Oto Benga – Human Zoo Exhibit

Ota_Benga_1904
Man’s inhumanity to man features large in today’s sad tale, culled from the weirder side of Wikipedia by The Wikiworm

Ota Benga (circa 1883  – March 20, 1916) was a Congolese pygmy who featured in an anthropology exhibit at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, Missouri in 1904, and in a controversial human zoo exhibit in 1906 at the Bronx Zoo.

As a member of the Mbuti people, Ota Benga lived in equatorial forests of the Belgian Congo. His people were killed by the Force Publique, a Belgian militia. Benga lost his wife and two children, surviving only because he was on a hunting expedition when the Force Publique attacked his village. He was later captured by slavers.

The American businessman and explorer Samuel Phillips Verner traveled to Africa in 1904 under contract from the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (St. Louis World Fair) to bring back an assortment of pygmies to be part of an exhibition. Four Batwa, all male, ultimately accompanied him back to the States. Verner recruited other Africans who were not pygmies: five men from the Bakuba, including the son of King Ndombe, ruler of the Bakuba; and other related peoples – “Red Africans” as they were collectively labeled by contemporary anthropologists.

The group arrived in St. Louis, Missouri in late June 1904 without Verner, who had been taken ill with malaria. The Louisiana Purchase Exposition had already begun, and the Africans immediately became the center of attention. Ota Benga was particularly popular, and his name was reported variously by the press as Artiba, Autobank, Ota Bang, and Otabenga. He had an amiable personality, and visitors were eager to see his teeth, which had been filed to sharp points in his early youth as ritual decoration. The Africans learned to charge for photographs and performances. One newspaper account, promoting Ota Benga as “the only genuine African cannibal in America”, claimed “[his teeth were] worth the five cents he charges for showing them to visitors”.

When Verner arrived a month later, he realized the pygmies were more prisoners than performers. Their attempts to congregate peacefully in the forest on Sundays were thwarted by the crowds’ fascination with them. McGee’s attempts to present a “serious” scientific exhibit were also overturned. On July 28, the Africans’ performing to the crowd’s preconceived notion that they were “savages” resulted in the First Illinois Regiment being called in to control the mob. Benga and the other Africans eventually performed in a warlike fashion, imitating American Indians they saw at the Exhibition. The Apache chief Geronimo (featured as “The Human Tyger” – with special dispensation from the Department of War) grew to admire Benga, and gave him one of his arrowheads. For his efforts, Verner was awarded the gold medal in anthropology at the close of the Exposition.

Benga accompanied Verner when he returned the other Africans to the Congo. He briefly lived amongst the Batwa while continuing to accompany Verner on his African adventures. He 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, Benga chose to return with Verner to the United States.

Verner eventually arranged for Benga to stay in a spare room at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City while he was tending to other business. Verner negotiated with the curator Henry Bumpus over the presentation of his acquisitions from Africa and potential employment. 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. Wearing a Southern-style linen suit to entertain visitors, Benga initially enjoyed his time at the museum. He became homesick, however.

Meanwhile, Verner was struggling financially and had made little progress in his negotiations with the museum. He soon found another home for Benga.

At the suggestion of Bumpus, Verner took Benga to the Bronx Zoo in 1906. There the Mbuti man was allowed to roam the grounds freely. He became fond of an orangutan named Dohong, “the presiding genius of the Monkey House”, who had been taught to perform tricks and imitate human behavior. The events leading to his “exhibition” alongside Dohong were gradual: Benga spent some of his time in the Monkey House exhibit, and the zoo encouraged him to hang his hammock there, and to shoot his bow and arrow at a target. On the first day of the exhibit, September 8, 1906, visitors found Benga in the Monkey House.

Ota_Benga_at_Bronx_Zoo

William Hornaday, the Bronx Zoo director, considered the exhibit a valuable spectacle for visitors; he was supported by Madison Grant, Secretary of the New York Zoological Society, who lobbied to put Ota Benga on display alongside apes at the Bronx Zoo. A decade later, Grant became prominent nationally as a racial anthropologist and eugenicist.

African-American clergymen immediately protested to zoo officials about the exhibit. Said James H. Gordon,

“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.” 

In defense of the depiction of Benga as a lesser human, an editorial in The New York Times suggested:

We do not quite understand all the emotion which others are expressing in the matter … It is absurd to make moan over the imagined humiliation and degradation Benga is suffering. The pygmies … are very low in the human scale, and the suggestion that Benga should be in a school instead of a cage ignores the high probability that school would be a place … from which he could draw no advantage whatever. The idea that men are all much alike except as they have had or lacked opportunities for getting an education out of books is now far out of date.

After the controversy, Benga was allowed to roam the grounds of the zoo. In response to the situation, as well as verbal and physical prods from the crowds, he became more mischievous and somewhat violent. Around this time, an article in The New York Times stated, “It is too bad that there is not some society like the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. We send our missionaries to Africa to Christianize the people, and then we bring one here to brutalize him.”

The zoo finally removed Benga from the grounds. Verner was unsuccessful in his continued search for employment, but he occasionally spoke to Benga. The two had agreed that it was in Benga’s best interests to remain in the United States despite the unwelcome spotlight at the zoo. 

The mayor released Benga to the custody of Reverend James M. Gordon, who supervised the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum in Brooklyn and made him a ward. That same year Gordon arranged for Benga to be cared for in Virginia, where he paid for him to acquire American clothes and to have his teeth capped, so the young man could be more readily accepted in local society. Benga was tutored in English and began work at a tobacco factory.

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, at the age of 32, he built a ceremonial fire, chipped off the caps on his teeth, and shot himself in the heart with a stolen pistol.

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.

 

 

One thought on “Oto Benga – Human Zoo Exhibit

  1. The idea that men are all much alike except as they have had or lacked opportunities for getting an education out of books is now far out of date.

    There’s a perspective largely lost to history.