Ota Benga: The Story of the Pygmy on Display in a Zoo http://www.rae.org/otabenga.html One of the more interesting incidences in the history of evolution and racism is the story of the man who was put on display in a zoo (Brix, 1992). Brought from the Belgian Congo in 1904 by noted African explorer Samuel Verner, he was soon "presented by Verner to the Bronx Zoo director, William Hornaday" (Sifakis, 1984, p. 253). The man, a pygmy named Ota Benga (or "Bi" which means "friend" in Benga's language), was born in 1881 in Africa. When put in the zoo, he was about 23 years old, four feet-eleven inches tall, and weighed a mere 103 pounds. Often referred to as a boy, he was actually a twice married father-his first wife murdered by the white colonists, and his second spouse died from a poisonous snake bite (Bridges, 1974).
He was first displayed in the anthropology wing at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair with other pygmies as "emblematic savages" along with other "strange people" The exhibit was under the direction of W J. McGee of the Anthropology Department of the St. Louis World's Fair. McGee's ambitions for the exhibit were to "be exhaustively scientific in his demonstration of the stages of human evolution. Therefore he required'darkest Blacks'set off against 'dominant whites'
Ota Benga: The Story of the Pygmy on Display in a Zoo http://www.rae.org/otabenga.html The personal appearance, characteristics, and traits of the Congo pygmies... [conclude they are] small, apelike, elfish creatures, furtive and mischievois, they closely parallel the brownies and goblins of our fairy tales. They live in the dense tangled forests in absolute savagery, and while they exhibit many ape-like features in their bodies, they possess a certain alertness, which appears to make them more intelligent than other negroes.
... The existence of the pygmies is of the rudest; they do not practise agriculture, and keep no domestic animals. They live by means of hunting and snaring, eking this out by means of thieving from the big negroes, on the outskirts of whose tribes they usually establish their little colonies, though they are as unstable as water, and range far and wide through the forests. They have seemingly become acquainted with metal only through contact with superior beings . . . (Keane, 1907, pp. 107-108).
While the pygmies stayed in America, they were studied by scientists to answer such questions as "how did the barbaric races compare with intellectual defective Caucasians on intelligence tests" or "how quickly would they respond to pain" (Bradford)
rae.org/otabenga.html The anthropologists then measured not only the live humans, but in one case a "primitive's" head was ... severed from the body and boiled down to the skull. Believing skull size to be an index of intelligence, scientists were amazed that this skull was larger than that which had belonged to the statesman Daniel Webster" (Bradford and Blume, 1992, p. 16).
A Scientific American editor said of the Fair, "of the native tribes to be seen in the exposition, the most primitive are the Negritos--little fellows of a distinctly negro type ... nothing makes them so happy as to show their skfll, by knocking a five-cent piece out of a twig of a tree at a distance of 15 paces. Then there is the village of the Head-Hunting Igorotes, a race that is generally superior to the Negritos and a fine type of agricultural barbarians" (Munn, 1904, p. 64). The same source referred to pygmies as "ape-like little black people" (Munn, 1905, p.107) and theorized that the evolution of:
The anthropoid apes were soon followed by the earliest type of humanity which entered the Dark Continent, and these too, urged on by the pressure of superior tribes, were gradually forced into the great forests. The human type, in all probability, first emerged from the ape in southeastern Asia,...
rae.org/otabenga.html How Ota Came to the United States
Ota Benga was spared from a massacre perpetuated by the Force Publique, a group of thugs working for Belgium government endeavoring to extract tribute (in other words, steal) including labor and raw materials from the native Africans in the Belgian Congo. The story is as follows: Ota was out on a hunt, he successfully killed an elephant, and then came back with the good news to the people. Tragically, the "camp" Ota left behind ceased to exist. What Ota saw when he returned was different enough from what he remembered to make him doubt his eyes" (Bradford and Blume, 1992, p. 104). In short, his wife and children were all murdered, and their bodies were mutilated in a campaign of terror undertaken by the Belgian govemment against the "evolutionarily inferior natives." Ota himself was later captured, brought to a village, and sold into slavery.
In the meantime, Verner was looking for several pygmies to display at the Lousiana Purchase exposition and spotted Ota at the slave market. Verner bent down "and pulled the pygmy's lips apart to examine his teeth. He was elated; the filed [to sharp points] teeth proved the little man was one of those he was commissioned to bring back....
Ota Benga: The Story of the Pygmy on Display in a Zoo http://www.rae.org/otabenga.html
After the fair, Verner took Ota and the other pygmies back to Africa-Ota almost immediately remarried, but his second wife also soon died (a victim of snake bite) . He now no longer belonged to any clan or family since they were all killed or sold into slavery. His other people ostracized him, calling him a warlock, and claiming that he had chosen to stand in the White man's world outside of theirs. The white men were both admired and feared, and were regarded with awe and concern: they could do things like record human voices on Edison cylinder phonographs-which the pygmies saw as machines that stole the soul out of the body, allowing the body to sit and listen to its soul talking (Verner, 1906b).
After Verner collected his artifacts for the museums, he decided to take Ota back to America, (although Verner claims that it was Ota's idea) just for a visit though-Verner would take him back to Africa the next time he visited there. Back in America, Verner endeavored to sell his animals to zoos, sell his crates of things that he brought back from Africa to museums, and also to place Ota Benga. When Ota was presented to Director Hornaday of the Bronx Zoo his intentions were clear.
Ota Benga: The Story of the Pygmy on Display in a Zoo http://www.rae.org/otabenga.html Homaday and other zoo officials had long been subject to a recurring dream in which a man like Ota Benga played a leading role ... a trap was being prepared, made of Darwinism, Barnumism, pure and simple racism . . . so seamlessly did these elements come together that later those responsible could deny, with some plausibility, that there had ever been a trap or plan at all. There was no one to blame, they argued, unless it was a capricious pygmy or a self-serving press (Bradford and Blume, 1992, p. 174).
Ota was next encouraged to spend as much time as he wanted inside the monkey house. He was even given a bow and arrow and was encouraged to shoot it is part of "an exhibit." Ota was soon locked in his enclosure-and when he was let out of the monkey house, 'the crowd stayed glued to him- and a keeper stayed close by' (Bradford and Blume, 1992, p. 180). In the meantime, the publicity began-on September 9, the New York Times headline screamed, "bushman shares a cage with the Bronx Park apes." Although the director, Dr. Homaday, insisted thatt he was merely offeringan "intriguing exhibit" for the public's edification, he "apparently saw no difference between a wild beast and the little Black"
The many factors motivating Verner to bring Ota to the United States were complex, but he was evidently .much influenced by the theories of Charles Darwin" a theory which, as it developed, increasingly divided humankind into human contrived races (Rymer, 1992, p. 3). Darwin also believed that the blacks were an inferior race' (Vemer, 1908a, p. 10717). Although biological racism did not begin with Darwinism, Darwin did more than any other man to popularize it among the masses. As early as 1699, English Physician Edward Tyson studied a skeleton which he believed belonged to a pygmy, concluding that this race was apes, although it was discovered that the skeleton on which this conclusion was based was actually a chimpanzee (Bradford and Blume, 1992, p. 20).
The conclusion in Vemer's day accepted by most scientists was that after Darwin showed "that all humans descended from apes, the suspicion remained that some races had descended farther than others ... [and that] some races, namely the white ones, had left the ape far behind, while other races, pygmies especially, had hardly matured at all" (Bradford and Blume, 1992, p. 20).
Many scholars agreed with Sir Harry Johnson, a pygmy scholar who stated that the pygmies were "very apelike in appearance [and] their hairy skins, the length of their arms, the strength of their thickset frames, their furtive ways, all point to these people as representing man in one of his earlier forms' (Keane 1907, p. 99). One of the most extensive early studies of the pygmies concluded that they were "queer little freaks" and
T'he low state of their mental development is shown by the following facts. They have no regard for time, nor have they any records or traditions of the past; no religion is known among them, nor have they any fetish rights; they do not seek to know the future by occult means. . . in short, they are ... the closest link with the original Darwinian anthropoid ape extant" (Burrows, 1905, pp. 172, 182).
The pygmies were in fact a talented group-experts at mimicry physically agile, quick, nimble, and superior hunters, but the Darwinists were blind to an objective study of them (Johnston, 1902a; 1902b; Lloyd, 1899). An excellent modem study by Turnbull (1968) shows the pygmies in a far more accurate light and demonstrates how absurd the evolution world-view of the 1900s actually was.
Ota Benga: The Story of the Pygmy on Display in a Zoo http://www.rae.org/otabenga.html Verner was no uninformed academic, but "compiled an academic record unprecedented at the University of South Carolina, and in 1892, only 19 years of age, graduated first in his class" (Bradford and Blume, 1992, p. 69). In his studies, Verner
familiarized himself with the works of Charles Darwin. The Origin of Species and Descent of Man engaged Verner on an intellectual level, as the theory of evolution promised to give scientific precision to racial questions that long disturbed him. According to Darwin...'it was more probable that our early progenitors lived on the African continent then elsewhere' (Bradford and Blume, 1992, p. 70).
His studies especially motivated him to answer questions about Pygmies such as:
Who and what are they? Are they men, or the highest apes? Who and what were their ancestors? What are their ethnic relations to the other races of men? Have they degenerated from larger men, or are the larger men a development of Pygmy forefathers? These questions arise naturally, and plunge the inquirer at once into the depths of the most heated scientific discussions of this generation (Verner, 1902b, p. 192).
One hypothesis he considered was that the Pygmies present a case of unmodified structure from the beginning [a view which is]...against both evolution and degeneracy. It is true that these little people have apparently preserved an unchanged physical entity for five thousand years. But that only carries the question back to the debated ground of the origin of species. The point at issue is distinct. Did the Pygmies come from a man who was a common ancestor to many races now as far removed from one another as my friend Teku of the Batwa village is from the late President McKinley? (Verner, 1902b, p. 193).
Many people saw a conflict between evolution and Christianity, and "For most men, the moral resolve of an evangelist like Livingstone and the naturalism of a Darwin cancelled each other out. To Vemer, though, there was no contradiction ... [and he was] equally drawn to evangelism and evolutionism, Livingstone and Darwin" (1992, p. 70,72). In short, the "huge gap between religion and science" did not concern Verner. He soon went to Africa to "satisfy his curiosity first hand about questions of natural history and human evolution ... (Bradford and Blume, 1902, p. 74). He wrote much about his trips to Africa, even advocating that the Whites take over Africa and run it...
Ota Benga: The Story of the Pygmy on Display in a Zoo http://www.rae.org/otabenga.html Henry Fairfield Osborn-a staunch advocate of evolution who spent much of his life proselytizing his faith and attacking those who were critical of evolution, notably Williams Jennings Bryan, made the opening-day remarks when the zoo first opened (Bradford and Blume, 1992, p. 175). Osborn and other prominent zoo officials believed that not only was Ota less evolved, but that in this exhibit the Nordic race had "access to the wild in order to recharge itself. The great race, as he sometimes called it, needed a place to turn to now and then where, rifle in hand, it could hone its instincts" (Bradford and Blume, 1992, p. 175).
In one of the announcements, Ota was described as a sensation-he made faces and "the crowd loved that" (Bradford and Blume, 1992, p. 180). Some officials may have denied what they were trying to do, but the public knew full well the purpose of the new exhibit: "There was always a crowd before the cage, most of the time roaring with laughter, and from almost every corner of the garden could be heard the question 'Where is the Pygmy?" and the answer was, 'in the monkey house'" (NewYork Times, Sept. 10, 1906, p.1). The implications of the exhibit were also clear ...
Ota Benga: The Story of the Pygmy on Display in a Zoo http://www.rae.org/otabenga.html That he was on display was indisputable: a sign was posted on the enclosure which said "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" (New York Times, Sept. 10, 1906, p. 1). And what an exhibit it was.
The orangutan imitated the man. The man imitated the monkey. They hugged, they let go, flopped into each other's arms. Dohong [the orangutan] snatched the woven straw off Ota's head and placed it on his own.... the crowd hooted and applauded...the children squealed with delight. To adults there was a more serious side to the display. Something about the boundary condition of 'being human was exemplified in that cage. Somewhere man shaded into non-human. Perhaps if they look hard enough the moment of transition might be seen.... to a generation raised on talk of that absentee star of evolution, the Missing Link, the point of Dohong and Ota disporting in the monkey house was obvious (Bradford and Blume, 1992, p. 181).
It was also obvious to a New York Times reporter...
rae.org/otabenga.html That the display was also extremely successful there was never any doubt. Bradford and Blume claimed that on September 16, "40,000 visitors roamed the New York zoological Park ... the sudden surge of interest ... was entirely attributable to Ota Benga" (1992, p. 185). The crowds were so enormous that a police officer was assigned full-time to guard Ota (the zoo claimed this was to protect him) as he was 'always in danger of being grabbed, yanked, poked, and pulled to pieces by the mob" (Bradford and Blume, 1992, p. 187).
Although it was widely believed at this time, even by eminent scientists, that Blacks were evolutionarily inferior to Caucasians, caging one m a zoo produced much publicity, especially by ministers and Afro-Americans. In Bridges' words
The Pygmy worked-or played-with the animals in a cage, naturally, and the spectacle of a black man in a cage gave a Times reporter the springboard of a story that worked up a storm of protest among Negro ministers in the city. Their indignation was made known to Mayor George B. McClellan, but he refused to take action (1974, p. 224).
When the storm of protests broke, Hornaday "saw no reason to apologize stating that he "had the full support of the Zoological Society in what he was doing"(Bradford)
Ota Benga: The Story of the Pygmy on Display in a Zoo http://www.rae.org/otabenga.html A Times article responded to the criticism that the display lent credibility to evolution with the following words: -One reverend colored brother objects to the curious exhibition on the grounds that it is an impious effort to lend credibility to Darwin's dreadful theories ... the reverend colored brother should be told that evolution ... is now taught in the textbooks of all the schools, and that it is no more debatable than the multiplication table" (Sept. 12, 1906, p. 8). Yet, Publishers Weekly commented the creationist ministers were the only ones that "truly cared about him" (Anon., 1992, p. 56).
Soon, some Whites also become concerned about the "caged Negro," and in Sifakis' words, part of the concern was because "men of the cloth feared...that the Benga exhibition might be used to prove the Darwinian theory of evolution" (1984, p. 253). The objections were often vague, as in the words of the New York Times article of September 9:
The exhibition was that of a human being in a monkey cage. The human being happened to be a Bushman, one of a race that scientists do not rate high in the human scale,....
Ota Benga: The Story of the Pygmy on Display in a Zoo http://www.rae.org/otabenga.html Of course we have not exhibited him [Benga] in the cage since the trouble began. Since dictating the above, we have had a great time with Ota Benga. He procured a carving knife from the feeding room of the Monkey House, and went around the Park flourishing it in a most alarming manner, and for a long time refused to give it up. Eventually it was taken away from him. Shortly after that he went to the soda fountain near the Bird House, to get some soda, and because he was refused the soda he got into a great rage.... This led to a great fracas. He fought like a tiger, and it took three men to get him back to the monkey house. He has struck a number of visitors, and has 'raised Cain' generally (Bridges, 1974, pp. 227-228).
He later "fashioned a little bow and a set of arrows and began shooting at zoo visitors he found particularly obnoxious! After he wounded a few gawkers, he had to leave the Zoological Park for good" (Milner, 1990, p.42). The New York Times described the problem as follows:
There were 40,000 visitors to the park on Sunday. Nearly every man, woman and child of this crowd made for the monkey house to see the star attraction in the park-the wild man from Africa.
In the end Homaday 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 (1992, p. 14).
Although Hornaday claimed that he was "merely offering an interesting exhibit and that Benga was happy. . ." Milner (1990, p. 42) notes that this "statement could not be confirmed" since we have no record of Benga's feelings, but many of his actions reveal that he did not adiust very well to zoo fife. Ota Benga unfortunately has left no written records whatsoever of his thoughts about the affair or anything else, thus the only side of the story that we have is Verner's volumous records, the writings by Homaday, the many newspaper accounts, and a 281 page book entitled The Pygmy in the Zoo by Philip Verner Bradford, Verner's grandson. Bradford had the good fortune in his research that Verner saved virtually every letter that he had ever received, many of which discuss the Ota Benga situation, all which he had access to when doing his research.
Ota Benga: The Story of the Pygmy on Display in a Zoo http://www.rae.org/otabenga.html
Black families [there] entrusted their young to Ota's care. They felt their boys were secure with him. He taught them to hunt, fish, gather wild honey ... The children felt safe when they were in the woods with him. If anything, they found him overprotective, except in regard to gathering wild honey - there was no such thing as too much protection when it came to raiding hives .... A bee sting can feel catastrophic to a child, but Ota couldn't help himself, he thought bee stings were hilarious (Bradford and Blume, 1992, pp. 206-207).
He became a Christian, was baptized, and his English vocabulary rapidly improved. He also learned how to read-and occasionally attended classes at a Lynchburg seminary. He was popular among the boys, and learned several sports such as baseball (at which he did quite well). He later ceased attending classes and became a laborer on the Obery farm for 10 dollars a month plus room and board (Bradford and Blume,1992, p. 204). The school concluded that his lack of education progress was because of his African 'attitude" when actually probably "his age was against his development. It was simply impossible to put him in a class to receive instructions .
Ota Benga: The Story of the Pygmy on Display in a Zoo http://www.rae.org/otabenga.html
In Hornaday's words, Ota committed suicide because "the burden became so heavy that the young negro secured a revolver belonging to the woman with whom he lived, went to the cow stable and there send a bullet through his heart, ending his life.
How did Verner's grandson, a Darwinist himself, feel about the story? In his words,
the forest dwellers of Africa still arouse the interest of science. Biologists seek them out to test their blood and to bring samples of their DNA. They are drawn by new forms of the same questions that once vexed S. P. Verner and Chief McGee; What role do Pygmies play in human evolution? What relationship do they have to the original human type?. . . (Bradford and Blume, 1992, pp. 230-231).
He adds that one clear difference does exist, and that is, "Today's evolutionists do not, like yesterday's anthropometricists, inclued demeaning comments and rough treatments in their studies (p. 231)." They now openly admit that the "triumph of Darwinism" was "soon after its inception [used] to reinforce every possible division by race, gender, and nationality" (p. xx). Part of the problem also was the press, like the public, was fascinated by,or addicted to,spectacle