October 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 6
On Sunday, September 9, 1906, a freshly painted sign greeted visitors to the Monkey House at the Bronx Zoological Gardens:
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.
At the closing ceremonies in December 1904, the president of the fair asked if the Pygmies wished to stay in America. They shouted no, in unison, and Samuel Verner dutifully escorted them back to the Congo, then stayed on, collecting specimens and making big plans for his own trading post. Meanwhile, Ota Benga remarried, only to have his second wife die of snakebite. Alone again, with neither a family nor a hunting band of his own, and stubbornly fond of Verner despite everything, he eventually demanded to be brought back to America, to start a new life there. If Verner did not take him, he vowed, he would kill himself.
The two men landed at New York in the summer of 1906, along with crates of artifacts and a small menagerie with which Verner hoped to restore his fortunes. Nothing seemed to work out, and with creditors closing in, Verner finally unloaded his animals on the Bronx Zoo and made Ota Benga’s extended stay there part of a package deal.
At first the Pygmy simply wandered the grounds unnoticed, wearing ordinary clothes, earning his keep by feeding the primates. But the zoo’s director, William T. Hornaday, had a showman’s gaudy instincts. His original plans to have a fully peopled American Indian village on the grounds had never quite worked out. Now he made his small guest a big attraction. BUSHMAN SHARES A CAGE WITH BRONX PARK APES, Said The New York Times, and forty thousand people turned out on a single afternoon to see the “wild man from Africa.”
Not everyone was pleased. “Our race, we think, is depressed enough without exhibiting one of us with the apes,” said the Reverend James H. Gordon, chairman of the Colored Baptist Ministers’ Conference. “We think we are worthy of being considered human beings, with souls.”
As a black man Gordon objected primarily to the exhibition’s naked racism, but as a Baptist he had another agenda: Exhibition of a human being and an orangutan together, with its suggestion that zoo-goers were somehow seeing the missing link, would encourage Darwinism. “This is a Christian country,” Gordon explained, “and the exhibition evidently aims to be a demonstration of the Darwinian theory of evolution. The Darwinian theory is absolutely opposed to Christianity and a public demonstration in its favor should not be permitted.”
Even some whites began to object. “I lived in the south several years, and consequently am not over fond of the negro,” one wrote, “but believe him human. I think it a shame that the authorities of this great city should allow such a sight as...a negro boy on exhibition in a monkey cage.”
Director Hornaday could never quite understand what all the fuss was about—after all, he told a reporter, the Pygmy “has one of the best rooms in the primate house”—but he now let Ota Benga out of his cage to wander the grounds. Throngs followed wherever he went, “howling, jeering and yelling,” according to the Times. “Some of them poked him in the ribs, others tripped him up, all laughed at him.” His keepers teased him too, and one especially hot afternoon, when he started to remove his clothes and got sprayed with a hose for his trouble, he went for one of them with a knife and had to be manhandled back into his cage. BENGA TRIES TO KILL, reported the New York Tribune.
In the end Hornaday decided his prize exhibit had become more trouble than he was worth and turned him over to the Reverend Gordon, who also headed the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum in Brooklyn. There, studying alongside children one-third his age, Ota Benga did learn to write a little. But, Howard finally admitted, “his age was against his development. It was simply impossible to put him in a class to receive instructions...that would be of any advantage to him.” And he showed an alarming interest in some of the older girls.
In 1910 Ota Benga finally asked to be allowed to attend the Baptist Seminary at Lynchburg, Virginia. There he received Christian baptism, had his name changed to Otto Bingo, even had his filed teeth capped.
He worked at a series of desultory jobs—grounds keeping, feeding chickens, sorting tobacco leaves—but only the forest seemed permanently to hold his interest. In summertime he slept in the hayloft of the seminary’s president, fashioned bows and arrows for small boys, and led them into the woods to hunt small game. Sometimes, on his way home in the evening, he would board the bus and pay his fare with a wild bird’s egg or a rabbit he’d brought home from the forest.
On the afternoon of March 20, 1916, Ota Benga lit a fire behind the carriage house where he lived in summer. He removed the caps from his teeth. When his small companions asked him to lead them into the woods again, he turned them away. Once they were safely out of sight, he shot himself through the heart.