Ota Benga

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Ota Benga in 1904.

Ota Benga (c.1881 or 1884 – March 20, 1916) was a Congolese pygmy who was featured in a 1906 human zoo exhibit at the Bronx Zoo alongside an orangutan. The exhibit was intended to promote the concept of human evolution, eugenics and scientific racism.[1]


[edit] Biography

[edit] Early life

Ota Benga was a member of the Batwa people,[2] and lived in equatorial forests near the Kasai River in what was then the Belgian Congo. Benga had survived the slaughter of much of his village by the Force Publique, an army of King Leopold II of Belgium. He lost his wife and two children in the massacre.[3]

American businessman and missionary Samuel Phillips Verner was sent to Africa in 1904 under contract from the St. Louis World's Fair to bring back pygmies for exhibition. Verner met Ota Benga in the Belgian Congo that year and negotiated with a tribal slave trader for the pygmies, returning to the United States with Ota Benga and eight others.

[edit] Bronx Zoo

After several months of travel in the U.S., Verner took Ota Benga to the Bronx Zoo in New York City in 1906 to find him a place to live, at the suggestion of Hermon Bumpus. Bumpus was the director of the American Museum of Natural History, and had provided a home for Verner's cargo including, briefly, Benga himself. At the zoo, Benga was allowed to roam the zoo grounds and help feed the animals. The events leading to his "exhibition" were gradual:[3] Benga spent some of his time in the "Monkey House" exhibit, and the zoo encouraged him to hang his hammock there, and to shoot his bow and arrow at a target. The first day of the "exhibit", September 8, 1906, visitors found Benga in the Monkey House.[3] A sign on the exhibit soon read:

Ota Benga in 1906, purportedly at the Bronx Zoo.

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.[4]

Bronx Zoo director William Hornaday saw the exhibit as a valuable spectacle for his visitors, and was encouraged by Madison Grant, a prominent scientific racist and eugenicist. The exhibit evoked the immediate protests of African-American clergymen: "Our race, we think, is depressed enough, without exhibiting one of us with the apes," said clergyman James H. Gordon; "We think we are worthy of being considered human beings, with souls."[3]

Gordon also considered the exhibition hostile to Christianity, for its promoting Darwinism: "The Darwinian theory is absolutely opposed to Christianity, and a public demonstration in its favor should not be permitted."[3] A number of clergymen backed Gordon, if not because the exhibit was dehumanizing to African Americans, then because it was held to be "promoting" Darwinism.[5] In defense of the depiction of Benga as a lesser human, a New York Times editorial suggested,

We do not quite understand all the emotion which others are expressing in the matter... It is absurd to make moan over the imagined humiliation and degradation Benga is suffering. The pygmies...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...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.[6]

Benga was thereafter allowed to roam the grounds of the zoo as a sort of interactive exhibit. In response to his general situation and to verbal and physical prods from the crowds, his behavior became at first mischievous and then somewhat violent.[7]

A September 10, 1906 New York Times story registers some of the uproar over the incident:

The person responsible for this exhibition degrades himself as much as he does the African," said Rev. Dr. R. MacArthur of Calvary Baptist Church. "Instead of making a beast of this little fellow, he should be put in school for the development of such powers as God gave to him. It is too bad that there is not some society like the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. We send our missionaries to Africa to Christianize the people, and then we bring one here to brutalize him.[4]

[edit] Later life

Toward the end of September 1906, Ota Benga again came under the guardianship of Gordon, who placed him in the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum (of which Gordon was the superintendent), a church-sponsored orphanage. In January 1910, Gordon arranged for Benga's relocation to Lynchburg, Virginia.

While in Virginia, Ota Benga's teeth, which he had filed to points in the Congo,[3] were capped, and he was dressed in American-style clothes. He was tutored by Lynchburg poet Anne Spencer,[citation needed] his English improved, and he attended elementary school at the Baptist Seminary in Lynchburg.[8]

He discontinued his formal education and began working at a Lynchburg tobacco factory. Despite his small size, he proved a valuable employee because he could climb up the poles to get the tobacco leaves without having to use a ladder. His fellow workers called him "Bingo" and he would tell his life story in exchange for sandwiches and root beer. He began to plan a return to Africa.[9]

When the Great War broke out, a return to the Congo became impossible, and Benga became depressed as his hopes for a return to the Congo faded.[9] On March 20, 1916, at the age of 32, he built a ceremonial fire, chipped off the caps on his teeth and shot himself in the heart with a stolen pistol. The death certificate listed his name as "Otto Bingo".

He was buried in an unmarked grave, records show, in the black section of the Old City Cemetery, near his benefactor, Gregory Hayes. At some point, however, both went missing. Local oral history indicates that Hayes and Ota Benga were eventually moved from the Old Cemetery to White Rock Cemetery, a burial ground that fell into disrepair.[citation needed]

[edit] Legacy

Phillips Verner Bradford is the grandson of Samuel Phillips Verner, and authored a 1992 book on Ota Benga entitled Ota Benga: The Pygmy in the Zoo.[10] During his research for the book, he visited the American Museum of Natural History in New York, which holds a life mask and body cast of Ota Benga. To this day, the display is still labeled "Pygmy", rather than indicating Benga's name, despite objections that began almost a century ago from Verner himself.[11]

Ota Benga became the subject of a short film directed by the Brazilian Alfeu França. França recovered and used original movies recorded by Verner himself in the early 20th century to create the 2002 documentary Ota Benga: A Pygmy in America.[12] In Brazil the film was shown at the festival É Tudo Verdade ("It's All True"). The Brooklyn-based band Pinataland have a song titled "Ota Benga's Name" on their album Songs from the Forgotten Future Volume 1, which tells the story of Ota Benga. The bridge of the song is a poem from M.E. Buhler that appeared in the New York Times.

The play Ota Benga, Elegy for the Elephant was written by Dr. Ben B. Halm and staged at Fairfield University in 1997.[13] A highly fictionalized version of Ota Benga appeared as a character in the 2006 fantasy film The Fall and inspired the character of Ngunda Oti in the 2008 film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.[14]

[edit] See also

[edit] References

  1. ^ Phillips Verner, Bradford; Blume, Harvey (1992). Ota Benga: The Pygmy in the Zoo. New York: St. Martins Press. 
  2. ^ "From the Belgian Congo to the Bronx Zoo", All Things Considered, National Public Radio. September 8, 2006.
  3. ^ a b c d e f Keller, Mitch (August 6, 2006). "The Scandal at the Zoo". New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/06/nyregion/thecity/06zoo.html. 
  4. ^ a b "Man and Monkey Show Disapproved by Clergy." New York Times, September 10, 1906, pg. 1.
  5. ^ Spiro, Jonathan. Defending the Master Race. 2008, page 47
  6. ^ Spiro, Jonathan. Defending the Master Race. 2008, page 48
  7. ^ Smith (1998). See chapter on Ota Benga.
  8. ^ Spiro, Jonathan. Defending the Master Race. 2008, page 48
  9. ^ a b Spiro, Jonathan. Defending the Master Race. 2008, page 49
  10. ^ Phillips Verner, Bradford; Blume, Harvey (1992). Ota Benga: The Pygmy in the Zoo. New York: St. Martins Press. 
  11. ^ Laurent, Darrel (2005-05-29). "Demeaned in Life, Forgotten in Death". The Lynchburg News & Advance. http://www.newsadvance.com/servlet/Satellite?pagename=LNA%2FMGArticle%2FLNA_BasicArticle&c=MGArticle&cid=1031782991730&path=!news!archive. Retrieved on 2006-04-03. 
  12. ^ Alfeu França. Ota Benga:A Pygmy in America [film].
  13. ^ "Memorial details - Ben Halm". Fairfield University. http://www.fairfield.edu/pr_memdetails1.html. Retrieved on 2009-01-06. 
  14. ^ Hornaday, Ann (2009-01-03). "Basest Instinct: Case of the Zoo Pygmy Exhibited a Familiar Face of Human Nature". Washington Post. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/01/02/AR2009010202444.html. Retrieved on 2009-01-06. 
  • Smith, Ken (1998). Raw deal : horrible and ironic stories of forgotten Americans. New York: Blast Books, Inc..  ISBN 0-922233-20-9.

[edit] External links

  • [1] a play by John Strand, produced in 1994 by Signature Theater in Arlington VA
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