His 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.
“At first, some people weren’t sure what it was. It — he — seemed much less a monkey than a man, though a very small, dark one with grotesquely pointed teeth.”
While being kept in zoo against his will, Ota Benga, a 33-year-old Congolese man, shot himself in the heart and died. Having been subjected to the most inhumane treatment, his vestiges of dignity had been shattered, and he could not bear it anymore.
Ota Benga’s story is one that brings to the fore the adverse effects of colonialism and the racism that characterized it. Ota Benga was born in 1883 to the Mbuti pygmies in the Ituru Forest of the Congo (which was a Belgian colony). He married young, and had sired two children. The Mbuti were lived in loose bands of family groups of between 15 and 20 people, moving from one temporary village or camp to another as the seasons and hunting opportunities dictated. Benga had hoped to lead his own band, although this was not to be.
As the occupation of the Congo was going on, colonial militias were corrupt and committed the most of the atrocious crimes; they murdered people and raped women. They found Benga’s family camp and killed the whole family. Ota Benga had gone hunting, and came to see the aftermath of the horror that had been inflicted on his people.
A short time later, Benga was dragged from the forest, the only home he had ever known, as a slave by the slave traders. He was put to work in an agricultural village as a labourer. It was there that he was found by an American businessman and amateur explorer named Samuel Verner. In the most glaring cases of the notion of white supremacy, Verner had been sent to the Congo on an expedition commissioned by the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, which was planning an exhibit for the St. Louis World’s Fair that would “educate” the public in what was then a racist, pseudoscientific brand of anthropology. Verner’s job was to find some authentic African pygmies to display as “missing links” in human evolution.
Benga was bought for a pound of salt and a bolt of cloth. Benga was bought to St Louis and was an instant hit at the 1904 World’s Fair. Having figured the crowd wanted to see “real African savages” Ota Benga and other captive Africans began imitating the dancing and war-whoops they saw the nearby American Indians doing. Visitors were increasing and he was charging five cents for them to see his teeth. After the fair Benga returned to Africa with Verner, 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.
His life was not destined for anything good as he was constantly subjected to the whims of the racism pervading the United States at the time. When he returned to the US in 1906 he was an exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History, where he again “delighted” visitors by pretending to be a babbling half-human. Everybody at the museum liked Benga, but the director refused to pay Verner the salary he was asking for, so eventually the pair picked up and moved to the Bronx Zoo, which was looking to expand its monkey house.
At the zoo grounds, Benga was allowed free movement, but his hammock was slung in the primate exhibit. He was displayed as part of the New York Anthropological Society’s exhibit on human evolution. He wore modern clothing but no shoes. He was proficient with bow and arrow, and entertained the crowd by shooting at a target. He displayed skill at weaving with twine, made amusing faces and drank soda. Ota Benga and an orangutan frolicked together, hugging and wrestling and playing tricks on each other.
Reverend James H. Gordon was fueled with indignation 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.” Benga was then released into the custody of Gordon, who had led the calls for his release. He was now living at Gordon’s black orphanage.
Gordon did all he could to ensure a life with dignity for Benga, going as far as securing education for him. However, Benga was not satisfied with life in America, his heart yearned to be in Africa. He also got a job at a local tobacco plant. With the money he was getting from this, he was now planning on his final return to Africa. The outbreak of World War I suspended most cross-Atlantic shipping, and the German occupation of Belgium threw the Congo into bureaucratic chaos, with nobody allowed in or out.
Benga realized how his hope of going to Africa had been rendered impossible. 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 2016.