Date: Wed, 28 Jan 1998 17:17:14 -0500
Sender: The African Global Experience <AGE-L@UGA.CC.UGA.EDU>
From: Marpessa Kupendua <nattyreb@IX.NETCOM.COM>
Subject: !*Ota Benga
From Cinque B Sengbe, 27 January 1998
In 1906 the crowds thronged the monkey house exhibit at the Bronx Zoo (New York Zoological Park). Here were man's "evolutionary ancestors" - monkeys, chimpanzees, a gorilla named Dinah, an orangutan named Dohung and an African pygmy tribesman named Ota Benga.
Ota Benga was brought from the Belgian Congo in 1904 by noted African explorer Samuel Verner along with other pygmies and displayed in an exhibit in the 1904 St. Louis world's Fair. Ota Benga (or "Bi", which means "friend" in his language) was born in 1881, had a height of 4 ft. 11in. and weighted 103 lbs. Although he was referred to as a boy he had been married twice. His first wife had been killed by white colonists and his second wife died by a snake bite.
After the St. Louis exhibit, Ota found himself at the Bronx Zoo which at that time was under the direction of Dr. William T. Hornaday, who was considered a bit eccentric. Hornaday believed animals had nearly human thoughts and personalities, and he could read the thoughts of zoo animals. He "apparently saw no difference between a wild beast and the little Black man" and insisted he was only offering an "intriguing exhibit". (Jerry Bergman, Creation Ex Nihilo, Vol 16, No 1 Dec 1993-Feb 1994 p. 49, quoting Carl Sifakis, "Benga, Ota: The Zoo Man", in American Eccentrics, Facts on File, New York, 1984, p. 253)
The exhibit was immensely popular and controversial; the black community was outraged and some churchmen feared that it would convince people of Darwin's theory of evolution. Under threat of legal action, Hornaday had Ota Benga leave his cage and circulate around the zoo in a white suit, but he returned to the monkey house to sleep.
In time Ota Benga began to hate being the object of curiosity. "There were 40,000 visitors to the part on Sunday. Nearly every man, woman and child of this crowd made for the monkey house to see the star attraction in the park - the wild man from Africa. They chased him about the grounds add day, howling, jeering, and yelling. Some of them poked him in the ribs, others tripped him up, all laughed at him." (Creation Ex Nihilo, quoting Phillip V. Bradford and Harvey Blume, "Ota Benga: The Pygmy in the Zoo", St. Martins, 1992, p. 269, from the "New York Times" Sept. 18, 1906)
At one point, he got hold of a knife and flourished it around the park, another time he produced a fracas after being denied a soda from the soda fountain. Finally, after fabricating a small bow and arrows and shooting at obnoxious park visitors he had to leave the park for good.
After his park experience, several institutions tried to help him. He was placed in Virginia Theological Seminary and College but quit school to work in a tobacco factory. According to Hornaday (who probably had evolutionary racist views) "he did not possess the power of learning" (Creation Ex Nihilo, Vol 16, No. 1 Dec. 1993-Feb 1994, pp. 48-50).
Growing homesick, hostile, and despondent Ota Benga borrowed a revolver, and shot himself in the heart, ending his life in 1916.