Ota Benga: The Tragic Story of the African Man Who Was Exhibited in a New York Zoo in 1906

Ota Benga was a Congolese member of the Mbuti pygmy tribe whose tragic story got international attention when he was displayed as a human zoo exhibit in the United States in the early twentieth century.

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, while he survived as 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. Following a brief period of working the land, Benga was sold to American businessman and explorer Samuel Phillips Verner, who was in the Congo to capture authentic pygmies for an exhibition in the United States. Verner acquired Benga from the slavers in exchange for a pound of salt and a bolt of cloth. Additionally, he managed to recruit four other pygmies and several other Africans who were not pygmies to accompany him to the United States.

Ota Benga, the human who was kept in Zoo

The group arrived in St. Louis, Missouri, in late June 1904 during the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, where they immediately became the center of attention. Benga, in particular, was popular at the 1904 World’s Fair due to his amiable personality. Visitors were intrigued by his teeth, which had been filed to sharp points during his early youth as a ritual decoration. Over 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,” claiming 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 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. However, the marriage did not last, as Benga’s wife died from a snakebite. In 1906, Benga traveled back to the United States with Verner.

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Upon his return to the US in 1906, he was exhibited at the American Museum of Natural History, where he once again “delighted” visitors by conforming to their preconceived notion of him as a “savage.”

Initially, Benga enjoyed his time at the museum, where he was provided with a Southern-style linen suit to wear during his performances. However, over time, he became depressed and homesick.

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, one of the largest zoos in the United States by area.

Upon arriving at the zoo, the director enlisted Benga to help maintain the animal habitats. However, as visitors began to take more notice of Benga than the animals, the director 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” unfolded gradually: first, he was allowed to roam the grounds, then he was encouraged to spend time in the Monkey House exhibit, where he befriended an orangutan. Before long, the zoo persuaded him to hang his hammock there and even to demonstrate his skills with a 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 Sad Tale of the African Man Who Was Exhibited in a New York Zoo in 1906

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.

Clad only in a waist cloth, Ota Benga entertained the crowd by skillfully shooting at a target, weaving with twine, and making funny faces at visitors. Additionally, he frolicked with the orangutan he had befriended in the monkey house.

The spectacle soon drew the attention of Reverend James H. Gordon, then acclaimed by the Brooklyn Eagle as “one of the most eloquent Negroes in the country,” who was fueled by anger over the unfolding events at the zoo. “Our race, we think, is depressed enough, without exhibiting one of us with the apes,” Mr. Gordon declared. “We believe we deserve to be recognized as human beings, with souls.” Several clergymen also echoed Gordon’s sentiments. Ultimately, the zoo removed Benga from the premises.

Towards 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 under Gordon’s supervision.

Gordon spared no effort in ensuring a life of dignity for Benga, even arranging for his teeth to be capped and enrolling him at a Baptist seminary school.

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

He had nearly saved enough money when World War I erupted in 1914. Due to the war, returning to the Congo became impossible as passenger ship traffic ceased. Benga became depressed as his hopes of returning to his homeland faded. America had ingrained in him a sense of permanent insecurity, and deep down, he knew it was not his true home. Overwhelmed by the thought of never being able to return, Ota Benga tragically shot himself in the heart on March 20, 1916, using a borrowed pistol.

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

Uzonna Anele
Uzonna Anele
Anele is a web developer and a Pan-Africanist who believes bad leadership is the only thing keeping Africa from taking its rightful place in the modern world.

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