The ghosts of France’s colonial past lives on at the abandoned “Garden of Tropical Agriculture” in Nogent-sur-Marne, just outside of the French capital.
In 1899, the French government allotted three hectares of land in Nogent-sur-Marne, just outside of Paris, for the Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale (The Garden of Tropical Agriculture), an experimental botanical garden for growing crops such as coffee, vanilla, cacao, and banana. In 1907, the grounds were transformed into a colonial exposition, a fair of sorts which featured themed pavilions of France’s significant colonial holdings as well as five “living villages”—Indochinese, Madagascan, Congolese, a Sudanese farm, and a Tuareg encampment. Men, women, and children were imported to the park to live behind fences under constant observation. It was a “human zoo.”
Each pavilion at the exposition was built in the colonized nation’s architectural style. In the Guyanese pavilion, there were precious woods, tanned bark, and a maquette of the extraction of gold. In the Tuareg camp, visitors could see live camels and a mock attack by the local tribesman on a postal courier. The straw-roofed villages with semi-nude women and men performing warrior dances reinforced visitors’ ideas of European benevolence—that the French were bringing “civilization” to the primitive people. Between the time the exposition was open from May to October, the grounds at Nogent-sur-Marne received two and a half million visitors.
During World War I, parts of the site served as a military hospital. The garden was later converted into an agricultural research facility and renamed after Rene Dumont, an agronomy engineer credited with coining the term “sustainable development.” But the park’s attempt was short-lived and was left abandoned for decades. In 2003, the City of Paris took control of the site and started a renovation program.
Today, much of the remains of the site’s spectacularly popular colonial exposition continue to deteriorate behind large bamboo culms and other tropical plants that are slowly, gently pushing through the windows and cracks of the pavilions. The five “living villages” are still in place and the garden is open to visitors, but the buildings themselves are fenced off.
Photographer Cate Dingley recently visited the remains of the Garden of Tropical Agriculture in Nogent-sur-Marne and matched them with historical photographs from a local French museum.
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