In 1904, Ota Benga was kidnapped from Congo and taken to the United States, where he was exhibited with monkeys.
His appalling story reveals the roots of a racial prejudice that still haunts us even till now.
In September 1906, the New York Times reported that a young African man – a so-called “pygmy” – had been put on display in the monkey house of the city’s largest zoo.
Under the headline “Bushman Shares a Cage With Bronx Park Apes”, the paper reported that crowds of up to 500 people at a time had gathered around the cage to gawk at the diminutive Ota Benga – just under 5ft tall, weighing 103lb – while he preoccupied himself with a pet parrot, deftly shot his bow and arrow, or wove a mat and hammock from bundles of twine placed in the cage.
Children giggled and hooted with delight while adults laughed, though many quite uneasily, at the sight.
In anticipation of larger crowds after the publicity in the New York Times—a form of advertisement actually—Benga was moved from a smaller chimpanzee cage to one far larger one, to make him more visible to spectators.
He was also joined in the cage by an orangutan called Dohang.
While crowds gathered to watch, the boyish Benga, who was said to be 23 but appeared far younger, sat silently on a stool, staring – sometimes glaring – through the bars.
The exhibition of a visibly shaken African with apes in the New York Zoological Gardens, four decades after the end of slavery in America, would highlight the precarious status of black people in the nation’s imperial city.
By the end of September, more than 220,000 people had visited the zoo – twice as many as the same month one year earlier. Nearly all of them headed directly to the primate house to see Ota Benga.
His captivity garnered national and global headlines – most of them pitiless to his plight.
Though for a few black-skinned clergymen, the sight of one of their own housed with monkeys was startling evidence that in the eyes of their fellow Americans, their lives didn’t matter.
On a Monday afternoon, September 10 1906, a small group of ministers, led by the Reverend James H Gordon – then hailed by the Brooklyn Eagle as “one of the most eloquent Negroes in the country” – boarded a train to the zoological gardens, better known as the Bronx Zoo.
At the gleaming white beaux-arts-style primate house, they spotted Ota Benga ambling about in a cage, in the company of Dohang, the orangutan.
A sign outside the cage 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.
The ministers were outraged.
All their attempts to communicate with Ota Benga failed because he understood neither language nor their gestures, but on his face was palpable sadness and fear and confusion.
But most especially it was the sign outside Benga’s cage stoked the ministers’ indignation.
“We are frank enough to say we do not like this exhibition of one of our own race with the monkeys,” Gordon fumed. “Our race, we think, is depressed enough, without exhibiting one of us with apes. We think we are worthy of being considered human beings, with souls.”
William Temple Hornaday, the zoo’s founding director and curator, defended the exhibition on the grounds of science.
“I am giving the exhibition purely as an ethnological exhibit,” he said.
The display, he insisted, was in keeping with the practice of “human exhibitions” of Africans in Europe, cheerfully reminding them of the continent’s undeniable status as the world’s paragon of culture and civilisation.
Unrepentant, Hornaday declared that the show would go on just as the sign said, “each afternoon during September” or until he was ordered to stop it by the Zoological Society.
But Hornaday was not some rogue zoo operator. Stopping him would not be easy.
As the nation’s foremost zoologist – and a close acquaintance of President Theodore Roosevelt – Hornaday had the full backing of two of the most powerful members of the Zoological Society, both prominent figures in the city’s establishment.
The clergymen had no success at the zoo, and left the park vowing to take up the matter the next day with the city’s mayor.
But their complaint did catch the attention of the New York Times, whose editors were dismayed that anyone might protest against the display.
In defence, the paper published this in an unsigned editorial:
“We do not quite understand all the emotion which others are expressing in the matter. Ota Benga, according to our information, is a normal specimen of his race or tribe, with a brain as much developed as are those of its other members. Whether they are held to be illustrations of arrested development, and really closer to the anthropoid apes than the other African savages, or whether they are viewed as the degenerate descendants of ordinary negroes, they are of equal interest to the student of ethnology, and can be studied with profit.”
The editorial said it was absurd to imagine that Benga was suffering or being humiliated.
“Pygmies,” the publication continued, “are very low in the human scale, and the suggestion that Benga should be in a school instead of a cage ignores the high probability that school would be a place of torture to him … The idea that men are all much alike except as they have had or lacked opportunities for getting an education of books is now far out of date.”
In the sober opinion of the progressive men of science, Benga’s exhibition on the hallowed grounds of the New York Zoological Gardens was not a mere entertainment – it was educational.
They believed Benga belonged to an inferior species; putting him on display in the zoo promoted the highest ideals of modern civilisation.
That a thing like this could have occurred in America’s most cosmopolitan city in the 20th century would seem enough cause for astonishment for you.
But what appears on the surface to be a saga of one man’s degradation – a shameful spectacle – is to another the story of an era, of science, of a struggle to understand the fuel behind the primitiveness of a race so far and dated their skin was the colour of pitch.
Hornaday was so pleased by the attendance figures Benga brought to the zoo that he quietly began making plans to keep him on display through the autumn, and possibly until the following spring.
For his part, he told reporters that Benga had been put in the primate house “because that’s the most comfortable place we could find for him”.
In response to such claims, Reverend Gordon publicly offered to house Benga at his own orphanage for black children.
But for that to happen, he would first have to secure Benga’s release.
Reverend James Gordon led the protests against Ota Benga’s exhibition and captivity in the monkey house.
On Wednesday morning, the ministers headed to city hall to meet New York’s erudite mayor, George Brinton McClellan, who also served as an ex-officio member of the Zoological Society.
The clergymen had planned to appeal for Benga’s immediate release, but they did not get past the reception area; the mayor’s secretary said he was too busy to meet them.
“Certainly the mayor, the executive head of the city, may put a stop to an indecent exhibit,” Gordon complained to a reporter.
The ministers were told to see Madison Grant, the secretary of the Zoological Society, but at his Wall Street law office, he was similarly unhelpful.
He told them that Benga would be at the zoo for only a short time, and that Dr Samuel Verner who was the man that brought Benga to America would soon take him to Europe.
When Gordon returned to the zoo that afternoon, he found Benga, with a guinea pig, in a cage surrounded by several hundred spectators.
“The crowd seemed to annoy the dwarf,” the New York Times reported in an article published the following day, because of a witnessed aggression from Benga.
By this point, Reverend Gordon had sought the assistance of Wilford H Smith, who had recently been the first black lawyer to successfully argue a case before the US Supreme Court.
After consulting with the city’s attorney, Smith agreed to appeal to a court for Benga’s release – and John Henry E Millholland, a wealthy white New Yorker who had founded the Constitution League to protest against the disenfranchisement of blacks in the south, agreed to finance the case.
The combination of Smith’s stature, Milholland’s financial backing, and the threat of a lawsuit undoubtedly got the attention of the Zoological Society’s officials.
Hornaday’s response, however, was minimal: on the advice of his palaeontologist friend, Osborn, the sign outside Benga’s cage was quietly removed.
But spectators continued to flock to the monkey house, hoping to steal a glimpse of the “African pygmy”.
On Thursday 13 September, the New York Times published a letter written by one Dr MS Gabriel, who said he had seen Benga at the zoo and found the objections to the exhibit “absurd”.
According to him, while the ministers protested about Benga’s presence in a cage, it was, on the contrary, “a vast room, a sort of balcony in the open air”, which allowed visitors to observe the African guest “while breathing the fresh air”.
Benga’s childlike ways and broken English were pleasing, Gabriel continued, “and the visitors find him the best of good fellows”.
It was a pity, he said, that Hornaday did not give lectures related to such exhibits.
“This would emphasise the scientific character of the service, enhance immeasurably the usefulness of the Zoological Park to our public in general, and help our clergymen to familiarise themselves with the scientific point of view so absolutely foreign to many of them.”
Hornaday saved this newspaper clippings and proudly shared them with his friend, the palaeontologist Osborn.
“The enclosed clippings are excellent,” Osborn replied. “Benga is certainly making his way successfully as a sensation.”
By Sunday 16 September, a week after his debut, Benga was no longer in the cage, but roamed the park under the watchful eye of park rangers.
That day alone, a record breaking 40,000 people visited the zoo.
Wherever Benga went, the crowds followed in hot pursuit.
The rowdy troop chased Benga, and when he was cornered, some people poked him in the ribs or tried to trip him, while others merely laughed at the sight of a frightened “pygmy”.
In self-defence, Benga struck several visitors, and it took three men to get him back to the monkey house.
Hornaday wrote to Verner on Monday 17 September, to complain.
“I regret to say that Ota Benga has become quite unmanageable,” he said. “He has been so fully exploited in the newspapers, and so much in the public eye, it is quite inadvisable for us to punish him; for should we do so, we would immediately be accused of cruelty, coercion, etc., etc. I am sure you will appreciate this point.”
Hornaday complained that “the boy does quite as he pleases, and it is utterly impossible to control him”.
He expressed dismay that Benga threatened to bite the keepers whenever they tried to bring him back to the monkey house.
Hornaday’s star attraction was beginning to turn into a liability.
“I see no way out of the dilemma,” he wrote, “but for him to be taken away.”
That Friday, a crowd invaded the park and pursued Benga as he walked through the woods.
Across the country, newspaper headlines revelled in Benga’s plight.
The Chicago Tribune joined the banter under the headline: “Tiny Savage Sees New York; Sneers”.
Three thousand miles away, the Los Angeles Times covered the sensation on Sunday 23 September, under the headline: “Genuine Pigymy Ota Banga Can Talk with Orangoutang in New York.”
On 26 September, with protests mounting, the city controller’s office sent an official to investigate a report that the zookeepers were accepting payments to permit visitors to enter Benga’s sleeping quarters.
The unnamed inspector visited Benga, whom he found clad in a khaki suit and a soft grey cap.
He noted Benga’s “boyish appearance” and described him as an African native who park visitors believed was “some sort of a wild man who can understand monkey talk.”
He concluded: “Without attempting to discuss the intellectual accomplishments or demerits of the gentleman, it may be stated that to the unscientific mind this native of Darkest Africa does not materially differ in outward appearance at least from some of the natives of darkest New York.”
He also was sceptical about claims that Benga’s intellect was stunted and that he could understand the chattering of monkeys.
He said that he would be more convinced of Benga’s arrested development if Benga did not speak some English, and said that if Benga could understand the monkeys, “he kept the secret well to himself.”
The tide had begun to turn against Hornaday and the zoo now.
Heated objections had begun to appear even in the pages of the New York Times.
Even worse, Benga was now mounting increased resistance. When handlers tried to return him to the cage, he would bite, kick and fight his way free.
On at least one occasion, he threatened caretakers with a knife he had somehow got hold of.
Hornaday was also unsettled by the unruly mobs that chased and taunted Ota Benga around.
He hated the new commotion at his zoo.
Exasperated, Hornaday attempted to reach Dr Verner, who had inexplicably left the city.
“The boy must either leave here immediately or be confined, Hornaday said in a letter to Verner. “Without you, he is a very unruly savage.”
But as much as much as he wished to unload Benga, Hornaday refused to release him to Reverend Gordon’s orphanage unless Gordon promised to return him to Verner upon his return to New York whenever the time.
Gordon would not agree to this arrangement.
In the meantime, controversy swirled around the zoo as protests picked up steam around the country.
Even white southerners leapt at the opportunity to mock New Yorkers for the unseemly display.
“A Northern Outrage,” in the words of the headline of one Louisiana newspaper.
The story began: “Yes, in the sacred city of New York where almost daily mobs find exciting sport in chasing Negroes through the streets without much being said about it…”
Finally, on the afternoon of Friday 28 September, 20 days after he first went on display, Benga quietly left the zoo, escorted by the man who had captured him.
His departure from the zoo was calm and contained, nothing like his frenzied and flamboyant debut.
Apparently no reporters were alerted to witness Benga’s farewell.
He was taken to the Howard Coloured Orphan Asylum, in Brooklyn’s Weeksville neighbourhood – the finely appointed orphanage run by Gordon, in the city’s largest and most affluent African-American community.
“He looks like a rather dwarfed colored boy of unusual amiability and curiosity,” Gordon said. “Now our plan is this: We are going to treat him as a guest. We have given him a room to himself, where he can smoke if he chooses.”
Gordon said Benga had already learned a surprising number of English words and would soon be able to express himself.
“This,” he asserted, “will be the beginning of his education.
In January 1910, Ota Benga was sent to Lynchburg, Virginia – a city of nearly 30,000 people, with electric streetcars, sumptuous mansions, sycamore trees and soaring hills.
As Gordon had promised when Benga first came into his care, he was sent to the Lynchburg Theological Seminary and College, a school noted for its all-black faculty and staff, which prided itself on its fierce autonomy from the white American Baptist Home Mission.
At the time, many white patrons of black education insisted that blacks only receive an industrial education, but Lynchburg Theological continued to offer its students liberal arts courses.
Benga lived in a rambling yellow house across the road from the school with Mary Hayes Allen, the widow of the former president of the seminary, and her seven children.
Benga, usually barefoot, often led a band of neighbourhood boys to the forest to teach them the ways of a hunter: how to make bows from vines, hunt wild turkeys and squirrels, and trap small animals.
In his scrappy English, Benga often amused the boys with stories of his adventures hunting elephants – “Big, big”, he would say, with outstretched arms – and recounted how he celebrated a kill with a triumphant hunting song.
In Benga they found an open and patient teacher, and a companion who openly relived memories of a lost and longed-for life.
Benga, in turn, had found a surrogate home and family, and would learn their customs and the contours of their binding blackness. In their sermons and spirituals, he surely recognised a familiar sorrow.
Still, they did not know the piercing rupture of captivity – the eternity of alienation that many of their forebears had known, which Benga himself now knew.
While they were burdened and disdained in America, it was still the land they had tilled and spilled blood on, the land where they created life and buried their dead.
For all the rejection, they were home.
Benga had only memories of his, and no one but he could know what form they took.
Was his sleep troubled by nightmares of being stalked by mobs, or being caged?
No one knew.
Was he haunted by visions of murdered loved ones, or of starving, tortured, and chained Congolese?
Some nights, beneath a star-speckled sky, the boys recalled, they would watch Benga build a fire, and dance and sing around it.
They were captivated as he circled the flames, hopping and singing as if they were not there. They were no older than 10, the children, too young to grasp the poignancy of the ancient ritual.
But as he, and they, grew older, something changed.
By 1916, Benga had lost interest in their excursions to hunt and fish, and no longer seemed so eager a friend to the neighbourhood children.
Many had noticed his darkening disposition, his all-consuming longing to go home.
For hours he would sit alone in silence under a tree. Some of his young companions would recall, decades later, a song he used to sing, which he had learned at the Theological Seminary: “I believe I’ll go home… I believe I’ll go home. Oh, Lordy, won’t you help me?”
In the late afternoon of 19 March 1916, the boys watched as Benga gathered wood to build yet another fire in the field. As the fire rose to a brilliant flame, Benga danced around it while chanting and moaning.
The boys had seen this ritual before, but this time they were able to detect a profound sorrow: Benga seemed eerily distant, as vacant as a ghost.
That night, as they slept, Ota Benga stole into a battered grey shed across the road from his home.
Before daybreak, he picked up a gun that he had hidden there, and fired a single bullet through his own heart.
And finally, in the harrowing stillness, he was free.
We love you so much, Ota Benga.