Congolese native Ota Benga (c. 1885–1916) was brought to the United States to appear in an ethnological display at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis, from there participating in a controversial exhibit at the primate house of New York City's Bronx Zoo. Tapping his jungle-dwelling origins as a native of the Mbuti tribe, the zoo promoted Benga as a cannibal, attracting large crowds—some disgusted and others entertained by his captivity.
Against his will, and treated like a zoo animal, Mbuti native Ota Benga arrived in the United States in 1904. Born in Congo's tropical forest in approximately 1885, Benga was a young man at the time of his arrival; he stood four feet, 11 inches tall and had sharp, filed teeth in accordance with the traditions of his tribe. He was transported by Samuel Verner, an American missionary-turned-entrepreneur who had been commissioned by World's Fair organizers to obtain African natives and anthropological artifacts for the exposition. Verner promised 18 people but delivered only a handful, including Benga. All were “pygmies,” the term anthropologists then applied to ethnic groups of short stature.
How Verner obtained Benga remains a mystery, as his story changed over the years. In one account, Verner claimed to have saved Benga's life by purchasing him from a tribe of cannibals. In another report, told to a newspaper, he made arrangements with Benga's “chief” to bring him to the United States. In yet another version, Verner wrote that Benga had been captured by an enemy tribe, which was subsequently overtaken by government troops who then held the man captive. In all of the stories, Verner positioned himself as Benga's “savior.”
Verner left the Congo with Benga and eight other males on May 11, 1904, and they arrived in New Orleans, Louisiana, on June 25. The ship's passenger log listed “Otabenga” as a 17-year-old male. Verner was never consistent when giving Benga's age. In 1906, when Benga appeared at the zoo, he was listed as a 23-year-old; some historians speculate that Benga may have been as young as 15 when he left the Congo. After arriving in the United States, the nine Congolese men were taken to St. Louis, while Verner was sent to a sanatorium to recover from the trip. He had experienced mental breakdowns in the past and would continue to do so throughout his life.
Benga and his fellow Congolese were placed in an ethnological exhibit that featured aboriginal people from across the globe. They were dressed in their native gear and positioned against a staged backdrop that included reproductions of their homes. Besides Benga's group, there were Ainu people from Japan, Kwakiutl Indians from the Pacific Northwest, and Igorots from the Philippines. For all these native peoples, the experience was likely frightening and humiliating.
As a boy, Benga's front teeth had been filed down in the shape of V's to give them sharp points at the ends. This tooth chipping was common in the Congo and considered a tribal mark of beauty. Verner pointed to the unusual teeth as evidence of Benga's cannibalism, suggesting that sharp teeth were necessary for eating human flesh. Promoters at the World's Fair continued this myth. Hyped as the first pygmies ever in the Western Hemisphere, the Congolese proved highly popular among fairgoers.
When Verner arrived in St. Louis in August to check on the nine men, he found them depressed. Behind the scenes, the Congolese had been measured, photographed, and tested in a laboratory on the fairgrounds. Sculptors made plaster busts of Benga and several other aboriginal people, intending them for displays at the American Museum of Natural History and the Field Museum in Chicago. The men were also photographed for museum exhibits. To add to the humiliation, the Congolese were forced to sing and dance before the crowds.
As the weather turned colder, the jungle-dwelling Congolese grew increasingly anxious. They were housed in huts on the fairgrounds and given only loincloths to wear, which provided inadequate coverage for the chill fall temperatures in North America, some 7,000 miles from their home. As the days grew colder, they chose to stay in their huts, prompting spectators to throw bricks and rocks at their shelter in order to drive the men outside. When the fair closed on December 1, 1904, the Congolese were each awarded 15 cents for their participation. Verner, on the other hand, received a World's Fair gold medal award in anthropology for his contribution to the exposition.
Following the fair, Verner transported the Congolese men back to Africa, and they arrived in the Kasai region of Congo in the spring of 1905. Verner remained in the Congo, investigating business prospects in the African interior. When he returned to the United States, he took Benga with him, the other Congolese men presumably having returned to their villages.
Once again, the details of Benga's departure from the Congo remain murky. In one account, Verner claimed that he was concerned that the man would be re-enslaved, and he save him from this fate by bringing him back to the United States. In another account, he claimed that Benga begged to go aboard ship and threatened suicide. The passenger record from the trip listed Benga as Mbye Otabenga. The name “Mbye” was also used by Verner and may have been the man's actual name. In this ship's log, Benga's age was listed as 22.
Verner and Benga arrived in New York City on July 30, 1906, and Benga and two chimpanzees were quickly transferred to the care of the city's American Museum of Natural History. Verner told museum director Hermon C. Bumpus that he would return shortly but had business in St. Louis. For several weeks, Benga roamed the museum and slept in a guest room there. He became restless, however, and attempted to escape by walking out the front door with a group of guests, although his ruse was discovered by guards. When authorities showed up at the museum with an arrest warrant for Verner for passing a bad check, Bumpus had had enough. He contacted Verner and demanded that he return and collect Benga. Soon after, Benga was transferred to the care of New York Zoological Gardens director William Temple Hornaday.
On September 8, 1906, the New York Zoological Gardens (also known as the Bronx Zoo) exhibited Benga according to “proper” catagorization, placing him in an iron cage at the primate house together with lemurs, chimpanzees, monkeys, orangutans, and baboons. The Congolese native wore white pants and a khaki coat but was shoeless. He spent the day shooting a bow and arrow and weaving a mat and hammock from some twine. Up to 500 spectators at a time gathered to observe him.
Zoo visitors had mixed emotions, the New York Times reported the following day in a story headlined “Bushman Shares Cage with Bronx Park Apes.” The Times noted that some zoo guests laughed at the Mbuti man and that children teased and mocked him. The article went on to describe Benga as an inferior creature, whom scientists described as inhabiting a low rung of intellect on the human scale. One man quoted in the article stated that there was “something about it that I don't like.”
New York City's black clergymen did not like the exhibit either, and they gathered for a meeting on September 10. As the clergymen explained, the exhibit implied that Benga was a Darwinian relative of the chimpanzee who had yet to “evole” into a full human being. Members of the clergy visited the exhibit and spoke with Hornaday, who refused to remove Benga from the zoo grounds. The zoo director maintained his position that the exhibit was no more than an ethnological display that allowed visitors to see how life was in Africa.
In her book Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga, Pamela Newkirk cited a New York Times article that quoted the African American clergyman Rev. James Gordon. “We are frank enough to say we do not like this exhibition of one of our own race with the monkeys,” Gordon noted. “Our race, we think, is depressed enough, without exhibiting one of us with apes. We think we are worthy of being considered human beings, with souls.”
The city's black clergy went to city hall to complain, and they also visited New York Zoological Society secretary, Madison Grant, a eugenicist and a supporter of the exhibit. A decade later, in 1916, Grant would publish The Passing of the Great Race, in which he proposed that inferior races be segregated from what he considered the superior races of Nordic descent. To pacify the clergy, Grant told them that the accommodations were temporary because Verner was coming to take Benga to Europe. He also insisted that Benga was in the cage because he wanted to help with the animals, this despite the fact that a sign posted near the cage read, “The African Pygmy, Ota Benga … Exhibited each afternoon during September.” The clergymen soon secured an attorney who agreed to argue for Benga's release. Meanwhile, zoo workers littered the Mbuti man's cage with animal bones to advance the idea that Benga was a cannibal.
As the days rolled by, Benga appeared increasingly agitated and protests against his captivity mounted. As newspapers started questioning the decency of the exhibit, the sign was removed from the cage and Benga was allowed to roam the park—accompanied by keepers—for a portion of each day. Such “freedom” came at a cost, however, as crowds chased him, tripped him, and poked at him. One day, amid a record attendance of 40,000 gawking visitors, Benga struck back and hit an zoo patron. He also began to resist his confinement with the apes and would wrestle and kick zookeepers when they escorted him back to the primate house. On September 24, as the New York Zoological Gardens was set to open, Benga tried to remove his clothing, but keepers managed to intercede. Hornaday grew increasingly uneasy and wanted Verner to come collect the African man. Four days later, Verner returned to take Benga.
After leaving the zoo, Benga was transported to the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum in Brooklyn, where he came under the supervision of Reverend Gordon, the black clergyman who had fought for his release. Gordon envisioned training the Mbuti man to become a missionary, and Benga spent a short time at the Virginia Theological Seminary and College in Lynchburg. He later took up residency with the McCray family of Lynchburg and was given a job at a tobacco factory. Now relatively independent, Benga hoped to save enough money to return to the Congo. He befriended Lynchburg poet and civil-rights activist Anne Spencer, who helped him learn English.
On March 20, 1916, Benga shot himself in the heart. After a service at the Diamond Hill Baptist Church, Benga was buried in Lynchburg's Old City Cemetery, although it was suspected he was later moved to the White Rock Hill Cemetery where other members of the Virginia Theological Seminary were being interred.
Often neglected in the pages of history, Benga's story has served to highlight the racist attitudes that prevailed in the United States in the early 20th century, as well as the flawed science of social anthropology, which, in previous eras, sought to rank humans in a hierarchy based on race and culture. In 2015, Benga's story was released as a 55-minute documentary by Nigerian director Niyi Coker. The documentary made the rounds across the United States in 2015–16 as a vehicle to discuss race. As Coker told Jen Hatton of the UMSL Daily, “Anyone hearing Benga's story is always in shock and disbelief.” Coker went on to say that the wrong should be acknowledged, “and then there needs to be a major introspection about the implication of racial attitudes.”
Newkirk, Pamela, Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga, Amistad, 2015.
American Heritage, October 1992, Gioffrey C. Ward, “The Man in the Zoo.”
Chronicle Review, May 29, 2015, Pamela Newkirk, “Bigotry on Display,” pp. B10-12.
New York Daily News, March 18, 1998, Jay Maeder, “The Little Man in the Zoo: Ota Benga,” p. 39.
New York Times, September 9, 1906, “Bushman Shares Cage with Bronx Park Apes”; September 30, 1906, “Hope for Ota Benga; If Little, He's No Fool.”