It is Saturday the 8th of September in 1906, and hundreds of people are standing around a monkey house in the New York Zoological Gardens. Slavery was abolished on paper forty years ago but the caged exhibit tells a tale that refutes any paper freedom. In the monkey house is an orang-utan and a man, a black man from Africa. The monkey’s name is Dohang and the man is Ota Beng. The sign mounted the next morning outside his cage reads:
The African Pygmy, Ota Benga
Age, 23 yeas. Height, 4 feet 11 inches.
Weight 103 pound. Brought from the Kasai River,
Congo Free State, South Central Africa,
By Dr Samuel P Verner.
Exhibited each afternoon during September.
That same morning, The New York Times has an article that reads, “There was an exhibition at the Zoological Park, in the Bronx, yesterday which had for many of the visitors something more than a provocation to laughter. There were laughs enough in it, too, but there was something about it which made the serious minded grave…The exhibition was that of a human being in a monkey cage.”
By the end of that September, more than 220,000 are estimated to have visited the zoo to watch Ota Benga.
The mis-measured humanity of Ota Benga
Ota Benga was a member of the Mbuti people of what was the Belgian Congo. His family was killed by the Belgian Force Publique but the institution of white supremacism would not rest until Benga lost his own life to it. He was saved the first time by a hunting expedition but had no such luck when the slavers sieged his land. Instead, an American missionary and businessman, Samuel Philips Verner bought him from the slavers for a pound of salt and a spool of brass wire.
That is all they thought Benga good for: wire and salt. Verner was on a mission to get “Pygmies” to display at the World’s Fair’s Louisiana Purchase Exposition and he used Benga to infiltrate the communities and gain their trust. For his part, Verner had been tasked with securing the “voluntary attendance at the exposition of 12 pygmies by May 1st, 1904” by the scientist W.J. McGee. In late June 1904, the Africans were brought to the fair. They returned to Africa after the fair but Benga chose to return to America. RT says, “Verner got him a place to live inside at the American Museum of Natural History in New York where he was free to roam until he threw a chair at Florence Guggenheim and was relocated to the Bronx Zoo.”
The zoo’s director, William Temple Hornaday was receptive and Benga’s residency started. Hornaday claimed Ota was an employee yet never has anyone uncovered proof of a salary the African man got. A book co-written by Verner’s grandson claims Benga’s transition into the cages was gradual but the story of Benga’s captivity has been watered down by such accounts from interested parties. A New York Times review of a book by Pamela Newkirk on the life of Ota Benga points out that, “Verner cast himself in the role of Benga’s savior, friend and benefectaor in an assortment of contradictory tales that were further obscured by a complicit news media, which documented Benga’s suffering in confinement for weeks only to subsequently deny he had ever been displayed.”
Gradual or not, Benga ended up in a cage with a monkey to the enjoyment of white supremacists. They called him the missing link. His entrapment was propaganda. It reasserted the white man’s evolutionary supremacy and thus justified racism. There were questions to be answered.
Verner rushed to the defence when questioned about Benga’s freedom. He said, “He is absolutely free… The only restriction that is put upon him is to prevent him from getting away from the keepers. That is done for his own safety. If Ota Benga is in a cage, he is only there to look after the animals. If there is a notice on the cage, it is only put there to avoid answering the many questions that are asked about him.”
It was a pathetic argument. It was however, not worse than Hornaday’s defence that Benga was in the cage “because that’s the most comfortable place we could find for him”.
Hornaday was not alone in this ridiculous view that a cage was the most comfortable place around. One M.S. Gabriel wrote to the New York Times arguing the cage was “a vast room, a sort of balcony in the open air”. It would seem people thought the cage a privilege Benga did not deserve.
Black Lives Matter
Black clergyman led by Reverend James H Gordon pressurised authorities to release Benga. Gordon had remarked after seeing Benga in the cage, “We are frank enough to say we do not like this exhibition of one of our own race 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.”
The ministers suggested the young African would be better off in school. However, the New York Times in an editorial had a response, “Pygmies are very low in the human scale, and the suggestion that Benga should be in 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.”
Reverend Matthew Gilbert of Mount Olivert Baptist Church, another black clergyman also came out against the exploitation of Ota Benga. He wrote in an especially poignant letter to the New York Times, “Only prejudice against the negro race made such a thing possible in this country.”
Ota Benga also started mounting heavy resistance and ultimately became a liability to Hornaday. On the 28th of September 1906, Verner took Benga to Reverend Gordon’s Howard Coloured Orphan Asylum in Weeksville Brooklyn. In January 1910, the young African man was taken to a Theological Seminary in Lynchburg, Virginia.
Older women from Europe and North America are now known to frequent African resorts in pursuit of ‘sexcapades’ as they are called.
It is the late afternoon of the 19th of March 1916 in Lynchburg Virginia. Ota Benga gathers wood to build a fire in a ritual he usually performs as young boys in the area watch on. He dances around the fire, chants and moans. The boys are used to the ritual but on this particular day, the dancing and chanting is rather sombre. It is the last dance. Late in the night, Ota Benga, the man white men who looked through the lens of prejudice mistook for a monkey fires a single bullet through his own heart. He escapes the cage.
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Read Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga by Pamela Newkirk for a more detailed account of Ota Benga’s life.