The Case of Ota Benga (pictured above in a zoo’s monkey house
By Kalitan Jagvonjeul
In 1906 the crowds thronged the monkey house exhibit at the Bronx Zoo (New York Zoological Park).
Here were man’s "evolutionary ancestors" – monkeys, chimpanzees, a gorilla named Dinah, an orangutan named Dohung and an African pygmy tribesman named Ota Benga.
Ota Benga was brought from the Belgian Congo in 1904 by noted African explorer Samuel Verner along with other pygmies and displayed in an exhibit in the 1904 St. Louis world’s Fair.
Ota Benga (or "Bi", which means "friend" in his language) was born in 1881, had a height of 4 ft. 11in. and weighted 103 lbs.
Although he was referred to as a boy he had been married twice.
His first wife had been captured by a hostile tribe and his second wife died by a snake bite.
After the St. Louis exhibit, Ota found himself at the Bronx Zoo which at that time was under the direction of Dr. William T. Hornaday, who was considered a bit eccentric.
Hornaday believed animals had nearly human thoughts and personalities, and he could read the thoughts of zoo animals.
He "apparently saw no difference between a wild beast and the little Black man" and insisted he was only offering an "intriguing exhibit".
(Jerry Bergman, Creation Ex Nihilo, Vol 16, No 1 Dec 1993-Feb 1994 p. 49, quoting Carl Sifakis, "Benga, Ota: The Zoo Man", in American Eccentrics, Facts on File, New York, 1984, p. 253)
One Scientific American article said:
The personal appearance, characteristics, and traits of the Congo pygmies… [conclude they are] small, apelike, elfish creatures, furtive and mischievous, they closely parallel the brownies and goblins of our fairy tales.
They live in the dense tangled forests in absolute savagery, and while they exhibit many ape-like features in their bodies, they possess a certain alertness, which appears to make them more intelligent than other negroes.
… The existence of the pygmies is of the rudest; they do not practice agriculture, and keep no domestic animals.
They live by means of hunting and snaring, eking this out by means of thieving from the big negroes, on the outskirts of whose tribes they usually establish their little colonies, though they are as unstable as water, and range far and wide through the forests.
They have seemingly become acquainted with metal only through contact with superior beings . . . (Keane, 1907, pp. 107-108).
Ota was next encouraged to spend as much time as he wanted inside the monkey house.
He was even given a bow and arrow and was encouraged to shoot it is part of "an exhibit."
Ota was soon locked in his enclosure-and when he was let out of the monkey house, ‘the crowd stayed glued to him- and a keeper stayed close by’ (Bradford and Blume, 1992, p. 180).
In the meantime, the publicity began-on September 9, the New York Times headline screamed, "bushman shares a cage with the Bronx Park apes.
" Although the director, Dr. Homaday, insisted that he was merely offering an "intriguing exhibit" for the public’s edification, he "apparently saw no difference between a wild beast and the little Black man; [and] for the first time in any American zoo, a human being was displayed in a cage.
Benga was given cage-mates to keep him company in his captivity-a parrot and an Orangutan named Dohong" (Sifakis, 1984, p. 253).
A contemporary account stated that Ota was "not much taller than an orangutan . . their heads are much alike, and both grin in the same way when pleased" (Bradford and Blume, 1992, p.181).
Benga also came over from Africa with a fine young chimpanzee" which Mr. Verner also deposited "in the ape collection at the Primates House" (Hornaday,1906, p. 302). Hornaday’s enthusiasm for his new primate exhibit was reflected in an article that he wrote which begins as follows:
The exhibit was immensely popular and controversial; the black community was outraged and some churchmen feared that it would convince people of Darwin’s theory of evolution.
Under threat of legal action, Hornaday had Ota Benga leave his cage and circulate around the zoo in a white suit, but he returned to the monkey house to sleep.
That he was on display was indisputable: a sign was posted on the enclosure which said "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" (New York Times, Sept. 10, 1906, p. 1). And what an exhibit it was.
The orangutan imitated the man.
The man imitated the monkey.
They hugged, they let go, flopped into each other’s arms.
Dohong [the orangutan] snatched the woven straw off Ota’s head and placed it on his own…. the crowd hooted and applauded…the children squealed with delight.
To adults there was a more serious side to the display.
Something about the boundary condition of ‘being human was exemplified in that cage.
Somewhere man shaded into non-human.
Perhaps if they look hard enough the moment of transition might be seen…. to a generation raised on talk of that absentee star of evolution, the Missing Link, the point of Dohong and Ota disporting in the monkey house was obvious (Bradford and Blume, 1992, p. 181).
It was also obvious to a New York Times reporter who stated "the pygmy was not much taller than the orangutan, and one had a good opportunity to study their points of resemblance.
Their heads are much alike, and both grin in the same way when pleased" (Sept. 10, 1906, p. 1).
That he was made much fun of is also indisputable: he was once, given a pair of shoes which over and over again the crowd laughed at him as he sat in mute admiration of them" (New York Times, Sept. 10, 1906, p.1).
Another New York Times article by one of the editors, after studying the situation, penned the following:
Ota Benga … is a normal specimen of his race or tribe, with a brain as much developed as are those of its other members.
Whether they are held to be illustrations of arrested development, and really closer to the anthropoid apes than the other African savages, or whether they are viewed as the degenerate descendants of ordinary negroes, they are of equal interest to the student of ethnology, and can be studied with profit….
As for Benga himself, he is probably enjoying himself as well -as he could anywhere in this country, and it is absurd to make moan over the imagined humiliation and degradation he is suffering.
The pygmies are a fairly efficient people in their native forests….but they are very low in the human scale, and the suggestion that Benga should be in a school instead of a cage ignores the high probability that school would be a place of torture to him and one from which he could draw no advantage whatever.
The idea that men are all much alike except as they have had or lacked opportunities for getting an education out of books is now far out of date.
With training carefully adapted to his mental limitations, this pygmy would doubtless be taught many things. . .but there is no chance that he could learn anything in an ordinary school. (September 11, 1906, p. 6).
Although it was widely believed at this time, even by eminent scientists, that Blacks were evolutionarily inferior to Caucasians, caging one man a zoo produced much publicity, especially by ministers and Afro-Americans.
In Bridges’ words:
The Pygmy worked-or played-with the animals in a cage, naturally, and the spectacle of a black man in a cage gave a Times reporter the springboard of a story that worked up a storm of protest among Negro ministers in the city.
Their indignation was made known to Mayor George B. McClellan, but he refused to take action (1974, p. 224).
When the storm of protests broke, Hornaday "saw no reason to apologize stating that he "had the full support of the Zoological Society in what he was doing" (Bradford and Blume, 1992, p. 182).
Evidently not many persons were very concerned about doing anything until the Afro-American community entered the foray.
Although even some Blacks at this time accepted the notion that the pygmies were "defective specimens of mankind" several Black ministers were determined to stop the exhibit (New York Times, Sept. 10, 1906, p. 1).
Especially did the use of the display to argue that Blacks were an inferior race make them "indignant."
Their concern was "they had heard Blacks compared with apes often enough before; now the comparison was being played flagrantly at the largest zoo on earth."
In Reverend Gordon’s words, "our race … is depressed enough without exhibiting one of us with the apes.
We think we are worthy of being considered human beings, with souls" (New York Times, Sept. 11, 1906, P. 2).
Further, many of the ministers opposed the theory of evolution, concluding that "the exhibition evidently aims to be a demonstration of the Darwinian theory of evolution.
The Darwinian theory is absolutely opposed to Christianity, and a public demonstration in its favor should not be permitted" (New York Times, quoted in Bradford and ‘Blume, 1992, p. 183).
A Times article responded to the criticism that the display lent credibility to evolution with the following words: –
One reverend colored brother objects to the curious exhibition on the grounds that it is an impious effort to lend credibility to Darwin’s dreadful theories … the reverend colored brother should be told that evolution … is now taught in the textbooks of all the schools, and that it is no more debatable than the multiplication table" (Sept. 12, 1906, p. 8).
Yet, Publishers Weekly commented the creationist ministers were the only ones that "truly cared about him" (Anon., 1992, p. 56).
Soon, some Whites also become concerned about the "caged Negro," and in Sifakis’ words, part of the concern was because "men of the cloth feared…that the Benga exhibition might be used to prove the Darwinian theory of evolution" (1984, p. 253).
The objections were often vague, as in the words of the New York Times article of September 9:
The exhibition was that of a human being in a monkey cage.
The human being happened to be a Bushman, one of a race that scientists do not rate high in the human scale, but to the average non-scientific person in the crowd of sightseers there was something about the display that was unpleasant….
It is probably a good thing that Benga doesn’t think very deeply.
If he did it isn’t likely that he was very proud of himself when he woke in the morning and found himself under the same roof with the orangutans and monkeys, for that is where he really is (1906, p. 9).
In time Ota Benga began to hate being the object of curiosity.
"There were 40,000 visitors to the part on Sunday.
Nearly every man, woman and child of this crowd made for the monkey house to see the start attraction in the park – the wild man from Africa.
They chased him about the grounds add day, howling, jeering, and yelling.
Some of them poked him in the ribs, others tripped him up, all laughed at him." (Creation Ex Nihilo, quoting Phillip V. Bradford and Harvey Blume, "Ota Benga: The Pygmy in the Zoo", St. Martins, 1992, p. 269, from the "New York Times" Sept. 18, 1906)
At one point, he got hold of a knife and flourished it around the park, another time he produced a fracas after being denied a soda from the soda fountain.
Finally, after fabricating a small bow and arrows and shooting at obnoxious park visitors he had to leave the park for good.
After his park experience, several institutions tried to help him.
He was placed in Virginia Theological Seminary and College but quit school to work in a tobacco factory.
According to Hornaday (who probably had evolutionary racist views) "he did not possess the power of learning" (Creation Ex Nihilo, Vol 16, No. 1 Dec. 1993-Feb 1994, pp. 48-50).
Growing homesick, hostile, and despondent Ota Benga borrowed a revolver, and shot himself in the heart, ending his life in 1916.
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