Ota Benga’s life was tragic from early on. He was a member of the Mbuti people who lived in the area then known as the Belgian Congo. Forces under the control of King Leopold of Belgium killed Benga’s wife and two children during a massacre – part of the drive to control rubber trees in the region. Benga escaped death because he was on a hunting trip when the slaughter occurred.
Benga was later captured by slavers, then sold to missionary Samuel Verner for a bolt of cloth and a pound of salt. Verner had been contracted by the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (otherwise known as Saint Louis World’s Fair) to find some pygmies for the fair. Four other Batwa or pygmy people and five non-pygmies eventually agreed to come on the trip.
At the Exposition, Benga was the most popular of the group and was depicted as “the only genuine African cannibal in America,” something that was played upon because his teeth had been filed to points, in keeping with his tribal tradition. It is said Verner was unable to attend at first because of illness, but the group were treated like prisoners, portrayed as primitives, and perceived as savages. Afterward, they returned to the Congo, where Benga married, though tragically his wife died of a snakebite. Benga chose to stay with Verner and go back to America as he felt there was nothing keeping him in Africa.
Verner arrived in New York with little money and few prospects, other than Benga and his menagerie of animals. At first, Benga stayed in a room at the Museum of Natural History and soon became a spectacle for museum visitors. His situation slowly ate at away at his soul. According to Bradford and Blume (1992): “What at first held his attention now made him want to flee. It was maddening to be inside – to be swallowed whole – so long. He had an image of himself, stuffed, behind glass, but somehow still alive, crouching over a fake campfire, feeding meat to a lifeless child. Museum silence became a source of torment, a kind of noise; he needed birdsong, breezes, trees.”
With Benga struggling to cope with life at the museum and Verner up to his ears in debt, Benga was eventually handed over to the Bronx Zoo. There he was initially granted a degree of freedom, but it wasn’t long before he was put in the Monkey House for extended periods of time. Hundreds of thousands of people flocked to see the exhibit, which was labeled:
“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 Central Africa, by Dr. Samuel P. Verner. Exhibited each afternoon during September.”
Benga was encouraged to sleep in his hammock, shoot his bow and arrow, and cradle an orangutan – all part of a perverse way of presenting the ‘missing’ evolutionary link between humans and primates.
The director of the zoo, William Hornaday, was encouraged in his actions by Madison Grant, later a leading eugenicist and racial anthropologist. African American clergymen, however, were outraged, not least one James H. Gordon, who protested: “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 New York Times couldn’t see what all the fuss was about; an editorial read: “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.”
Benga hated being a spectacle, and no wonder. According to Bradford and Blume: “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 star attraction in the park – the wild man from Africa. They chased him about the grounds all day, howling, jeering, and yelling. Some of them poked him in the ribs, others tripped him up, all laughed at him.”
The New York Times did then offer a less favorable view of matters, stating: “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.”
With controversy swirling – for many found the situation shameful – the zoo later allowed Benga to wander the grounds as a ‘live exhibit’ rather than stay in his cage. Yet Benga objected to the prodding and pushing of people and was known to react, sometimes violently. Who can blame him? He was ultimately released to clergyman James H. Gordon, who placed him in an orphanage. To escape the media spotlight, Benga was then moved to Lynchburg, Virginia, his pointed teeth were capped, and he was made to wear American-style dress. He also improved his English and started working in a tobacco factory, but he dreamed of returning to Africa.
Unfortunately for Benga, World War One broke out, and it became clear that returning to Africa would be impossible. He became more and more depressed, the cruelty he had suffered no doubt weighing on his mind. Finally, on March 20, 1916, he built a ceremonial fire, knocked off the caps on his teeth, and shot himself dead with a pistol.
The Bronx Zoo was not the only institution of its kind that turned people into exhibits; there is quite a legacy of ‘ethnographic displays’ in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The 1889 Parisian World’s Fair, visited by tens of millions, exhibited 400 indigenous people in displays like the one pictured above. In 1896 the Cincinnati Zoo invited 100 Sioux to build a village on its site, where the Native Americans stayed three months. Other human zoos could be found across Europe in major cities such as Hamburg, Antwerp, Barcelona, London, Milan and Warsaw. Needless to say, all such displays were degrading and racist – aimed at showing the so-called cultural superiority of Western civilization by comparison with non-European indigenous peoples.
Another story that has parallels with Ota Benga’s is that of Ishi, who was the last of his tribe, the Yahi. Ishi was believed to be the oldest Native American in Northern California (at age 49) to have lived completely outside of European-American culture. Taken in by anthropologists at the University of California, he was hired as their research assistant – but also displayed as an object of study – and lived in a small building on the university campus in San Francisco. He taught the anthropologists about his culture and language, but died of tuberculosis – coincidentally just five days after Benga took his own life.