Ota Benga: The Pygmy Who Was Caged in the Bronx Zoo’s Monkey House



Image: Unknown

In the years after slavery was abolished, injustices were still visited upon people of color that made the ideal of human rights something of a joke. One of the most startling expressions of the ‘lack of humanity’ that black people possessed in the eyes of whites is shown by the story of Ota Benga, a member of a pygmy tribe from Africa. In 1906 Benga became an exhibit in the Monkey House of the Bronx Zoo. Yes, that’s right – a man was caged and exhibited in a zoo. Does amorality know no bounds?


Image: Unknown

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.

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