A stranger in a strange land, the sad tale of Ota Benga
The enlightened wags of America blamed his intellectual shortcomings when an undersized African man named Ota Benga put a pistol to his breast and committed suicide a century ago.
Though his end came in Virginia, his life was defined by a bizarre episode in New York that rained belly laughs on the little man.
Benga, a Congolese Pygmy, was hauled to America in 1904 by African explorer Samuel P. Verner to appear in an exhibit of aboriginal people, “The Permanent Wildmen of the World,” at the St. Louis Exposition.
In 1906, he spent three notorious September days as a caged spectacle in the Monkey House at the Bronx Zoo, on display alongside chimpanzees and an orangutan named Mr. Dohong.
A decade later, on March 20, 1916, the homesick Benga killed himself in Lynchburg, Va.
“For a long time,” the Lynchburg News reported, “the young Negro pined for his African relations and grew morose when he realized that such a trip was out of the question because of the lack of resources.”
He had dropped out of school there and was laboring in a tobacco factory.
A wire-service story published in scores of U.S. papers concluded that Benga, at age 33, was “failing in his efforts to acquire ‘the white man’s ways.’”
The story was accompanied by a racist caricature of a minstrel-style black man in a gawdy suit about to shoot himself.
This account of Ota Benga’s demise surely suited William Temple Hornaday, the longtime director of the New York Zoological Society in the Bronx. It was his decision to place Benga on display with monkeys as a lure for patrons during the zoo’s September attendance doldrums.
When the exhibit opened on Saturday, Sept. 6, 1906, Hornaday personally shooed patrons toward the Monkey House. A placard there read:
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.
But Benga was uncaged after just three days when the city’s black Baptist ministers pointed out the inhumanity and overt racism of the mocking display, which Hornaday tried to defend as a scientific illustration of evolution.
Benga spent another 17 days wandering the zoo, shadowed by hordes of gawkers, before he was shuttled off to a Brooklyn orphanage and, later, Virginia.
Hornaday, who enjoys a postmortem reputation as a pioneer of wildlife conservation, never got over the stinging criticism.
After Benga killed himself, the zoo’s monthly bulletin noted his passing with a prickly article that carried Hornaday’s fingerprints.
“The gap between the savage African jungle and the civilized elysian fields of his desire was too great to be bridged,” the article said. “(Benga) demonstrated to his benefactors that he did not possess the power of learning.”
Referring to Benga’s “brief sojourn in this city,” it continued defensively, “As a matter of fact, Ota had a mind of his own and a decided preference for life in the Park (the Bronx Zoo), where he was kindly treated.”
That account has not aged well.
In her 2016 book, “Spectacle,” Pamela Newkirk concluded that Hornaday “ruthlessly exploited” Benga.
Attendance spiked at the zoo, and wide-eyed stories about Benga were published in both local and far-flung papers.
The reports obsessed over Benga’s size, the shape of his head and his teeth, which were filed into sharp points, once a Pygmy custom.
The Times said Benga was “having a fine time” at the zoo, where crowds were “roaring with laughter.” That paper suggested Benga was more at home in a cage than a school since Pygmies “are very low in the human scale.”
The Post described wrestling matches between the human and primates, with Benga “chattering to them in his own guttural tongue, which they seem to understand.”
Another scribe took the fantasies even further, calling Benga “an incorrigible grafter” whose first word in English was “money.” The writer said, “Benga took to grafting as easily as a politician or high financier.”
He grew up amid the terror of Belgian King Leopold II’s takeover of the Congo, employing brutal security forces that slaughtered the native population and pitted neighboring tribes against one another.
Explorer Verner, who published a quasi-scientific article on African Pygmies in The Atlantic in 1902 after traveling among them, claimed he rescued Benga from a life of servitude to rival Congolese tribes. He was portrayed in the press as the benevolent liberator of a primitive ignoramus.
She suggests Benga’s journey abroad was in essence a kidnapping and that a “wall of white indifference”— the press, scientists, public officials and citizens — had subjected the African to belittlement for the remainder of his sad life.
Only his suicide, Newkirk wrote, set him free from the torment.