Meet the African Man Who Was Displayed Alongside Monkeys In A Zoo
The sign on him 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 in letters so bold that one would think that the black man huddling beside the orangutans was indeed less human, that something in the color of his skin and the prop of his cheekbones equated him to the monkeys.
But that is not what Benga was, he was meek looking, with a smile that revealed a chapped dentition, result of a ritual decoration from his African hometown, friendly, and most importantly, he was human. A native of the Mbutu people in Congo, he had arrived Missouri with a group of other slaves who had survived the invasion of their hometown in June 1904. An invasion that left him widowed and rid him of his two children, he would say later that he had survived because he had been away on an hunting trip.
Nonetheless, for someone who had gone through such levels of pain before his arrival to the states, Benga never lost his smile. This smile would attract the media to him, articles about Artiba Autobank (as they called him), the cordial slave with a jagged teeth who smiled freely, freely enough to reveal his unusual dentition.
For five cents, people trooped to see Benga whose special features had (although they were other pygmies) made him popular at the St Louis world fair. His second home was the American museum of national history, shortly after he had returned to Congo with his owner, remarried a Batwa woman who later died and convinced America was now his home, he was suspended behind a glass cage at the museum to entertain visitors.
What at first held his attention now made him want to flee. It was maddening to be inside – to be swallowed whole – so long. He had an image of himself, stuffed, behind glass, but somehow still alive, crouching over a fake campfire, feeding meat to a lifeless child. Museum silence became a source of torment, a kind of noise; he needed birdsong, breezes, trees,” Bradford and Blume would write about his experience at the museum.
His next home after that was the Bronx Zoo. It is here he would find solace with the orangutans, he would befriend them and become really close with one in particular, Dohong so that after a while, the Zoo directors would consider it a brilliant venture (although they never paid him) for them to be exhibited together.
An editorial in the New York Times that supported the inhumane degradation of Benga when an uproar arose said; It is absurd to make moan over the imagined humiliation and degradation Benga is suffering. The pygmies … 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 … from which he could draw no advantage whatever. The idea that men are all much alike except as they have had or lacked opportunities for getting an education out of books is now far out of date.
At 32 and almost a decade after from his time at the Bronx Zoo when a war broke out in Congo, Benga who now lived in an orphanage, who had calibrated himself to the understanding that he would never return home and which result had left him depressed, shot himself in the heart with a pistol.
When the short tragic story of Benga is carefully considered, a phrase from a protest from the Colored Baptist Ministers Conference about the humiliation of the four feet tall captive comes to mind; “We think we are worthy of being considered human beings, with souls.”