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.

1. La Porte Chinoise (The Chinese door), at the entrance to the Garden of Tropical Agriculture. This gateway’s origin is unknown, but it was originally installed for the Paris 1906 colonial exposition. 2. A historical photo depicts la Porte Chinoise as installed in the Nogent-sur-Marne.
1. In July 1899, the first greenhouse was built in the garden to experiment with new methods to cultivate colonial crops. After being displayed at the Paris World Fair in 1900, two more greenhouses were added to the garden, one for coffee and one for cacao. 2. A historical photo from the 1907 colonial exposition shows the greenhouses and part of the “Saharan encampment.”
After the Temple of Remembrance compound was damaged in a fire, a new temple was erected at the same location in 1992. It has a plaque dedicated to “the memory of the Vietnamese who died for France.”
1. The temple built in 1992. 2. Detail of the original staircase from the Temple of Remembrance compound.
A historical photo shows the dedication ceremony for the Indochinese Temple of Remembrance on June 9, 1920, at the Garden of Tropical Agriculture. The temple was meant to honor the Vietnamese colonial troops who fought in World War I.
1. A photo from the 1907 colonial exposition shows a Sudanese woman and her children. 2. The Chinese door in its first installation in the Grand Palais at the 1906 Paris colonial exposition.
A fragment of a monument titled “To The Glory of Colonial Expansion.”
1. The Tunisian pavilion was built for the 1907 colonial exposition. It displayed arts and crafts and also offered local food and drink. Like the Moroccan and Guyanese pavilions, it became a laboratory in the 1920s. Half a century later, tropical agriculture researchers used the laboratories for plant and soil analysis. 2. A photo from the 1907 colonial exposition shows men sitting outside the Tunisian pavilion.
1. The Moroccan pavilion, built in 1902, housed the University of Colonial Agriculture and eventually became a laboratory. There is little information about the work done in the laboratories, but according to some reports, the lab did genetic research in 1925. 2. AThe Moroccan pavilion during the 1907 colonial exposition.
This structure, once part of a larger compound, is a replica of a “Dinh,” or Vietnamese communal temple, from the province of Tu-Dau-Mot. The French ruled the southern third of Vietnam, which they called “Cochinchine,” as a colony from 1862-1954. After World War I, the structure was renamed the “Temple of Remembrance,” which was looted and burned down in 1984.
Graffiti in the Moroccan pavilion.