Ota Benga was a man from the pygmy tribe of Mbuti, near the Kasai River in the South Central African country of Congo. He was put on display in a zoo as an example of an evolutionary inferior race. Benga suffered under America’s racist practices as part of an humiliating exhibit as he was called “the missing link” between humanity and apes.
This incident became a clear example of the racism behind the evolution theory and to what extent the theory had gripped the hearts and minds of scientists. It also highlighted the many racially motivated atrocities Black people faced even as the dawn of the 20th century was unfolding.
Ota Benga (or “Bi”, which means “friend” in his language) was born in 1881, had a height of 4 ft. 11in. and weighed 103 lbs. Although he was referred to as a boy he had been married twice. His first wife had been captured by a hostile tribe and his second wife died by a snake bite.Ota Benga (the second man from the left) and other Congolese pygmies are at the exhibition in St. Louis (1904).
He was a survivor of a pygmy slaughter carried out by the Force Publique, a vicious armed force in service to Leopold II, the king of Belgium and the ruler of what was then called Congo Free State. Among the dead were Ota Benga’s wife and two children.King Leopold II had claimed he was building hospitals, schools and other public services but what was uncovered was an active ‘slave-trade, wholesale and retail’. If the natives refused to work, they were ‘subjected to the gravest of abuses’.Their hands were cut off and they were chased from their abodes and their huts were destroyed.
The killers sold him into slavery to a tribe called the Baschilele. He was in the slave market when his deliverance appeared one day in the form of Samuel Phillips Verner, 30, an Africa-obsessed explorer, anthropologist and missionary from South Carolina.
Mr. Verner had been hired to take some pygmies and other Africans back to St. Louis for the extensive “anthropology exhibit” at the 1904 World’s Fair. There, for the edification of American fairgoers, they and representatives of other aboriginal peoples, like Eskimos, American Indians and Filipino tribesmen, would live in replicas of their traditional dwellings and villages.At 21, Ota Benga was brought to the United States by African explorer Samuel Verner. Verner displayed Ota Benga alongside six other male and female pygmies of the Mbuti tribe at the St. Louis World Fair in 1904.
After examining Ota Benga and being particularly pleased by his teeth, which had been filed to sharp points in the manner common among his people, Mr. Verner bought him from his captors and, along with several other pygmies and a few other Africans, took him to St. Louis. When the fair was over, he took them all back to Africa as promised.
Ota Benga then married a Batwa woman who later died of snakebite, and little is known of this second marriage. Not feeling that he belonged with the Batwa, he was unable to make a successful transition to his original way of life, and continued to spend a lot of time with Mr. Verner as the anthropologist pursued his interests in Africa, which included the collection of artifacts and animal specimens. Their friendship grew, and Ota Benga asked Mr. Verner to return with him to “the land of the muzungu” — the land of the white man. The blond South Carolinian and the pygmy arrived back in New York in August 1906.
Their first stop was the American Museum of Natural History, whose director, Hermon Bumpus, agreed to store not just Mr. Verner’s cargo of collectibles, including a couple of chimpanzees, but — temporarily, at least — Ota Benga himself.
Mr. Verner, who was broke, left for the South to try to raise some money, and the pygmy’s residency in the Museum of Natural History began. He was given a place to sleep and seems to have been free to roam the museum. Mr. Bumpus bought him a white duck suit to wear. While Bumpus was put off by Verner’s request of the prohibitively high salary of $175 a month and was not impressed with the man’s credentials, he was interested in Benga.
Before long, though, the African became difficult to control. As he became homesick, He tried to slip past the guards as a large crowd was leaving the premises on one occasion. When asked on another occasion to seat Florence Guggenheim, the philanthropist and a wealthy donor’s wife, he pretended to misunderstand, instead hurling the chair across the room, just missing the woman’s head.
Meanwhile, Verner was struggling financially and had made little progress in his negotiations with the museum. He soon found another home for Benga Among other things, he threw a chair at and almost hit her in the head. Fed up, Mr. Bumpus suggested that Mr. Verner explore the possibilities at the zoo. So at the suggestion of Bumpus, Verner took Benga to the Bronx Zoo in September 1906.
William Temple Hornaday, the zoo’s director, was receptive, agreeing to lodge not just Mr. Verner’s animals but Ota Benga, too. Toward the end of August, the defining chapter in the pygmy’s strange life had begun.
Ota Benga was free to wander the zoo as he pleased. Sometimes he helped the animal keepers with their jobs. In fact, Hornaday described the African as being “employed” by the zoo, though there is no record he was ever paid. He spent a lot of time at the Monkey House, caring for Mr. Verner’s one surviving chimp and bonding as well with an orangutan named Dohong.
Contrary to common belief, Ota Benga was not simply placed in a cage that second weekend in September and put on display. As Dr. Phillips Verner Bradford and Mr. Harvey Blume point out in their book, the process was far subtler. Since he was already spending much time inside the Monkey House, where he was free to come and go, it was but a small step to encourage him to hang his hammock in an empty cage and start spending even more time there. It was but another small step to give him his bow and arrows, set up a target and encourage him to start shooting.
This was the scene that zoogoers found at the Monkey House on the first day of the Ota Benga “exhibit.” On the first day of the exhibit, September 8, 1906, visitors found Benga in the Monkey House. Soon, a sign on the exhibit read:
The African Pigmy, “Ota Benga.”
Age, 23 years. Height, 4 feet 11 inches.
Weight, 103 pounds. Brought from the
Kasai River, Congo Free State, South Cen-
tral Africa, by Dr. Samuel P. Verner.
Exhibited each afternoon during September.
When New Yorkers went to the Bronx Zoo (New York Zoological Park) that day on Saturday, Sept. 8, 1906, they were treated to something novel at the Monkey House. The crowds thronged the monkey house exhibit. Here were man’s “evolutionary ancestors” – monkeys, chimpanzees, a gorilla named Dinah, an orangutan named Dohung and an African pygmy tribesman named Ota Benga.
At first, some people weren’t sure what it was. It — he — seemed much less a monkey than a man, though a very small, dark one with grotesquely pointed teeth. He wore modern clothing but no shoes. He was proficient with bow and arrow, and entertained the crowd by shooting at a target. He displayed skill at weaving with twine, made amusing faces and drank soda.
Teeth sharpening is practiced by both men and women in the tribes of the Congolese Pygmies and the Mentawai people of Indonesia. Children from both of these tribes file their teeth as part of their spiritual practices and rites of passage —to prove themselves worthy to the tribe.”
The new resident of the Monkey House was, indeed, a man, a Congolese pygmy named Ota Benga.
Visitors to the Monkey House that second day got an even better show. Ota Benga and an orangutan frolicked together, hugging and wrestling and playing tricks on each other. The crowd loved it. To enhance the jungle effect, a parrot was put in the cage and bones had been strewn around it. The crowd laughed as the pygmy sat staring at a pair of canvas shoes he had been given.
The New York Times wrote the next day:
“Few expressed audible objection to the sight of a human being in a cage with monkeys as companions, and there could be no doubt that to the majority the joint man-and-monkey exhibition was the most interesting sight in Bronx Park.”
But the Ota Benga “exhibit” did not last. A scandal flared up almost immediately, fueled by the indignation of black clergymen like the Rev. James H. Gordon, superintendent of the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum in Brooklyn.
Mr. Gordon said:
“Our race, we think, is depressed enough, without exhibiting one of us with the apes.
We think we are worthy of being considered human beings, with souls.”
The Mayor of New York at that time, George McClellan, refused to meet with the clergymen or to support their cause. For this he was congratulated by the zoo’s director, Hornaday, a major figure not only in the zoo’s history but also in the history of American conservation, who wrote to McClellan saying:
“When the history of the Zoological Park is written, this incident will form its most amusing passage.”
In time Ota Benga began to hate being the object of curiosity. “There were 40,000 visitors to the park on Sunday. Nearly every man, woman and child of this crowd made for the monkey house to see the start attraction in the park – the wild man from Africa.
They chased him about the grounds that day, howling, jeering, and yelling. Some of them poked him in the ribs, others tripped him up, all laughed at him.” At one point, he got hold of a knife and flourished it around the park. Another time he produced a fracas after being denied a soda from the soda fountain. Finally, after fabricating a small bow and arrows and shooting at obnoxious park visitors he had to leave the park for good.
After his park experience, several institutions tried to help Ota Benga. He was placed in Virginia Theological Seminary and College. Once he felt his English had improved sufficiently, Benga quit school to work in a tobacco factory.
According to Hornaday (who probably had evolutionary racist views) “he did not possess the power of learning.”
Benga began working at a Lynchburg tobacco factory. Despite his small size, he proved a valuable employee because he could climb up the poles to get the tobacco leaves without having to use a ladder. His fellow workers called him “Bingo.” He often told his life story in exchange for sandwiches and root beer. He began to plan a return to Africa.
In 1914 when World War I broke out, a return to the Congo became impossible as passenger ship traffic ended. Benga became depressed as his hopes for a return to his homeland faded.
On March 20, 1916, growing homesick, hostile, and despondent at the age of 32, Ota Benga built a ceremonial fire, chipped off the caps on his teeth, and shot himself in the heart with a stolen pistol, ending his life.
He was buried in an unmarked grave in the black section of the Old City Cemetery, near his benefactor, Gregory Hayes. At some point, the remains of both men went missing. Local oral history indicates that Hayes and Ota Benga were eventually moved from the Old Cemetery to White Rock Cemetery, a burial ground that later fell into disrepair.
One hundred years later, the Ota Benga episode remains a perfect illustration of the racism that pervaded New York at the time. The Bronx Zoo, which opened in 1899, was a young institution during the Ota Benga scandal. Those at the zoo today look back at the episode with a mixture of regret and resignation.
John Calvelli, the senior vice president for public affairs of the Wildlife Conservation Society, which owns and runs the zoo, said:
“It was a mistake. When you reflect on it, you realize that it was a moment in time. You have to look at the time in which it happened, and you try to understand why this would occur.”
That understanding may deepen with a recent spike in interest in Ota Benga, who died in March 1916 when he shot himself in the heart.
His story has inspired writers, artists and musicians, and there is even an effort to exhume his remains from a cemetery in Lynchburg, Va., where he spent the last six years of his life, and return them to Congo.
Dibinga wa Said, a Congolese involved in the exhumation campaign said:
“This was his wish. He wanted to go home.”
A political cartoon relating to the treatment of native people in the Congo area of Africa shows an African native that appears to have been tortured by a white man that is standing nearby holding a whip. Published in 1909. The text at the bottom of the cartoon reads: The Guilt of Delay. Congo Slave-Driver, ‘I’m all right. They’re still talking.’Ota Benga in Bronx ZooA sculpture of Ota Benga, in storage at the American Museum of Natural History.
Source: Kwekudee Trip Down Memory Lane |Jerry Bergman, Ph.D | Phillips Verner Bradford & Harvey Blume (1992) “Ota Benga: The Pygmy in the Zoo” | Wikipedia | DailyMail UK | Brother Jay on YouTube | usslave.blogspot.com | “New York Times” Sept. 18, 1906.