The Man In The Zoo

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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.”

It is a tribute to the astonishing resilience of the human spirit that the displaced Pygmy was ever even momentarily pleased, as a fascinating but flawed new book about him makes clear. Ota Benga: The Pygmy in the Zoo (St. Martin’s Press, 320 pages, $22.95) was written by Harvey Blume and Phillips Verner Bradford, the grandson of Samuel Phillips Verner, the missionary-adventurer who found the little man in the African forest and brought him back to the New World—twice.

Samuel Verner was a high-strung South Carolinian, raised on Robinson Crusoe and the works of David Livingstone and Henry M. Stanley and trained for the mission field. He began his travels to the Congo region at twenty-two in search of souls but soon edged away from the church in favor of a series of schemes meant to lure investors to Africa that never quite came off. He was a vivid and prolific writer about his adventures and had brought back from his first expedition two Africans, and so in 1903, when the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, soon to open in St. Louis, wanted Pygmies imported for the area of the fairgrounds called the Anthropology Department, it seemed logical to turn to Verner.

 

He was given a sort of shopping list: twelve Pygmies, six more Africans of miscellaneous tribes, plus all the paraphernalia of daily living they would need to set themselves up as authentic exhibits in St. Louis. Verner did his best in the face of persistent fever, but in the end he could persuade just five Pygmies to accompany him to America.

One of them was Ota Benga. He had been out hunting when forces in the pay of Belgium, on the prowl for rumored ivory, butchered his hunting band, including his wife and children. By the time Verner happened upon him he had become a slave of the Baschilele people and had little to lose by crossing the great water. Verner bought him with salt and a few yards of cloth.

The authors’ portrait of Samuel Verner is persuasive, but when they focus in on Ota Benga himself, their story veers off track. For reasons known only to themselves, they have chosen to go well beyond the evidence—at least beyond the evidence they cite in their note on sources—and presume to tell us precisely what Ota Benga was thinking as he made his lonely way from one world to another and back again. The result is sometimes entertaining but rarely convincing, and the relentless underlining of perfectly obvious ironies palls quickly.

Still, the bare facts are compelling enough. At the St. Louis fair Ota Benga and his companions found themselves living alongside a rich but eclectic sampling of aboriginal people from everywhere: Ainus from Japan, Patagonian “giants” from South America, Kwakiutls from the Northwest Coast (who had to ask for a stockade to shield their baskets and totem poles from what they tactfully called the white man’s “taking qualities”), Igorots from the Philippines, allowed to appear in their traditional loincloths only over the objections of Theodore Roosevelt, who argued that trousers would be more likely to reassure any visitors who still harbored doubts about the wisdom of acquiring the Philippines.

The Pygmies were among the most popular attractions. They were made to snap their filed teeth at visitors, perform ritual dances, compete in “Anthropology Days,” a sort of aboriginal Olympics, during which they excelled only at mud fighting. “When a white man comes to our country,” one of Ota Benga’s companions complained to a reporter, “we give them presents....The Americans treat us as they do our pet monkey. They laugh at us and poke their umbrellas into our faces.”

Later, when the autumn air turned so cold that even the blankets lent the Pygmies by their Indian neighbors proved inadequate and they took shelter inside their huts, visitors heaved bricks through the windows to drive them out again.