were told to act like they were living in their village in the Philippines. They were also told to wear their traditional Igorot clothes. 


Spanish photographer Fernando Debas was able to document the sights at the time. 

Igorots Posing at Their Fake Igorot Village at the Exposition of the Philippines

Photo by Fernando Debas / Museo Nacional de Antropologia, Spain.

Igorots and a Carabao Imported All the Way From the Philippines for the Exhibit at the Crystal Palace

Photo by Fernando Debas / Museo Nacional de Antropologia, Spain.
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Photo by Fernando Debas / Museo Nacional de Antropologia, Spain.

One of the ‘Better Human Zoos’

According to Madrid No Frills, the Exposition of the Philippines was one of the “better human zoos” at the time.

“Madrid looked after their humans better than many other human zoos in Europe at the time,” it reported. 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.”

According to Madrid No Frills, the people running the Exposition of the Philippines toured their humans around Madrid.

“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.

Filipinos Forced to Dance at a Human Zoo in Seattle, U.S.A. (1909)

Photo by Arthur Churchill Warner (1909) / Wikimedia Commons.

The End of the Filipino Human Zoo in Madrid

Madrid was forced to shut down the Exposition of the Philippines and the human zoo that came with it after Paris requested to have the exhibit in the city. 

Spain did not trust that France would be able to replicate the grandeur and precautions taken to care for the humans, so it decided to pull the plug. 

Because of this, Madrid was forced to send the Igorots back home to the Philippines via boat. After that, nothing is heard about the 39 Igorots who survived Madrid’s infamous human zoo.

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Mario Alvaro Limos
Features Editor-at-Large
Mario Alvaro Limos is features editor-at-large at Esquire Philippines, and heads the Lifestyle and Esports content of as its section editor. Email him at [email protected] and [email protected]
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