Ota Benga: The Man Who Was Caged In A Zoo

1906 photograph of Ota Benga taken at the Bronx Zoo.

Ota Benga was a Mbuti (Congo pygmy) man born in the Ituri Rainforest of the Belgian Congo in 1883. His village was attacked by the Force Publique, established by King Leopold II of Belgium as a militia to enslave the natives for labor in order to utilize the large supply of rubber in the Congo. During the assault Benga’s wife and two children were killed. Benga survived only because he was on a hunting expedition when the Force Publique attacked his village. He would later be captured by “Baschelel” (Bashilele) slave traders.

In 1904 American businessman and explorer Samuel Phillips Verner travelled to Africa under contract from the St. Louis World Fair to bring back a group of 12 pygmies to be part of an exhibition. when he got to Africa, Verner met with a tribe known as the Baschelel(ph) and he found that they had a pygmy in a cage as a captive. He managed to negotiate an agreement to purchase of Ota Benga for several bags of salt and a spool of brass wire. Verner later professed he had rescued Benga from cannibals.

Samuel P Verner took Benga captive in Congo and brought him back to the United States.

Verner and Benga travelled together until they reached a Batwa village. The villagers did not trust the muzungu (white man) due to the abuses of King Leopold’s forces. With some persuasion from Benga, four Batwa, all male, ultimately decided to accompany them to St. Louis. Verner managed to recruit other non-pygmy Africans to make the trip including the son of King Ndombe, ruler of the Bakuba.

The group was brought to St. Louis, Missouri, in late June 1904 without Verner, who had been stricken with malaria. The St. Louis World Fair had already begun, an instantly the Africans became the prime attraction. Ota Benga was the most popular of the group with people especially eager to see his teeth, which had been filed to sharp points in his early youth as ritual decoration. One newspaper called Ota Benga the “the only genuine African cannibal in America”, claimed “[his teeth were] worth the five cents he charges for showing them to visitors”. It did not take the Africans long to develop an entrepreneurial spirit and begin charging for photographs and performances.

Benga (second from left) and the Batwa in St. Louis.
Ota Benga, at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, showing his sharpened teeth.

When Verner arrived a month later, he realized the pygmies were more prisoners than performers. Their attempts to enjoy the forests surrounding St. Louis on Sundays was interrupted by the publis’s incessant obsession with them. At the end of the World’s Fair Verner was awarded the gold medal in anthropology for his efforts in bringing the pygmies to St. Louis.

Benga went with Verner when he returned the other Africans to the Belgian Congo. He briefly lived amongst the Batwa (becuse his village had been wiped out in the aforementioned attack), while continuing to accompany Verner on his African mission. He married a Batwa woman who later died of snakebite, and very little is known of this second marriage. Not feeling that he belonged with the Batwa, and being totally alone, Benga decided to return with Verner to America and landed in New York in 1906.

After a brief stint at the American Museum of Natural History, Verner took Benga to the Bronx Zoo. Shortly thereafter Benga was displayed as part of the New York Anthropological Society’s exhibit on human evolution. Once again he became the most popular public display item in America.

Ota Benga at the American Museum of Natural History, 1906.

African-American clergymen immediately protested to zoo officials about the exhibit. James H. Gordon stated that “Our race, we think, is depressed enough, without exhibiting one of us with the apes … We think we are worthy of being considered human beings, with souls.” Gordon felt that the exhibit was antagonistic to Christianity and was in effect a promotion of Darwinism: “The Darwinian theory is absolutely opposed to Christianity, and a public demonstration in its favor should not be permitted.”

Reverend James Gordon led the protests against Ota Benga’s exhibition and captivity at the Bronx Zoo. 1906.

One report states that as many as 400,000 people a day went up to the zoo just to see Ota Benga. The 1900s were a decade when the theory of evolution was still being hotly debated. It wasn’t as broadly accepted even in the scientific community as it is today. And people were probably led to believe by the nature of the exhibition that this was a missing link. This was a bridge between the animals and the humans that had never been seen before.

After the dispute, Benga was given free reign of the zoo. Despite this, and because of continued verbal and physical prods from the gathered crowds at the zoo, he became more vexatious and somewhat violent. Eventually the zoo finally removed Benga from the grounds. For reasons unknown, Verner an Benga decided that it was best that he stay in America.

Toward the end of 1906, Benga was released into Reverend Gordon’s custody.

Gordon placed Benga in the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum, a church-sponsored orphanage which he supervised. As the unwelcome press attention continued, in January 1910, Gordon arranged for Benga’s relocation to Lynchburg, Virginia, where he lived with a local family.

In order that Benga could more easily assimilate into local society, Gordon arranged for the Benga’s teeth to be capped and gave him American-style clothes. He was then sent to elementary school to improve his English as well as other subjects.

Once he felt his English had improved to acceptable levels, Benga decided to leave school. He began working at a Lynchburg tobacco factory. He proved to be a valued employee because he could climb up the poles to get the tobacco leaves without having to use a ladder. His fellow workers knicknamed him “Bingo”. He would tell his life story in exchange for sandwiches and root beer. He began to plan a return to Africa but when World War I broke out, he was unable to do so.

Benga became despondent as his dreams of a return to Africa diminished. On 20 March 1916, at the age of 32, he built a ceremonial fire, chipped off the caps on his teeth, and shot himself in the heart with a stolen pistol. He was finally free.

Thus ended Ota Benga’s heart-rending saga of unhappiness and abuse at the hands of a great many misguided and deluded people.

Ota Benga at the 1904 St. Louis World Fair
A group of pygmies, including Ota Benga, dancing at the St. Louis World Fair.
New York times article covering Ota Benga’s display in Bronx Zoo, 1906.
Samuel P Verner in Congo in 1902 with members of the Batetela tribe.

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