Ota Benga (circa 1883 – March 20, 1916) was a Congolese Mbuti pygmy known for being featured in a controversial human zoo exhibit at New York City‘s Bronx Zoo in 1906. Benga came to the United States through the action of businessman and missionary Samuel Phillips Verner. Under contract from the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, Verner negotiated Benga’s release from slave traders in 1904. He had been captured by slavers after the Force Publique attacked his village, killing his wife and two children. Benga was featured in an anthropology display at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition later in 1904. After he had nearly two years of travel, including a return trip to Africa, Benga was later to be caged at the Bronx Zoo where he came to be “exhibited” in the zoo’s Monkey House as part of a display intended to promote the concepts of human evolution and scientific racism.
The St. Louis Republic newspaper reported on the exhibit on March 6, 1904 stating that “[he] represented the lowest form of human development.” Newspapers wrote sensationalized articles in order to attract zoo goers to the “exhibit”. On May 5, the Republic reported that a leader of the expedition narrowly escaped being eaten alive by cannibals. Ota Benga was encouraged to carry an orangutan around the cage like a father holding a small child. “Benga”, one newspaper reporter wrote, “was not much taller than the orangutan…Their heads are much alike, and both grin the same way when pleased.” African American newspapers around the nation editorialized against Benga’s treatment. Dr. R.S. MacArthur, the spokesperson for a delegation of black churches petitioned the mayor for his release. The mayor initially ignored the protest then eventually released Benga from the cage and made him a ward at the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum in Brooklyn. After learning that he would not be repatriated as promised, he committed suicide in 1916 at the age of 32.
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 lived in harmony with local villagers, maintaining amicable if cautious relations. When King Leopold II of Belgium created the Force Publique to exploit the large supply of rubber in the Congo, his agents killed Benga’s people. He lost his wife and two children, surviving only because he was away on a hunting expedition at the time they were killed, but was later captured by slavers.
American businessman and missionary Samuel Phillips Verner was sent to Africa in 1904 under contract from the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (St. Louis World Fair) to bring back an assortment of pygmies to perform in an exhibition. Noted scientist W. J. McGee, to demonstrate the fledgling discipline of anthropology, 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 a sort of cultural evolution. Verner discovered Ota Benga while en route to a Batwa village he had visited previously and negotiated Benga’s release for a pound of salt and a bolt of cloth. The two spent several weeks together before reaching the village, where the abuses of King Leopold’s forces had instilled mistrust for the muzungu (white man). Verner was unable to persuade any villagers to join him until Benga spoke of how the muzungu had saved 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; five non-pygmies from the Bakuba (including the son of King Ndombe, ruler of the Bakuba) and related peoples – “Red Africans” as they were collectively labeled by contemporary anthropologists – came as well.
The group arrived in St. Louis, Missouri, without Verner (who had been taken ill with malaria), in late June when the Louisiana Purchase Exposition had already begun. They immediately became the center of attention; referred to variously by the press as Artiba, Autobank, Ota Bang, and Otabenga, Ota Benga was particularly popular. In addition to his having an amicable personality, visitors were eager to see his teeth, which had been filed to sharp points as ritual decoration in his early youth. As he and the others had learned to charge for photographs and performances, one newspaper account, promoting him 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, as were McGee’s try to present a “serious” scientific exhibit. On a July 28, their 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 military-style fashion, imitating that of the Indians at the Exhibition. The Indian chief Geronimo (featured as “The Human Tyger” – with special dispensation from the Department of War) came to admire Benga and gave him one of his famed arrowheads. For his efforts, Verner was awarded the gold medal in anthropology at the Exposition’s close.
Museum of Natural History
Benga accompanied Verner when he returned the other Africans, and briefly lived amongst the Batwa while continuing to accompany Verner on his African adventures. He married a Batwa woman who later died of snakebite; little is known of his 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 tending to other business. Verner negotiated with curator Henry Bumpus over acquisition 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:
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.
Benga began to incite mischief. 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 the pygmy.
At the suggestion of Bumpus, Verner took Benga to the Bronx Zoo in 1906. There he was allowed to roam the grounds freely, and 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.
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. Ex-
hibited each afternoon during September.
Bronx Zoo director William Hornaday saw the exhibit as a valuable spectacle for his visitors, and was encouraged by Madison Grant. A decade later, Grant became prominent 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 for its 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 as a live exhibit. In response to the situation, as well as verbal and physical prods from the crowds, he became more mischievous and then 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.
Gordon placed Benga in the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum, a church-sponsored orphanage of which Gordon was the superintendent. As the unwelcome press attention continued, in January 1910, Gordon arranged for Benga’s relocation to Lynchburg, Virginia. He arranged for Benga’s teeth to be capped and for him to dress in American-style clothes so that he could be part of local society. 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 and 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”, and he would tell his life story in exchange for sandwiches and root beer. He began to plan a return to Africa.
When the Great War broke out, a return to the Congo became impossible, and Benga became depressed as his hopes for a return to the Congo 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, however, 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.
Phillips Verner Bradford, the grandson of Samuel Phillips Verner, wrote a book on the Congolese entitled Ota Benga: The Pygmy in the Zoo (1992). During his research for the book, he visited the American Museum of Natural History in New York, which holds a life mask and body cast of Ota Benga. The display is still labeled “Pygmy”, rather than indicating Benga’s name, despite objections that began almost a century ago from Verner.
The similarities between Ota Benga and Ishi, the sole remaining member of a Native American tribe who was displayed in California around the same period – including the subsequent publication of a book on the subject by the descendants of the scientist involved – have been observed. Adams (2001) argues that, rather than “mak[ing] racial, national, and species differences culturally intelligible” as the exhibits’ creators intended, “the spectators came to question their own place within the hierarchy of human races and the narratives of progress on which that hierarchy relied”. Rather than simply exposing the racism of the American public (as members of Ota and Ishi’s respective races perceived them), the incidents served to humanize the cultures being displayed. Coincidentally, Ishi died on March 25, 1916, five days after Ota.