Ota Benga: the Sad Tale of the Man Who Was Kept in a New York Zoo

Ota Benga’s family was killed, he was taken as a slave, and he lived in the Bronx Zoo’s monkey house as a human exhibit. This is the story of Ota Benga.

Ota Benga, the human who was kept in Zoo

Ota Benga was born in 1883 to the Mbuti pygmies in the Ituru Forest of the Congo. He lived peacefully in the forest with his wife and kids until his people were attacked by the Force Publique, a local militia established by King Leopold II of Belgium to control the natives, most of whom were used for labor in order to exploit the large supply of rubber in the Congo. Benga’s wife and two children were murdered; he survived because he was on a hunting expedition when the Force Publique attacked his village.

Benga was later captured by slavers from another African tribe and was put to work in an agricultural village as a labourer. After a brief stint working the land, Benga was sold to American businessman and explorer Samuel Phillips Verner who was in Congo, to capture and bring back an assortment of authentic pygmies to be part of an exhibition in the United States. He purchased Benga from the slavers for a pound of salt and a bolt of cloth, he also succeeded in recruiting four other pygmies and other Africans who were not pygmies to accompany him to the United States.

Ota Benga, the human who was kept in Zoo

The group were taken to St. Louis, Missouri, in late June 1904. The Louisiana Purchase Exposition had already begun, and the Africans immediately became the center of attention. Benga was particularly popular at the 1904 World’s Fair. He had an amiable personality, and visitors were eager to see his teeth that had been filed to sharp points in his early youth as ritual decoration. With time the Africans learned to charge for photographs and performances, Benga also charged five cents for visitors to see his teeth. One newspaper account even promoted Benga as “the only genuine African cannibal in America”, and claimed that “his teeth were worth the five cents he charges for showing them to visitors”.

Ota Benga, the human who was kept in Zoo

After the fair Verner returned the Africans back to their homeland in Africa Benga who no longer had a home took up residence with another Congolese tribe, the Batwa, and married a woman from the tribe in 1905. The marriage did not last as Benga’s wife died from a snakebite. In 1906, Benga travelled back to the United States with Verner.

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When he returned to the US in 1906 he was exhibited at the American Museum of Natural History, where he again “delighted” visitors by performing to the crowd’s preconceived notion that he was a “savage”.

Benga initially enjoyed his time at the museum, where he was given a Southern-style linen suit to wear when he entertained but in time he became depressed and homesick for his own culture.

The writers Bradford and Blume imagined his feelings:

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.

Ota Benga, the human who was kept in Zoo

Meanwhile, Verner who was struggling financially and had made little progress in his negotiations with the museum soon found another home for Benga, the Bronx zoo in New York.

On getting to the Zoo, the director enlisted Benga to help maintain the animal habitats. However, when he saw that visitors took more notice of Benga than the animals at the zoo, he eventually created an exhibition featuring Benga as part of the New York Anthropological Society’s exhibit on human evolution.

The events leading to his “exhibition” were gradual: first he was allowed to roam the grounds, then he was encouraged to spend some of his time in the Monkey House exhibit where he befriended an orangutan, before long the zoo persuaded 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.

Ota Benga, the human who was kept in Zoo

Soon, a sign on the exhibit read:

The African Pygmy, “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.

Wearing nothing but a waist cloth, Ota Benga entertained the crowd by shooting at a target. He displayed skill at weaving with twine and made funny faces at visitors. He also frolicked with the orangutan he befriended in the monkey house.

Reverend James H. Gordon was fueled with anger over what was taking place at the zoo. “Our race, we think, is depressed enough, without exhibiting one of us with the apes,” Mr. Gordon said. “We think we are worthy of being considered human beings, with souls.” A number of clergymen also backed Gordon. The zoo finally removed Benga from the grounds Toward the end of 1906, Benga was released into the custody of Reverend Gordon, who in turn placed Benga in the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum, a church-sponsored orphanage in Brooklyn that Gordon supervised.

Gordon did all he could to ensure a life with dignity for Benga, going as far as arranging for his teeth to be capped and enrolling him at Baptist Seminary school.

Once he felt his English had improved sufficiently, Benga discontinued his formal education and began working at a tobacco factory. With the money he was getting from this, he started planning his return back to his homeland.

He had almost saved up enough money when world war I broke out in 1914, as a result of the war 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. America had instilled in him a sense of permanent insecurity, and deep down he knew it was not his home. Depressed at the thought of not being able to return home, Ota Benga shot himself in the heart on 20 March 1916 with a borrowed pistol.

He was buried in an unmarked grave in the Black section of the Old City Cemetery, near his benefactor, Gregory Hayes.

Talk Africana
Talk Africana
Fascinating Cultures and history of peoples of African origin in both Africa and the African diaspora


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