Ota Benga: The Man in the Zoo

In 1906, the Bronx Zoo put a human being, a “pygmy” from the African Congo, on display. The incident illustrates not only the pervasive racism of the early 20th century, but also the intense religious opposition to the theory of evolution.

Ota_Benga_at_Bronx_Zoo
Ota Benga

In 1904, the city of St Louis was selected to host that year’s World Fair. It was intended to be a celebration of human progress, with displays of new technology and science, and depictions of newly-explored areas of the planet. In the first years of the 20th century, the United States was changing rapidly. The “Indian Wars” had ended less than ten years ago, and America’s “Manifest Destiny”, having conquered the continent, now reached overseas. The US had stepped onto the world stage in the Spanish-American War, and was now a military power which had won a fledgling empire in the Pacific and the Caribbean. Rapid advances in science had led to new technologies and machinery, which transformed the US from an agricultural economy into an industrial manufacturer and would soon lead to an economic Gilded Age. Electricity, the automobile, aviation–these new technologies would soon change the world. And the United States was the leader in this transformation.

But there was a darker undercurrent as well. Economic growth had led to an enormous wave of immigration, as massive numbers of people from Europe and Asia flooded into the US to feed the insatiable American industrial machine with the hordes of low-wage workers that it needed to operate. These immigrants–from Italy, Ireland, Eastern Europe, and China–brought with them their own cultural practices, religious beliefs, and political ideologies. The white Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture in the United States viewed the newcomers as threats to their traditional way of life. Less than 50 years before, they had fought a civil war to defend the institution of slavery, then fought a cultural war to keep the newly-freed slaves “in their place”. Now, they found a new target. Groups like the KKK swelled in numbers, waging a war on behalf of “the white race” against African-Americans, foreign immigrants, Catholicism, Jews, socialism, trade unionism, and anything else they viewed as “anti-American”.

When the planners of the St Louis World’s Fair decided that they would display an exhibit of “peoples of the world”, they stepped firmly into the American culture wars. In 1859, British naturalist Charles Darwin had proposed the scientific theory of evolution, which concluded that all living things, including humans, had evolved from earlier and simpler life forms. The effect was explosive. The Protestant-Christian religion was one of the fundamental pillars of traditional Anglo-Saxon culture, in both England and the United States–the idea that God had blessed the white race and that its dominant position in the world was due, literally, to Divine Favor. When the science of evolution kicked that prop out from under them, the reaction was swift and hostile.

But the science of the time, ironically, was just as imperial and racist. Because humans had evolved, the reasoning went, it was logical to assume that different humans were more or less evolved than others. And so anthropologists of the time spent a lot of effort ranking the various races in their “evolutionary development”. The black Africans, only recently freed from slavery in the US and conquered and colonized by Europeans in Africa, were placed at the bottom of the human ladder. They were “less evolved”, more apelike, not quite fully human. The Asians, including the nearly-exterminated Native Americans, were a bit more “advanced”. But at the top, the pinnacle of humanity, were the white Europeans and their American cousins. They had earned their rightful place as rulers of the world not because God had willed it, but because they were biologically superior, more highly evolved, the winners in the Darwinian struggle. They were the master race.

It was under these circumstances that the St Louis World’s Fair designed its exhibition of “peoples of the world”. Although it was presented as science, as an illustration of various world cultures and how other people lived, the underlying message was part and parcel of the theme of the Fair as a whole–the superiority of American culture, particularly white American culture.

The World’s Fair dispatched a number of people to gather up some natives to display, along with their traditional housing and cultural items, in what would today be called a “living history” exhibit. Members of several different Native American tribes were brought to St Louis, including the famed Apache war leader Geronimo, released from his military prison by a special order from the Secretary of War. Groups of Inuit “Eskimos” were also brought in from Alaska, as well as natives from the recently-conquered Hawaii, Samoa, and the Philippine Islands. There were native Patagonians from South America, and Ainu from northern Japan. It was, in essence, a human zoo.

Fair officials also dispatched Samuel Verner, an anthropologist and missionary who spoke several native languages, to Africa to gather some natives. In the Belgian Congo, Verner happened upon a slave trader who was selling some “pygmies”–survivors of raids by the colonial government’s Force Publique militia. One of these captives was a member of the Mbuti tribe named Ota Benga, whose wife and children had been killed in a raid. Verner bought him for a pound of salt and some cloth. Ota Benga and a dozen or so other Africans reached America in June 1904 and were put on display in St Louis.

The collection of natives from around the world was an immediate sensation, attracting large crowds to the Fair. With his short stature and his unusual teeth–filed down to points in the traditional Mbuti manner–Ota Benga was a particular favorite. Several newspaper accounts of the Fair mention him by name, with the New York Times commenting that his filed teeth were “worth the five cents he charges for showing them”.

When the World’s Fair ended after almost a year, the natives were all returned to their homelands. Verner accompanied the Africans back to the Belgian Congo, where he stayed in a village with the Batwa  tribe and planned to do some animal collecting. Ota Benga had by this time developed a friendship with Verner, and decided to stay with him, working as his assistant and marrying a Batwa woman (who shortly later died from a snakebite). When Verner returned to the US in August 1906, Ota Benga went with him.

The American Museum of Natural History, in New York City, agreed to take Verner’s collection of African animals while he traveled across the country on a lecture tour to raise money. And because Verner could not take Ota Benga with him, the museum also agreed to let the African live in a spare room inside the museum. Things did not go well. With Verner away, Ota Benga (who spoke no English) was isolated and alone, and grew increasingly sullen and hostile. Upon his return to New York, Verner tried to negotiate a deal with the Museum, in which his animals would be placed on exhibit and he would be hired to curate them. But the deal fell through, and Verner had to find another place to house his animals (and Ota Benga).

Verner then contacted the Bronx Zoo. The Zoo, opened just eight years earlier, was run by the New York Zoological Society, under its Secretary Madison Grant. The Director was William Hornaday. In the zoo world, Hornaday was a visionary: in contrast to the iron-bar prison cells that most zoos utilized to hold their animals, Hornaday was an advocate of open-air naturalistic enclosures that mimicked, as much as possible, their natural habitat. Hornaday and Grant were also enthusiastic supporters of the theory of evolution. And, perhaps inevitably, of the scientific racism that grew out of it. (Grant in particular would go on to become a prominent member of the “eugenics” movement, which advocated a program of planned breeding and sterilizations to produce evolutionarily superior humans–which won him a letter of admiration in the 1930’s from German Chancellor Adolf Hitler.) Hornaday agreed to take Verner’s collection of African animals for display, and also to allow Ota Benga to live at the zoo and help with the animals. (The zoo would later refer to Ota Benga as an “employee”, but he was in fact never paid.)

It was then that the strangest part of the story began.

Ota Benga was given a place to sleep in a spare room and was given free run of the zoo. In particular, he liked to help the keepers with the African elephants and with the great apes in the Monkey House. During his work, he developed a bond with an orangutan named Dohong (there are no orangutans in Africa, and Ota Benga had never seen one before), and began spending several hours a day in the Monkey House.

The zoo visitors, in turn, were intrigued by the site of an African native interacting with the apes, and Hornaday realized that he had a potential crowd-draw on his hands. He encouraged Ota Benga to spend more time in the Monkey House. Over several weeks, the African moved his hammock into Dohong’s cage and began to sleep there. He was then given a set of bow and arrows and spent some time each day shooting at a target. Parrots were added to the Monkey House to give it more of a “jungle” flavor, and several bones were scattered around the floor (including, it was reported, some human bones, to give a tantalizing hint of cannibalism). The visitors were delighted. So was Hornaday. One weekend a new sign appeared in the Monkey House: “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 Central Africa, by Dr. Samuel P. Verner. Exhibited each afternoon during September.” Visitorship soared to 40,000 per day as curious New Yorkers lined up to see the unusual spectacle.

But the “man in the zoo” sparked immediate outrage and controversy, led mostly by the local New York African-American community. A letter to the press noted, “The person responsible for this exhibition degrades himself as much as he does the African. Instead of making a beast of this little fellow, we should be putting him in school for the development of such powers as God gave him.” African-American clergyman Rev James Gordon added, “Our race, we think, is depressed enough, without exhibiting one of us with the apes. We think we are worthy of being considered human beings, with souls.”

But it was not solely the open racism of the zoo exhibit that provoked opposition: many religious organizations protested because the display was seen as an endorsement of the theory of evolution. Rev Gordon declared, “The Darwinian theory is absolutely opposed to Christianity, and a public demonstration in its favor should not be permitted.”

Hornaday, meanwhile, seemed rather baffled by all the opposition. In a letter to the Mayor, he wrote that he had only wanted to put “Dr. Verner’s very interesting little African where the people of New York may see him without annoyance or discomfort to him.” The New York Times, meanwhile, reflected, in an editorial, the common (racist) understanding of the time: “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.”

But the organized opposition had its effect: within two weeks the offending sign was taken down, Ota Benga was banned from the Monkey House, and soon Verner was contacted and asked to find another place to house the African. Ota Benga was placed in the custody of Rev James Gordon, the same African-American pastor who had objected to his exhibition. He was first placed in the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum. After a time, he was sent to a foster family in Lynchburg VA, where his pointed teeth were capped, he went to a baptist school to learn English, and he changed his name to “Otto Bingo”. He got a job working in a tobacco warehouse.  At one point he was tutored in English by the local poet Anne Spencer, and through her was introduced to Booker T Washington and WEB DuBois.

By this time, however, “Otto Bingo” had seen enough of American society, and what he wanted most was to go home to the Congo. He began saving money to buy passage back to Africa.

But in 1914, the First World War broke out, and passenger ship traffic between North America and Africa came to a halt. As the war dragged on, it must have seemed to him that he would never be able to return home. In March 1916, Ota Binga walked into a patch of woods, chipped the caps off his teeth, made a ceremonial fire, and shot himself with a stolen pistol.

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