Pamela Newkirk is an award-winning journalist reveals the shameful episode in history, when an African man was used as a human zoo exhibit—a not shocking story of racial prejudice, wickedness, science, and tragedy in the early years of the twentieth century in the innocent life of a young African boy Ota Benga that was used as a thing of entertainment for the mentaly sick sadistic individuals.
see also Henrietta Lacks, Devil in the White City, Medical Aparthied
Ota Benga (c. 1883 – March 20, 1916) was a Congolese man, a Mbuti pygmy known for being featured in an anthropology exhibit at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, Missouri in 1904, and in a human zooexhibit in 1906 at the Bronx Zoo. Benga had been purchased from African slave traders by the explorer Samuel Phillips Verner, a businessman hunting African people for the Exposition. He traveled with Verner to the United States. At the Bronx Zoo, Benga had free run of the grounds before and after he was exhibited in the zoo’s Monkey House. Except for a brief visit with Verner to Africa after the close of the St. Louis Fair, Benga lived in the United States, mostly in Virginia, for the rest of his life.
Displays of non-white humans as examples of “earlier stages” of human evolution were common in the early 20th century, when racial theories were frequently intertwined with concepts from evolutionary biology. African-American newspapers around the nation published editorials strongly opposing Benga’s treatment. Dr. R. S. MacArthur, the spokesperson for a delegation of black churches, petitioned the New York City mayor for his release from the Bronx Zoo.
The mayor released Benga to the custody of Reverend James M. Gordon, who supervised the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum in Brooklyn and made him a ward. That same year Gordon arranged for Benga to be cared for in Virginia, where he paid for him to acquire American clothes and to have his teeth capped, so the young man could be more readily accepted in local society. Benga was tutored in English and began to work. Several years later, the outbreak of World War I stopped ship passenger travel and prevented his returning to Africa. This, as well as the inhumane treatment he was subjected to for most of his life, caused Benga to fall into a depression. He committed suicide in 1916 at the age of 32.
As a member of the Mbuti people, Ota Benga lived in equatorial forests near the Kasai River in what was then the Belgian Congo. His people were killed by the Force Publique, established by King Leopold II of Belgium as a militia to control the natives for labor in order to exploit the large supply of rubber in the Congo. Benga lost his wife and two children, surviving only because he was on a hunting expedition when the Force Publique attacked his village. He was later captured by slave traders.
The American businessman and explorer Samuel Phillips Verner travelled to Africa in 1904 under contract from the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (St. Louis World Fair) to bring back an assortment of pygmies to be part of an exhibition. To demonstrate the fledgling discipline of anthropology, the noted scientist W. J. McGee intended to display “representatives of all the world’s peoples, ranging from smallest pygmies to the most gigantic peoples, from the darkest blacks to the dominant whites” to show what was commonly thought then to be a sort of cultural evolution. Verner discovered Ota Benga while ‘en route’ to a Batwa village visited previously; he negotiated Benga’s release from the slave traders for a pound of salt and a bolt of cloth. Verner later claimed Benga was rescued from the cannibals by him. The two spent several weeks together before reaching the village. There the villagers had developed distrust for the muzungu (white man) due to the abuses of King Leopold’s forces. Verner was unable to recruit any villagers to join him until Benga spoke of the muzungu saving his life, the bond that had grown between them, and his own curiosity about the world Verner came from. Four Batwa, all male, ultimately accompanied them. Verner recruited other Africans who were not pygmies: five men from the Bakuba, including the son of King Ndombe, ruler of the Bakuba, and other related peoples – “Red Africans” as they were collectively labeled by contemporary anthropologists.
The group was brought to St. Louis, Missouri in late June 1904 without Verner, who had been taken ill with malaria. The Louisiana Purchase Exposition had already begun, and the Africans immediately became the center of attention. Ota Benga was particularly popular, and his name was reported variously by the press as Artiba, Autobank, Ota Bang, and Otabenga. He had an amiable personality, and visitors were eager to see his teeth, which had been filed to sharp points in his early youth as ritual decoration. The Africans learned to charge for photographs and performances. One newspaper account, promoting Ota Benga as “the only genuine African cannibal in America”, claimed “[his teeth were] worth the five cents he charges for showing them to visitors”.
When Verner arrived a month later, he realized the pygmies were more prisoners than performers. Their attempts to congregate peacefully in the forest on Sundays were thwarted by the crowds’ fascination with them. McGee’s attempts to present a “serious” scientific exhibit were also overturned. On July 28, the Africans’ performing to the crowd’s preconceived notion that they were “savages” resulted in the First Illinois Regiment being called in to control the mob. Benga and the other Africans eventually performed in a warlike fashion, imitating American Indians they saw at the Exhibition. The Apache chief Geronimo (featured as “The Human Tyger” – with special dispensation from the Department of War) grew to admire Benga, and gave him one of his arrowheads. For his efforts, Verner was awarded the gold medal in anthropology at the close of the Exposition.
Extras: Human Zoo