Ota Benga was a Congolese man, brought to the United States by the self-styled entrepreneur/explorer Samuel Phillips Verner, to be exhibited at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. Ota Benga, an Mbuti, who was about 4 feet 8 inches tall, a so-called pygmy, was exhibited in the Hall of Man at the Fair along with an exotic collection of indigenous peoples from the western world. It is alleged that Ota Benga from the Congo was exhibited next to a group of Native Americans that included Geronimo.
Such exhibits were not unusual for the day. Natural history museums in western capitals vied with each other to have whole families in permanent residence.
At the end of the World’s Fair, Ota Benga, along with eight other Mbuti, was returned to the Congo Free State (at that time still the personal property of King Leopold of Belgium). There, Ota Benga found that his hunting band had been annihilated by military forces put in place by Leopold’s agents to maximize production of rubber and ivory. Verner, possibly sensing a business opportunity, offered Ota Benga a chance to return to the US with him. Verner struck a deal with the Natural History Museum in New York to display Ota Benga there. The deal fell through when Ota Benga failed to be sufficiently docile in the Museum. Some months later in 1906, Verner negotiated a contract with the New York Zoological Gardens for Ota Benga to be displayed in the primate section of the zoo.
Ota Benga’s presence at the zoo was a huge success. Visitor rates soared, but within a few short weeks, ministers of churches in Harlem were writing to the New York Times to protest his confinement there. They felt Ota Benga’s plight as an affront to their all-too-recent emancipation from slavery, to their humanity, and to their dignity. Responses to their arguments came from anthropologists who argued that Ota Benga was being treated “humanely” at the zoo.
The pressure to release Ota Benga eventually resulted in his leaving the zoo. For the next ten years, Ota tried to fit in. He was helped first by the churches, who put him in an orphanage (probably because he was a small person), and later by Harlem Renaissance artists, notably the poet Anne Bethel Spencer who lived in Lynchburg, Virginia. She taught him to read and write along with her grandson. In the early 1990s, when asked if there was anything that stood out in his memory of Ota Benga, Anne Spencer’s grandson said that Ota often slapped his chest and said, “I am a man. I am a man.”
Ota was once sighted dancing in Mardi Gras celebration in New Orleans. In 1916, despondent over the likelihood that he would never return to the Congo, Ota Benga shot himself to death. He was 35 years old.
The relevance of Ota Benga’s story for us today?
His story still resonates because:
We still define people by their ecological niches, cultural or physical differences (think Khoi-San, Maasai, or any number of indigenous people). From Ota’s experience, we see how this diminishes our humanity.
Rainforest/ecological/zoological approaches to “the other” blind us to the humanity of the individual.
Disrespect for Ota Benga’s ethnic group was as real in Congo as elsewhere. The Mbuti remain as threatened today in the DRCongo as they were when Ota was alive.
Affronts to human dignity are not restricted to physical and cultural differences: the treatment of the homeless or of survivors of Hurricane Katrina are cases in point.
Ota Benga’s story is so blatant that, despite the full century that has passed since his stay at the zoo, the lesson of human dignity is easy to see, and through it the recognition that this is an area we must work to change.