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Ota Benga: Congolese Pygmay Displayed in the Bronx Zoo

Ota Benga (c. 1883 – March 20, 1916) was a Congolese man, an Mbuti pygmy known for being featured in an anthropology exhibit at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition held in St. Louis, Missouri in 1904, and in a human zoo exhibit in 1906 at the Bronx Zoo. 

Benga had been purchased from African slave traders by the explorer Samuel Phillips Verner, a businessman hunting Africans for the Exposition and traveled with Verner to the United States. At the Bronx Zoo, Benga had free run of the grounds before and after he was exhibited in the zoo's Monkey House. Except for a brief visit with Verner to Africa after the close of the St. Louis Fair, Benga lived in the United States, mostly in Virginia, for the rest of his life.

Displays of non-white humans as examples of "earlier stages" of human evolution were common in the early 20th century, when racial theories were frequently intertwined with concepts from evolutionary biology. African American newspapers around the nation published editorials strongly opposing Benga's treatment. Dr. R. S. MacArthur, the spokesperson for a delegation of black churches, petitioned the New York City mayor for his release from the Bronx 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 to work. Several years later, the outbreak of World War I stopped ship passenger travel and prevented his returning to Africa. This, as well as the inhumane treatment he was subjected to for most of his life, caused Benga to fall into a depression. He committed suicide in 1916 at the age of 32.

As a member of the Mbuti people, Ota Benga lived in equatorial forests near the Kasai River in what was then the Belgian Congo. His people were killed by the Force Publique, established by King Leopold of Belgium as a militia to control the natives for labor in order to exploit the large supply of rubber in the Congo. 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. To demonstrate the fledgling discipline of anthropology, the noted scientist W. J. McGee intended to display "representatives of all the world's peoples, ranging from smallest pygmies to the most gigantic peoples, from the darkest blacks to the dominant whites" to show what was commonly thought then to be a sort of cultural evolution. 

Verner discovered Ota Benga while 'en route' to a Batwa village visited previously; he negotiated Benga's release from the slavers for a pound of salt and a bolt of cloth. Verner later claimed Benga was rescued from the cannibals by him. The two spent several weeks together before reaching the village. There the villagers had developed distrust for muzungu (white man) due to the abuses of King Leopold's forces. Verner was unable to recruit any villagers to join him until Benga spoke of the muzungu saving his life, the bond that had grown between them, and his own curiosity about the world Verner came from. Four Batwa, all male, ultimately accompanied them. 

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.

Benga (second from left) and the Batwa in St. Louis

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 ArtibaAutobankOta 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 Native Americans they saw at the Exhibition. The Apache chief Geronimo (featured as "The Human Tyger", with special dispensation from the War Department) 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. He 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. However, he eventually became home sick.

The disaffected Benga attempted to find relief by exploiting his employers' presentation of him as a 'savage'. He tried to slip past the guards as a large crowd was leaving the premises; when asked on one occasion to seat 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.

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. Soon, a sign on the exhibit read:

Ota Benga at the Bronx Zoo in 1906. Only five promotional photos exist of Benga's time here, none of them in the "Monkey House"; cameras were not allowed.

Age, 23 years. Height, 4 feet 11 inches. Weight, 103 pounds. Brought from the Kasai River, Congo Free State, South Central Africa, by Dr. Samuel P. Verner. Exhibited each afternoon during September.

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." Gordon thought the exhibit was hostile to Christianity and a promotion of Darwinism: "The Darwinian theory is absolutely opposed to Christianity, and a public demonstration in its favor should not be permitted."

A number of clergymen backed Gordon.

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. Toward the end of 1906, Benga was released into Reverend Gordon's custody.

Rev. James Gordon

Gordon placed Benga in the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum, a church-sponsored orphanage which he supervised. As the unwelcome press attention continued, in January 1910, Gordon arranged for Benga's relocation to Lynchburg, Va, where he lived with the McCray family. So that Benga could more easily be part of local society, Gordon arranged for the African's teeth to be capped and bought him American-style clothes. Tutored by Lynchburg poet Anne Spencer, Benga could improve his English, and he began to attend elementary school at the Baptist Seminary in Lynchburg.

Once he felt his English had improved sufficiently, Benga discontinued his formal education. He began working at a Lynchburg tobacco factory. 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, 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 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. 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.