Ota Benga: The African Mbuti man displayed in the Bronx Zoo

ota benga chimp

Figure 1  Ota Benga  at the Bronx Zoo, 1906

On September 8th 1906, there were queues at the Bronx Zoo in New York to see the new exhibit in the monkey house.  Here was to be displayed, within the cage and with the apes, a living cannibal surrounded by scatterings of bones.  His teeth were filed to sharp points and he was friend to the apes within.

Crowds of people came to visit this primitive and animalistic being, quivering in fear at his razor sharp teeth and shuddering at the bones at his feet.  They read the notice on him:

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

 

 The zoo’s director, William Hornaby, had lobbied with the New York Zoological Society for permission for the exhibit and consideredit to be scientifically educational to the public to show them primitive, less evolved forms of man and the crowds loved it.

Ota Benga however, as he sat there in the exhibit with his memories, would have had other thoughts.  At just the age of 23 his life story had already been a long and a hard one.  He wasn’t a cannibal, none of his people were.  His tribe would have been egalitarian, non-violent, musical.  They were Itari forest people of the Congo, hunter-gatherers with rich traditions and a traditionally happy and easy-going attitude.  As a child he likely ran and played in the children’s corner of the camp, swinging on vines and climbing trees.  Likely the adults made him toy bows and arrows to hunt small creatures with.  Perhaps his mother, when washing, had made music for him to dance to, by beating the water with the palms of her hands. The forest would have been for him and his family their father, their mother and provider, a spiritual parent that encompassed everything. For they were Mbuti.  But he had lost his family long ago.

 A photographer at a Mbuti hunting camp.

Figure 2  Modern day Mbuti forest camp with traditional technologies, National Geographic

This article is an attempt to tell the story of Ota Benga.  It won’t be a happy story but it is one that is right to tell.  The U.S. has its very dark history of persecution and prejudice that ran long into the 20th century and those views are still held in some quarters.  We see the U.S as a land of the free, we buy their products, we watch their films, we buy their music and we eat their food, and there are aspects of the U.S. that are very good, but we should also be aware of that which is very dark, especially considering that our own U.K. scientists held similar stances on race.

Ota Benga however was first rescued by an American: Samuel Philips Verner.  He had arrived in the Congo in 1904, part missionary and part showman to find ‘pygmies’ (an offensive term for Itari forest people) for an exhibit at the St Louis World Fair.  Ota Benga was at that time held in slavery, probably working Belgium’s rubber plantations in the Congo.  It’s likely he was captured by the  BaNgwana, a tribe known to have captured Mbuti at this time for the slave trade.  Verner bought Ota Benga’s freedom and Ota considered that Verner had saved his life, persuading a small number of other Mbuti to come to the U.S. with Verner for the St Louis World Fair.

european + mbuti

Figure 3  Europe meets the Mbuti.  Their average height has increased since this time

After the fair,  Verner regretted the humiliation they had suffered at being exhibited and returned them to the Congo, but Ota no longer had a tribe, who likely had been killed, and wanted to stay with the man who he considered to be his only friend: Verner.  The two men returned to the U.S. where Verner placed Ota in the care of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, while he pursued other projects.  Here, Ota had his own room and free rein of the museum.

 ota benga teeth and smile

Figure 4 Ota Benga, unknown date.  His teeth were traditionally filed by his people when he was young.

However, Ota began to suffer.  The indoors were stifling to him, he missed the forest and the Congo, and he began to become destructive.  The silence troubled him too, because the Mbuti surround themselves with sound: songs and sounds of nature.  After attacks on Museum guests, Verner needed to find a new home for Ota, and the Bronx Zoo agreed to offer him a place.

Verner believed this to be a much better arrangement for his friend.  Ota would have the freedom of the whole zoo, would be outdoors, would have the sounds of birds and animals among trees that would make him feel more at home.  Ota’s status at the zoo would be as a guest and it seemed Verner was correct.  Ota’s mood improved greatly, as he wandered the zoo at his leisure, outdoors and free and among familiar sounds.  He also made a pet of the zoo’s trained orang-utan, Duhong.

 ota laughing

Figure 5 Ota Benga, date unknown.

It was now that the zoo decided, due to Ota’s popularity with visitors, to make an exhibit of him in the monkey house and Ota entered the cage.  Within days however, objections came from African-American religious ministers, including Reverend James H Gordon, as to the inhuman conduct of the zoo and the insult made towards black people.  The exhibit was hugely popular with the public and with science though and arguments began.  The churches won, and Ota was given his freedom in the zoo back.  However, Ota had been affected by the experience, suffered heckling from visitors and speared one in the leg.  The zoo removed him and he was placed under the care of Reverend Gordon.

ota benga

Figure 6  Ota Benga

This however didn’t bring much in the way of happiness to Ota, because Gordon placed him in an orphanage and began to rehabilitate him for life as a U.S. citizen, educating him and capping his teeth.  Ota gained a job making cigarettes and saved money for his dream: to return to the Congo but this was never to be for him.  On realising such a journey would be impossible, Ota took his own life, removing the caps from his teeth as a last act.

What can we learn from this or take from this?

We can take the knowledge that it happened.  We can remember Ota Benga.  We can hope that we in the west live in a better, fairer society now.  But how much do we?  It only can be if we learn from the past and want to see one another as equals, regardless of class, race or faith.  Ironically, the Mbuti never had a problem with this.  Their society is egalitarian, everyone shares with everyone, everyone is accepted and everyone is equal.  If anyone in 1906 was ‘advanced’ in the way the west likes to think it is, it was probably Ota Benga himself.

There is now the Ota Benga Alliance for Peace, Healing and Dignity http://otabenga.org/ : a charity that seeks to address abuses and threats against vulnerable cultures.  This charity is based in the Congo and so Ota Benga, in some way, did return home eventually.

Internet resources on Ota Benga:

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/ist/?next=/science-nature/the-tragic-tale-of-the-pygmy-in-the-zoo-2787905/

http://www.agorajournal.org/2011/Pittas.pdf   (discussion article)

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/01/02/AR2009010202444.html  (Washington Post article)

 ota sculpture

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