Ota Benga–The Man Who Was Caged at the Bronx Zoo

Ota Benga, 1904

Ota Benga, 1904

America loves a spectacle. Something about the American character lends itself to both showmanship, both a love of showmanship and a predilection toward the grandiosity necessary to be a showman. Not necessarily bad in itself, this quality can be easily turned toward fraud and forgery, as the stone giant crazes of the 19th century can attest.

Aside from fraud, the love of showmanship can have a dark, shameful side. Perhaps one of the most shameful episodes were the human exhibitions. Popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries, these exhibitions consisted of people brought from all corners of the globe and exhibited in mock ups of their native villages for the American public’s amusement. These exhibitions were meant to show off America’s imperial power, but they also had a deeper, more dark intent. They were meant to show the progress of human civilization, from the depths of savagery to the enlightenment of 20th century life. Implicit to the thought process behind these shows was a belief in the supposed superiority of the white race over the darker skinned races.

One of the most infamous of these exhibitions occurred in New York in 1906, when a Pygmy from the Congo was put on exhibition in the monkey cage at the Bronx Zoo. His name was Ota Benga, and his sad story showed the racial prejudices and ideological divisions that plagued, and still plague, America.

 

A life of struggle

Ota Benga’s life was already a difficult one before he found himself presented as a spectacle to the inhabitants of New York City. At the time, Ota Benga’s native Congo was under the rule of Belgium. The white rulers were bloody and violent toward the native peoples of the Congo, including the pygmys. Ota’s family was slaughtered in a violent attack by the Force Publique, a military force in service to the King of Belgium. The Force Publique sold Ota into slavery to a tribe called the Baschilele. It was in the slave market when Ota Benga first crossed paths with Samuel Phillips Verner, an anthropologist from South Carolina with an obsession for all things African.

Verner had been dispatched to Africa, in part, to find pygmies and members of other tribes to take back to St. Louis as part of a so-called anthropology exhibit at the 1904 World’s Fair. Members of various tribes would be brought there to live in replicas of their traditional houses, for the delight of a predominantly white audience.  Verner bought Ota Benga from his owners both for his gregarious nature and his teeth, which had been filed to sharp points, and brought him back to America for the exhibition. When the fair was over, he returned the tribespeople to their various homes. However, this was not the end of the story for Ota Benga.

 

Ota Benga arrives in New York

Ota Benga arrived in New York City in 1906. First, Verner left the pygmy at the American Museum of Natural History with some chimpanzees and the various collectibles he gathered in Africa. Verner himself was out of money, and returned to the South to raise funds, leaving Ota in the care of Hermon Bumpus. The pygmy was allowed to wander the museum, wearing a white duck suit bought for him by Bumpus. However, Ota did not much enjoy his stay in the museum, and became difficult. He once reportedly threw a chair at Florence Guggenheim, a philanthropist. Bumpus then suggested to Verner that the pygmy should be lodged at the Bronx zoo. Thus, the strangest episode in Ota’s sad, odd life began.

Ota Benga at the Bronx Zoo.

Ota Benga at the Bronx Zoo.

As before at the museum, Ota was given free range at the zoo. He enjoyed helping the zookeepers with the animals. Especially, he spent a lot of time in the monkey cage caring for one of Verner’s chimps and an orangutan named Dohong. Ota only gradually became a spectacle. When zookeepers noticed how much time he was spending in the monkey cage, they goaded him into hanging his hammock in there. Then, they provided him with a bow and arrow to practice his target shooting. Then, the crowds came to gawk at the captive “savage,” who was inadvertently performing for the masses.

Once word got out, thousands came to see the Ota Benga exhibit, to marvel at the pygmy and his ape companions. Protests from the Colored Baptist Minister’s Conference soon brought an end to the spectacle, but even so Ota’s lot in life didn’t improve much. Thousands still came to see the pygmy in the Monkey House. They followed him around the zoo, yelling insults, poking him, and tripping him. Understandably, Ota became hard to control, threatening to attack his tormentors.

 

The end of Ota Benga

By September 1906, Verner decided to send Ota Benga to the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum. From there he was transferred to Lynchburg in January 1910. Ota had his teeth capped and started to go by Otto Bingo. He spent a lot of time hunting and gathering plants, and worked in a tobacco factory. He rubbed elbows with such luminaries a the poet Anne Spencer and the civil rights leaders, W.E.B Du Bois and Booker T. Washington. Ota also spent time with the children living in the orphanage, showing them how to hunt and gather plants. He would build fires and dance, singing songs of his homeland.

Over time, the Ota Benga became more and more morose, his songs sadder, full of longing for his home in the Congo. He lacked the means to return, and this seemed to have crushed his spirit. By 1916, he was in a full depression, sometimes spending long stretches sitting silently under a tree, showing no interest in the hunting and fishing that had filled his time before. On the night of March 19, 1916, Ota Benga shot himself in the heart. His strange story remains today as a reminder of the prejudice and racism that remains in the dark depths of our collective thinking.

 

Sources:

“A Fresh Lens on the Notorious Episode of Ota Benga.” Nytimes.com. May 29, 2015. The New York Times. February 28, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/31/nyregion/a-fresh-lens-on-the-notorious-episode-of-ota-benga.html

Keller, Mitch. “The Scandal at the Zoo.” Nytimes.com. August 6, 2006. The New York Times. February 28, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/06/nyregion/thecity/06zoo.html?pagewanted=all

Newkirk, Pamela. “The Man Who Was Caged in a Zoo.” Theguardian.com. June 3, 2015. The Guardian. February 28, 2016. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jun/03/the-man-who-was-caged-in-a-zoo

 

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