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Ota Benga: The black man who was exhibited at the Bronx Zoo in 1906

When the New York Zoological Park (now the Bronx Zoo) opened in September 1906, visitors to the primate house came across an astonishing sight. There they found a person in the middle of the cages full of exotic animals: Ota Benga, a member of the Mbuti pygmy tribe from the then Congo Free State. Although he was only 23 years old, it was not the first time that Benga was shown publicly as a curiosity.

Benga was brought to America by the discoverer and missionary Samuel Phillips Verner, who first exhibited him in the infamous “human zoos” of the 1904 World’s Fair. Most of his life before the fair is a mystery ̵

1; as Pamela Newkirk writes Spectacle: The amazing life of Ota Benga“Given Verner’s various contradicting reports of how he acquired Benga, the real story is unlikely to be known.”

The man with a five-cent smile

A 1904 St. Louis Post-Dispatch Article claimed that a tribe had held Benga as a slave until Verner bought him at a slave market. A 1916 New York Times An article says Verner met Benga at a Belgian army station where soldiers saved Benga from a cannibal tribe. And in between there were other variations. In addition, it is believed that Benga had a wife and two children who were either killed by Belgian forces looking for ivory or by an enemy tribe.

In 1904 Verner brought Benga to the United States, where he exhibited him at the St. Louis World Fair (officially called the Louisiana Purchase Exposition). The main attraction was his sharpened teeth, which he showed for five cents. Although the newspapers at the time said they were shaped to promote cannibalism, teeth sharpening was a common form of body modification within Benga’s tribe and did not indicate anyone who gnawed on human flesh.

After the mass, Benga returned to Africa with Verner and later accompanied the missionary back to the United States. According to Henry Louis Gates Jr. African American livesOtabenga married a second woman, a Batwa woman, who died soon after of a snake bite. The Batwa accused Otabenga of her death and avoided him. This decision appears to have strengthened his relationship with Verner. “However, Newkirk reiterates that Verner has given different versions of events over the years.

When Verner brought Benga to New York City, the discoverer was broke. Finally, he contacted William Temple Hornaday, then director of what is now the Bronx Zoo, who agreed to temporarily lend Benga an apartment on the site. Whether Hornaday had ulterior motives from the start is unclear, but soon he showed Benga as another exhibit.

“Is this a man?”

According to New York MagazineIn his first few weeks, Benga roamed freely around the zoo grounds. But soon Hornaday had his zookeepers asked Benga to play with the orangutan in his enclosure. Crowds gathered to watch. Next, the zookeepers convinced Benga to use bow and arrow to shoot targets, along with occasional squirrels or rats. They also spread some stray bones around the enclosure to suggest the idea that Benga is a savage. Finally, they persuaded Benga to rush the bars of the cage and bare the patrons’ teeth. Children were scared. Some adults were too – although more of them were just curious about Benga. “Is this a man?” asked a visitor.

Hornaday posted a Bengas size and weight sign – 4 feet, 11 inches tall, and 103 pounds – in the House of Primates and how he had ended up at the zoo. “Issued every afternoon in September,” it said. When Hornaday’s stance on his new “acquisition” needed to be further elaborated, it was summed up in the tone of an article he wrote for the Bulletin of Zoological Society:

“Ota Benga is a well developed little man with a good head, light eyes and a pleasant face. He is not hairy and is not covered by the” downfall “described by some explorers … He is happiest when at do something with his hands at work. “

After a piece in the New York Timesthe news of the exhibition spread. “We are sending our missionaries to Africa to christianize people,” said the Times quoted Reverend Dr. RS MacArthur with the words: “And then we’ll bring you here to brutalize him.” In an editorial, the Times conceded that “the show is not exactly pleasant,” but that Benga “is probably enjoying himself as well as he could anywhere in this country, and it is absurd to moan at the imagined humiliation and humiliation he suffers from “and concluded that the best place for him was probably the forests of his home.

“He refuses to be looked at”

A group of black clergymen soon led protests in the city. After threatening legal action, Benga was released from the cage and was again allowed to roam the zoo grounds. Until then, he was a celebrity. The zoo attracted up to 40,000 visitors a day, many of whom followed Benga wherever he went, mocking and laughing at him. Benga spoke little English and could not express his frustration. Instead, he struck, wounding a visitor with a bow and arrow, and threatening an animal keeper with a knife.

The demand for Benga’s freedom increased. Hornaday wrote to Verner and suggested taking him with him or taking him to an orphanage. Verner, who had gone south looking for work, wrote back and suggested that Benga be given “a dose of sedative” to alleviate his outbreaks. In another letter, Verner, along with a message to Benga, promised to pick up the young man and directed Hornaday to send him to North Carolina.

On September 28, 1906, Benga left the zoo and was accepted by the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum. A 1907 newspaper article says: “Many people who visit the orphanage to see Ota struggling with dogs, cats, cows and other English language preparations are disappointed. He has not been seen in monkey cages since his experience. “Benga moved to Lynchburg, Virginia, learned English and found jobs in a tobacco factory, among other odd jobs, but became depressed and homesick. In 1916 he died of suicide.

The Wildlife Conservation Society, which runs the Bronx Zoo, has long been under pressure to acknowledge the problems associated with Benga’s exhibition. On July 29, 2020, following the recent ongoing US systemic racism billing, the organization released a statement by WCS President and CEO, Cristián Samper, in which she condemned and apologized for how the institution treated Benga. As part of the statement, the organization announced that it had made all of its archive material related to Benga available to the public.

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