Ota Benga, a young African boy, was kidnapped from Congo and taken to the United States of America. On arrival, he was put in a zoo with monkeys and was displayed together with them.
Ota Benga was a Congolese Mbuti pygmy, best known for being featured in an exhibit in the Bronx Zoo in New York, with monkeys. He was initially brought to America by businessman, missionary and explorer, Samuel Phillips Verner, to feature in an anthropology exhibit at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, Missouri in 1904. He was part of a group of African tribesmen who were displayed as examples of “earlier stages” of human evolution to demonstrate the then-popular cultural evolution theory. He later got his own human zoo exhibit in 1906 at the Bronx Zoo and was subsequently placed in the Monkey House exhibit alongside Dohong, a trained orangutan. During the later part of his life, he was taken into custody by Reverend James M. Gordon, who arranged for his education and later employment at a tobacco factory. However, after his dreams of returning to his homeland were crashed at the onset of World War I, he committed suicide by shooting himself in the heart on March 20, 1916.
By 1906, he had become popular among the white folk who go to watch him. On the 9th of September 1906, the New York Times published a report about a young African man, who was put on display in the monkey house in New York’s largest zoo. The article referred to him as “a so-called “pygmy”, and they used the headline “Bushman Shares a Cage with Bronx Park Apes”. The paper reported that over 500 white folks had gathered that day with their children to laugh and jeer at Benga. Reports say that he was 23 years, but still had the body of a boy.
The outing on the 9th of September was a good one for the zookeepers because they had a large turnout. They were expecting the next ones to be bigger, so they moved the boy to a much larger cage where he was joined with an orangutan named Dohang. As the crowd gathered and made jest of him, he sat still and stared at them in wonder. He wonders how people could be so mean to steal him from his home and treat him like an animal.
It was reported that by the end of that September of 1906, over 220,000 people had gone to the zoo to see Benga. One in their real sense and conscience would wonder what was so fulfilling in the caging and molesting a young boy. But no matter how much one wonders, one would still come to the conclusion that white-America has no conscience or soul.
The inhumane and vicious display of Ota Benga started to spread around the world. But as expected, the Caucasian world endorsed it while many Black ministers, scholars, and persons were angered by the insult of placing a Black man in a cage with animals.
On the afternoon of September, the 10th, in 1906, a few Black ministers gathered at Harlem’ Mount Olivet Baptists Church, for an emergency meeting about the matter. It was led by Reverend James H Gordon, who was popular at the time and hailed by the Brooklyn Eagles as “one of the most eloquent Negroes in the country”.
He and the other ministers after a few words, headed for the train station, boarded a train and went to the Bronx Zoo, where Benga was imprisoned with animals. On arrival, they found Benga in the cage with the Orangutan, Dohang.
They tried to communicate with him, but he was not in a mood to speak or relate to anyone. He wore a sad face and only stared at them. This made them more furious. They confronted the zookeepers, and Gordon fumed saying that. “We are frank enough to say we do not like this exhibition of one of our own races with the monkeys. 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.”
But nothing the ministers said was important to the zoo authorities. The zoo director and curator, William Temple Hornaday defended their actions bravely, claiming that it was done on the ground of science.
He said that “I am giving the exhibition purely as an ethnological exhibit,” he said. He stubbornly insisted that their dehumanization of Benga was in keeping with the practice of “human exhibitions” of Africans in Europe, breezily evoking the continent’s indisputable status as the world’s paragon of culture and civilization.
The ministers pressed harder with their complaints and displeasure, but Hornaday was unrepentant. He declared that the exhibition would continue until the Zoological society asked him to stop. He knew he had the backing of the Zoological Society and many highly placed government officials, so there was no way they would ask him to stop. At the time, he was a close friend to the President, Theodore Roosevelt.
The ministers did not succeed in freeing young Benga that day, so they left in anger and promised to make a case for Benga at the office of the Mayor of New York. But what they didn’t know was that a great number of white-America did not feel remorse for having a Black boy in a cage. That’s why, when personnel of the New York Times heard of what the Ministers did, they were angry and published an inhumane submission – something a media house should not do.
New York Times published the following: “We do not quite understand all the emotion which others are expressing in the matter,” the paper said in an unsigned editorial. “Ota Benga, according to our information, 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.”
They stated that was absurd to imagine Benga’s suffering or humiliation. “Pygmies are very low on 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 … The idea that men are all much alike except as they have had or lacked opportunities for getting an education of books is now far out of date.”
By the 16th of September in the same year 1906, the zookeepers released Benga from his cage and allowed him to walk around the zoo park. The rangers guarded and kept an eye on him. That day was overwhelming for the young and sad Benga. About 40,000 people were at the park that day, and they all followed Benga wherever he went.
They would circle, poke and make him fall. At one point when the crowd seemed like they were attacking him, he struck some of the people in the crowd. Three men battled with him to hold him down, before returning him to the monkey cage.
The zookeeper, Hornaday, in a protest letter, on Monday 17th September 1906, said the following: “I regret to say that Ota Benga has become quite unmanageable,” he said. “He has been so fully exploited in the newspapers, and so much in the public eye, it is quite inadvisable for us to punish him; for should we do so, we would immediately be accused of cruelty, coercion, etc., etc. I am sure you will appreciate this point.”
Hornaday complained that “the boy does quite as he pleases, and it is utterly impossible to control him”. He expressed dismay that Benga threatened to bite the keepers whenever they tried to bring him back to the monkey house. Hornaday’s star attraction was turning into a liability. “I see no way out of the dilemma,” he wrote, “but for him to be taken away.”
The pressure kept mounting about the state of Benga in the zoo. Many people reported that the zoo took money to allow people to come into the boy’s cage. So, on the 26th of September, an investigator was sent from the office of the city controller. His reports shed more light on why Benga should be free.
There were more newspaper publications that decried the use of Benga as an animal exhibit. And Benga himself started to fight everyone and anyone who came close to him. He would bite and kick and even once used a knife to threaten the keepers.
With more street protests and newspaper publications speaking against Benga’s situation, the Zoo curator and keeper released him on the 28th of September 1906. He was taken away quietly without any media notice. He was relocated by the minister Gordon to an orphanage in Weeksville, Brooklyn. The orphanage was named Howard Colored Orphan Asylum and was run m the minister himself.
Benga was given a room to himself by Gordon, and he had his freedom to do what he pleased. In an interview, Gordon said that “He looks like a rather dwarfed colored boy of unusual amiability and curiosity… Now our plan is this: We are going to treat him as a visitor. We have given him a room to himself, where he can smoke if he chooses.” They thought him how to speak English and he learned as the days went by.
After a few years in the orphanage, Gordon sent Benga to a Theological Seminary and College in Lynchburg, Virginia. The school was an all-Black school that thought Blacks what the white theological schools had refused to teach them.
Benga grew with the community. He would lead the young boys on many occasions into the nearby forest to teach them how to make bow and arrows and hunt. He seemed happy, but as the weeks went by, he became withdrawn. He was depressed and was always talking about going home. He would make a big fire, and dance around it alone, chanting his native songs and mourning in pain.
On the 19th of March 1916, out of frustration, he left the house, sneaked into a battered grey shed which was across his home, and stayed there. Before morning, he took a gun which he kept there and shot himself in the heart.