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

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.”

(via US Slave)

I found out more info about Ota Benga and how he ended up so far from home and on display as an exhibit. WARNING: It’s not a pretty story at all.

By 1904, a swashbuckling missionary-explorer Samuel Phillips Verner had acquired a veritable Noah’s ark of exotic fauna during three trips to the interior of the Dark Continent. The last expedition was commissioned in 1903 by the St. Louis Exposition Company, which paid the South Carolina-born Verner to hunt men instead of monkeys: He was to bring African Pygmies to America for display at the St. Louis World Fair. Upon his return to America, Verner found himself romanticized as a reincarnation of Dr. David Livingstone, whom he claimed as his “post-humous  mentor.” As an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church, Verner was also lionized in church circles as an imparter of morality to the Congo natives he doggedly hectored at the Southern Presbyterian Missionary House in Luebo, chiding them for their immodest dress and sexual behavior.His American admirers did not know that between 1895 and 1899, Verner had fathered a daughter and son on an African orphan girl there.

By 1906, the World’s Fair was over and the cash-strapped Verner was selling off his animals, artifacts, and more. Upon receipt of a financial gift, he bestowed a prized equatorial specimen upon William T. Hornaday, director of the Bronx Zoological Gardens. Verner’s present was 23-year old Ota Benga, an Mbuti widower from southern Africa, in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. Around 1903, Benga had returned from a hunting trip, only to find his village in smoking ruins and his wife, children, and entire tribe slaughtered by Force Publique thugs supported by the Belgian government. Benda himself was seized and sold into Verner’s hands.

Hornaday’s views about the natives of sub-Saharan Africa mirrored Verner’s own, conscripting Darwin in the service of racism: He told the New York Times that there exists “a close analogy of the African savage to the apes.”

Scientific American agreed: “The Congo pygmies [are] small, apelike, elfish creatures, furtive and mischievous, they closely parallel the brownies and goblins of our fairy tales. They live in the dense tangled forests in absolute savagery…while they exhibit many ape-like features in their bodies.”


So when Benga was locked in the monkey house, before the staring crowd and with keepers always nearby, he was given a bow and arrow to brandish, his cage was littered with bones, and his two cage mates were Dinah, a gorilla, and an orangutan called Dohung.

A September 10 New York Times headline trumpeted, “BUSHMAN SHARES A CAGE WITH THE BRONX PARK APES”

Another Times piece read:

“There were 40,000 visitors to the park on Sunday. Nearly every man, woman, and child of this crowd made for the monkey house ti see the star attraction in the park, the wild man from Africa. The chased him about the grounds all day, howling, jeering, and yelling. Some of them poked him in the ribs, others tripped him up, all laughed at him.”

Finally, Benga retaliated by attacking visitors with a knife and a bow and arrows, and the zoo ejected him. Black New Yorkers organized a collection, which was insufficient to return him home, as he wished, but provided enough to cap his filed teeth and send him to the Virginia Theological Seminary and College, where he proved himself an able student. Benga then found work in a Lynchburg, Virginia, tobacco factory where he fit in well as an efficient worker and a beloved Pied Piper who taught local children to fish and hunt. But he spoke often and tearfully of wishing to return home to the Congo, and when he realized he could never save enough for the passage, his depression became profound. In 1916, Benga committed suicide with the ubiquitous icon of Western technological achievement, a hand gun.

Hornaday had the last word in his obituary of Benga, which appeared in the Zoological Bulletin, took a semicomic tone, and was filled with uncomplimentary untruths that fit his racist agenda.

(via Medical Apartheid)

RIP Ota Benga

This should have well over a thousand notes but tumblr would rather see gifs of that bread roll looking motherfucker from Thor The Avengers than read this.


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