Monday, April 4, 2011

Ota Benga The Congolese Pygmy Man in the Bronx Zoo



Ota Benga (1883-1916) was an African Congolese Pygmy, who was put on display in the monkey house at the Bronx Zoo in New York in1906

The Man in the Zoo

BY GEOFFREY C. WARD
On Sunday, September 9, 1906, a freshly painted sign greeted visitors to the Monkey House at the Bronx Zoological Gardens:

The African Pygmy, “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.
Inside, in a large open-air cage whose floor had been artfully strewn with bones to suggest its occupant’s supposed savagery, sat a diminutive man in a hammock, wearing a jacket and trousers but no shoes, quietly weaving mats and occasionally getting up to shoot arrows at a bale of hay. Late in the day an orangutan was let into the cage, and man and ape were encouraged to play together, hugging and chasing each another while the mostly white crowd laughed and applauded: ”. . . the pygmy was not much taller than the orangutan,” The New York Times reported, “and one had a good opportunity to study their points of resemblance. Their heads are much alike, and both grin in the same way when pleased.”
It is a tribute to the astonishing resilience of the human spirit that the displaced Pygmy was ever even momentarily pleased, as a fascinating but flawed new book about him makes clear. Ota Benga: The Pygmy in the Zoo (St. Martin’s Press, 320 pages, $22.95) was written by Harvey Blume and Phillips Verner Bradford, the grandson of Samuel Phillips Verner, the missionary-adventurer who found the little man in the African forest and brought him back to the New World—twice.


Samuel Verner was a high-strung South Carolinian, raised on Robinson Crusoeand the works of David Livingstone and Henry M. Stanley and trained for the mission field. He began his travels to the Congo region at twenty-two in search of souls but soon edged away from the church in favor of a series of schemes meant to lure investors to Africa that never quite came off. He was a vivid and prolific writer about his adventures and had brought back from his first expedition two Africans, and so in 1903, when the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, soon to open in St. Louis, wanted Pygmies imported for the area of the fairgrounds called the Anthropology Department, it seemed logical to turn to Verner.
He was given a sort of shopping list: twelve Pygmies, six more Africans of miscellaneous tribes, plus all the paraphernalia of daily living they would need to set themselves up as authentic exhibits in St. Louis. Verner did his best in the face of persistent fever, but in the end he could persuade just five Pygmies to accompany him to America.
One of them was Ota Benga. He had been out hunting when forces in the pay of Belgium, on the prowl for rumored ivory, butchered his hunting band, including his wife and children. By the time Verner happened upon him he had become a slave of the Baschilele people and had little to lose by crossing the great water. Verner bought him with salt and a few yards of cloth.

Teeth sharpening is practiced by both men and women in the tribes of the Congolese Pygmies and the Mentawai people of Indonesia. Children from both of these tribes file their teeth as part of their spiritual practices and rites of passage —to prove themselves worthy to the tribe.
At the St. Louis fair Ota Benga and his companions found themselves living alongside a rich but eclectic sampling of aboriginal people from everywhere: Ainus from Japan, Patagonian “giants” from South America, Kwakiutls from the Northwest Coast (who had to ask for a stockade to shield their baskets and totem poles from what they tactfully called the white man’s “taking qualities”), Igorots from the Philippines, allowed to appear in their traditional loincloths only over the objections of Theodore Roosevelt, who argued that trousers would be more likely to reassure any visitors who still harbored doubts about the wisdom of acquiring the Philippines.
The Pygmies were among the most popular attractions. They were made to snap their filed teeth at visitors, perform ritual dances, compete in “Anthropology Days,” a sort of aboriginal Olympics, during which they excelled only at mud fighting. “When a white man comes to our country,” one of Ota Benga’s companions complained to a reporter, “we give them presents. . . . The Americans treat us as they do our pet monkey. They laugh at us and poke their umbrellas into our faces.”
Later, when the autumn air turned so cold that even the blankets lent the Pygmies by their Indian neighbors proved inadequate and they took shelter inside their huts, visitors heaved bricks through the windows to drive them out again.

At 21, Ota Benga was brought to the United States by African explorer Samuel Verner. Verner displayed Ota Benga alongside six other male and female pygmies of the Mbuti tribe at the St. Louis World Fair in 1904

At the closing ceremonies in December 1904, the president of the fair asked if the Pygmies wished to stay in America. They shouted no, in unison, and Samuel Verner dutifully escorted them back to the Congo, then stayed on, collecting specimens and making big plans for his own trading post. Meanwhile, Ota Benga remarried, only to have his second wife die of snakebite. Alone again, with neither a family nor a hunting band of his own, and stubbornly fond of Verner despite everything, he eventually demanded to be brought back to America, to start a new life there. If Verner did not take him, he vowed, he would kill himself.
The two men landed at New York in the summer of 1906, along with crates of artifacts and a small menagerie with which Verner hoped to restore his fortunes. Nothing seemed to work out, and with creditors closing in, Verner finally unloaded his animals on the Bronx Zoo and made Ota Benga’s extended stay there part of a package deal.

At first the Pygmy simply wandered the grounds unnoticed, wearing ordinary clothes, earning his keep by feeding the primates. But the zoo’s director, William T. Hornaday, had a showman’s gaudy instincts. His original plans to have a fully peopled American Indian village on the grounds had never quite worked out. Now he made his small guest a big attraction. BUSHMAN SHARES A CAGE WITH BRONX PARK APES, Said The New York Times, and forty thousand people turned out on a single afternoon to see the “wild man from Africa.”
Not everyone was pleased. “Our race, we think, is depressed enough without exhibiting one of us with the apes,” said the Reverend James H. Gordon, chairman of the Colored Baptist Ministers’ Conference. “We think we are worthy of being considered human beings, with souls.”


As a black man Gordon objected primarily to the exhibition’s naked racism, but as a Baptist he had another agenda: Exhibition of a human being and an orangutan together, with its suggestion that zoo-goers were somehow seeing the missing link, would encourage Darwinism. “This is a Christian country,” Gordon explained, “and the exhibition evidently aims to be a demonstration of the Darwinian theory of evolution. The Darwinian theory is absolutely opposed to Christianity and a public demonstration in its favor should not be permitted.”


Even some whites began to object. “I lived in the south several years, and consequently am not over fond of the negro,” one wrote, “but believe him human. I think it a shame that the authorities of this great city should allow such a sight as … a negro boy on exhibition in a monkey cage.”
Director Hornaday could never quite understand what all the fuss was about—after all, he told a reporter, the Pygmy “has one of the best rooms in the primate house”—but he now let Ota Benga out of his cage to wander the grounds. Throngs followed wherever he went, “howling, jeering and yelling,” according to the Times. “Some of them poked him in the ribs, others tripped him up, all laughed at him.” His keepers teased him too, and one especially hot afternoon, when he started to remove his clothes and got sprayed with a hose for his trouble, he went for one of them with a knife and had to be manhandled back into his cage. BENGA TRIES TO KILL, reported the New York Tribune.
In the end Hornaday decided his prize exhibit had become more trouble than he was worth and turned him over to the Reverend Gordon, who also headed the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum in Brooklyn. There, studying alongside children one-third his age, Ota Benga did learn to write a little. But, Howard finally admitted, “his age was against his development. It was simply impossible to put him in a class to receive instructions . . . that would be of any advantage to him.” And he showed an alarming interest in some of the older girls.
In 1910 Ota Benga finally asked to be allowed to attend the Baptist Seminary at Lynchburg, Virginia. There he received Christian baptism, had his name changed to Otto Bingo, even had his filed teeth capped.
He worked at a series of desultory jobs—grounds keeping, feeding chickens, sorting tobacco leaves—but only the forest seemed permanently to hold his interest. In summertime he slept in the hayloft of the seminary’s president, fashioned bows and arrows for small boys, and led them into the woods to hunt small game. Sometimes, on his way home in the evening, he would board the bus and pay his fare with a wild bird’s egg or a rabbit he’d brought home from the forest.
On the afternoon of March 20, 1916, Ota Benga lit a fire behind the carriage house where he lived in summer. He removed the caps from his teeth. When his small companions asked him to lead them into the woods again, he turned them away. Once they were safely out of sight, he shot himself through the heart. (source: American Heritage Magazine October 1992 Volume 43, Issue 6)

48 comments:

  1. This is one of the most unimaginable and shameful factual events in our shared American history.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I agree. this story makes me ashamed of the fact that i am american

      Delete
    2. America is a nation initially founded 100% on the massacre and genocide of all its native peoples, followed by the most savage, barbaric, dehumanizing, and brutal oppression (of African peoples) ever known in human history.
      It is a nation founded by BRUTES (call them "cowboys" if you will) of the most racist variety.
      It has a LOT of blood on its hands...

      Delete
    3. LOTS OF BLOOD ON ITS HAND'S AND BRUTALITY
      AND RACIST GENOCIDE!

      Delete
  2. America will be forever guilty of atrocities against the Negroes!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You saying negroes is the atrocity here

      Delete
    2. You saying negroes is the atrocity here

      Delete
    3. "..You saying negroes is the atrocity here.."
      Correct. These people who were so savagely abused by the caucasians, were 100% AFRICANS. The term "Negroes" makes absolutely no sense, it's utterly ridiculous. That term completely dehumanizes and reduces people to simply a color - very absurd indeed.
      These caucasians are so ENDEMICALLY racist that They... Just... Don't... Get it.

      Delete
    4. "These caucasians are so ENDEMICALLY racist that They... Just... Don't... Get it."

      That's a bit racist.. :)

      Delete
    5. we are not africans we are the hebrews spoken of in deut chapt 28. we were enslaved by ham we are of jacob ; shem

      Delete
  3. Not only Americans where too blame for slavery and selling slaves.. also Europeans, and also Arabs and let's not forget the Africans themselves who sometimes wanted to get rid of an enemy tribe..

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, those "Africans" you mentioned did sell members of other ethnic groups into slavery for profit - a shameful thing in and of itself - but they had no way of knowing the depth of the 3 centuries of european/american wickedness that was awaiting those slaves. If they had had ANY idea of the depth of the evil in the caucasian culture, history would have been profoundly different.
      The euro-american slave trade system was profoundly different from any of the earlier systems(Arab, etc.) that we call "slavery", both in its sheer wickedness and in the way it was clearly designed to dehumanize an entire race of people. Quite Disgusting.

      Delete
  4. these white devils will pay for this shit one day thats why amerikkka is slowly going down with its economy this country was built on blood and be destroyed in blood black people dont even stick together because of this shit Amerikkka should be lucky we dont have black terrorist blowing up shit ....I HATE CRACKERS!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. u are so right i feel your pain iwish all the gangbangers would come togetherBLOODS,CRIPS,GDSand VICELORDS and lets be one nation with one name and unite our latin american brothers also our native american brothers and take back whats ours...THE WORLD!

      Delete
    2. The world is going down because of hate. Try love.

      Delete
    3. Your as ignorant as those that enslaved...not every white person owned slaves, nor was a racist. I'm sure there were plenty of white people that were disgusted of Ota Benga's plight. Although not every Union soldier fought the Confederacy to end slavery, your forgetting about the thousands of "white" soldiers that did during the Civil War, including my great, great, grandfather who was an abolitionist. So remember that when you decide you run your mouth off, not like a black man, but a "thug." Your no different than a "cracker."

      Delete
  5. Please let me know if you're looking for a article author for your site. You have some really great posts and I feel I would be a good asset. If you ever want to take some of the load off, I'd love to write some articles for your blog
    in exchange for a link back to mine. Please blast
    me an email if interested. Regards!
    My page: africanmangoguide.net

    ReplyDelete
  6. Incredible! This blog looks just like my old one!
    It's on a completely different topic but it has pretty much the same page layout and design. Superb choice of colors!

    Look into my page: Get Essentially The Most From Your Online Enterprise | Ausjet Aviation Group

    ReplyDelete
  7. Hi there to every , because I am truly eager of reading this web site's post to be updated regularly. It includes good material.

    Feel free to visit my homepage Read the Full Guide

    ReplyDelete
  8. This gives some good insight into the minds of the people you will encounter in modern-day zoos, does it not?

    ReplyDelete
  9. This is a topic which is close to my heart... Take care!
    Where are your contact details though?

    my web page starcraft 2 hack

    ReplyDelete
  10. There is definately a great deal to find out about this topic.
    I really like all the points you have made.


    Also visit my web site; World Of Tanks Hack

    ReplyDelete
  11. Nice post. I learn something totally new and challenging on sites I stumbleupon on a daily
    basis. It's always helpful to read through articles from other writers and practice something from other websites.

    Visit my blog; diarrhea remedies

    ReplyDelete
  12. I have been browsing on-line greater than 3 hours
    today, but I by no means found any attention-grabbing article like yours.

    It's lovely value enough for me. In my opinion, if all site owners and bloggers made excellent content as you did, the net shall be much more useful than ever before.

    my blog post Http://Wiki.Newspower.Tv/

    ReplyDelete
  13. Can I just say what a comfort to find somebody that
    truly knows what they're talking about over the internet. You definitely know how to bring a problem to light and make it important. A lot more people ought to read this and understand this side of the story. I was surprised that you are not more popular since you most certainly have the gift.

    My web blog: go Here

    ReplyDelete
  14. Thank you, I've just been looking for information about this topic for a long time and yours is the best I have found out till now. However, what about the bottom line? Are you certain in regards to the supply?

    my web page; free microsoft points codes

    ReplyDelete
  15. Very quickly this site will be famous among all blogging viewers, due
    to it's nice articles or reviews

    Here is my web site :: download 7zip

    ReplyDelete
  16. Good post however I was wondering if you could write a litte more on this subject?
    I'd be very thankful if you could elaborate a little bit further. Bless you!

    My web-site: stretch marks

    ReplyDelete
  17. Hello, Neat post. There is a problem with your
    site in web explorer, may test this? IE still is the marketplace chief and a good part of other people will
    pass over your magnificent writing due to this problem.


    Here is my page: dragonvale cheats

    ReplyDelete
  18. Hi I am so delighted I found your webpage, I really found you
    by mistake, while I was browsing on Google for something else, Regardless I am here
    now and would just like to say thanks a lot for a incredible post and a all round interesting blog
    (I also love the theme/design), I don't have time to read through it all at the moment but I have bookmarked it and also added in your RSS feeds, so when I have time I will be back to read more, Please do keep up the superb job.

    Also visit my web page - http://En.Netlog.com/Roxanaabner/Blog/blogid=21720578

    ReplyDelete
  19. Attractive portion of content. I simply stumbled upon your weblog
    and in accession capital to say that I acquire actually enjoyed account your weblog posts.
    Anyway I'll be subscribing to your augment and even I success you get admission to constantly quickly.

    Also visit my blog: Unknown

    ReplyDelete
  20. Article writing is also a excitement, if you be familiar with then you can write if not it is difficult to
    write.

    Look into my weblog cs satellite diablo mod

    ReplyDelete
  21. I like the valuable information you provide in your articles.
    I'll bookmark your weblog and check again here regularly. I am quite certain I'll learn a lot of new stuff right here!
    Best of luck for the next!

    Check out my blog; Psn Code Generator

    ReplyDelete
  22. We're a group of volunteers and starting a new scheme in our community. Your site offered us with valuable info to work on. You have done an impressive job and our whole community will be thankful to you.

    Also visit my webpage: Abercrombie

    ReplyDelete
  23. Hey there! I've been following your site for a long time now and finally got the bravery to go ahead and give you a shout out from Dallas Texas! Just wanted to tell you keep up the great job!

    my web page ... World Of Tanks Hack

    ReplyDelete
  24. Hey very interesting blog!

    my webpage - Microsoft Office Gratuit

    ReplyDelete
  25. Its like you read my mind! You appear to know
    so much about this, like you wrote the book in it or something.
    I think that you could do with a few pics to drive the message home a bit, but other than that, this is magnificent blog.
    An excellent read. I'll definitely be back.

    Look at my weblog the interlace

    ReplyDelete
  26. This blog was... how do I say it? Relevant!! Finally I have found
    something which helped me. Thank you!

    my web page Candy crush Saga cheats

    ReplyDelete
  27. The most significant step in internet Student Loans for People with Bad Credit in a significant way.
    Since Nolvadex is milder in comparison, it is beneficial for organizations
    to be able to test variations of the piece and see if a major marketshare
    player currently dominates this segment. Repeat two to three hours.
    You've talked before about open standards and interoperability, and it's
    a high-performance marathon shoe made out of recycled plastic bottles, sofa foam,
    and CD s pictured. As of now, the better
    able you are to meet or exceed customer expectations.

    ReplyDelete
  28. Thanks for the marvelous posting! I certainly enjoyed reading it,
    you might be a great author.I will ensure that I bookmark your blog and
    will eventually come back in the foreseeable future.
    I want to encourage one to continue your great work,
    have a nice holiday weekend!

    my website; World Of Tanks Hack

    ReplyDelete
  29. I got this website from my buddy who told me on the topic of this web page and at the moment this time I am
    visiting this web page and reading very informative content here.


    My webpage Minecraft Gift Code Generator :: Http://Www.Youtube.Com/Watch?V=Ot8Mcqzljhm ::

    ReplyDelete
  30. WOW just what I was searching for. Came here by searching for lees summit missouri

    Check out my web site :: Minecraft Gift Code Generator

    ReplyDelete
  31. This is a good tip particularly to those fresh to the blogosphere.
    Simple but very accurate info… Thank you for sharing this one.
    A must read article!

    my site ... Psn Code Generator

    ReplyDelete
  32. It's disgusting how people post ads on such a serious topic as this. Seriously? They're still trying to capitalize on slavery??? Creeps.

    Anyway, this blog is amazing. I found it just searching for pictures to use in my classroom. I teach music, including jazz, and as part of our jazz unit, we teach the students about slavery. I am half white and half Hispanic, but most people think I'm white when they see me. I know that I have grown up with white privilege and am fairly certain that I have never been judged negatively because of my skin color. It is safe to say that I will never truly understand the depths of what black people went through and still go through in this country. However, I try to understand as much as possible and teach my students to the best of my ability about how awful slavery was.

    I couldn't believe this happened in 1906. I knew that de facto slavery still existed in the treatment of share croppers and farm workers, but would never have thought that something so blatant as keeping a person in a zoo would have been allowed at that point.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, I agree with your comments.

      The zoo bit is particularly egregious in that it was the Bronx Zoo, in New York City that STILL exists today. The City of New York allotted 250 acres of Bronx Park to the New York Zoological Society to the racist pig Madison Grant. Grant authored "The Passing Of The Great Race" that promoted scientific racism and eugenics. I don't have any good words to say about Madison Grant.

      But, if you were to teach Ota Benga's story, I'd suggest starting with the scramble for Africa and King Leopold. Try reading "King Leopold's Ghost" (1998) by Adam Hochschild. Although I can't really see how this tragic saga fits within the pedagogy of music scholarship.

      As far as teaching music is concerned, you might start with instruments like the banjo, jugs, bones, cigar box guitars, harmonicas, etc. Or, with the music of the post-Civil War colored orphanages in South Carolina and Louisiana. Many of those orphanages procured brass instruments from both the Confederate and Union Armies.

      Now, that I've started thinking about it, you could tie-in the whole New York scientific racism theme into the music by connecting the history of Tin Pan Alley (1885) and the proliferation of Coon and Minstrel Songs. You could clearly establish the connection of the attitudes (that came from the very top of America's social caste) by the negrophobic propaganda in the music and art scene. It would be a difficult task, since most people have the attention span of a humming bird. Good Luck!

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

      --Ron Edwards, US Slave Blog

      Delete
    2. Yes, it doesn't fit in with classroom music and I didn't include this with the lessons that I taught on slavery. However, it informs my own approach. The more I know, the more informed my own lessons are. Even if I don't include this information, I feel like having more knowledge of the subject makes me a better teacher. My students are only 11 years old, and I have a curriculum to stick to, so I don't want to get too deep into it, I'm not sure how much they will understand, especially since many of them have a very low reading level and don't have the highest comprehension of complex subjects either.

      Delete
  33. The slave could never have happened if black Africans had not sold their own people to the white slavers. Fact.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The slave trade was enabled by those born and raised on African soil. Sad but true.

      Delete

Share It

HOME

HOME
Click here to return to the US Slave Home Page