Saturday, September 15, 2007

Middle History – Pygmies in St. Louis

For eighteen days in the year 1906, a pygmy tribesman from the Congo Free State named Ota Benga, a person, was caged in the Monkey House at the Bronx Zoo. When people saw him in his loincloth with his handmade arrows and chimpanzee, they laughed and applauded. A week after opening day, forty thousand attended.

According to Phillips Verner Bradford and Harvey Blume, authors of
Ota Benga: The Pygmy in the Zoo, “He didn’t have to do much. He just had to be short and black.” The complexity of the act lied in the construction of the stage, a collaboration between Darwinism and Barnumism. The frame was built by King Leopold II of Belgium. St. Louis, Missouri paid the first commission.

In my initial lunge at history, I wrote about the 1904 St. Louis Olympics, an event I had never once heard mention of in my fifteen plus years of residence. After writing the piece I talked to my father’s colleague, Rich, who said, “You know about the pygmy, right?”

Pygmy? I knew that the World’s Fair Committee had concocted the Aboriginal Games to parallel the display of world-class athleticism, thereby securing the trusses of an established racial hierarchy. I didn’t know that after the plaster of paris towers and fountains of the Ivory City were torn down and carted to an Illinois landfill, that after every other African representative/specimen was returned home with the double task of explaining what they saw and how they were seen, the story continued. I also didn’t fully grasp how that narrative spiraled backward, entangling itself in the jungles of colonialism and genocide.

Phillips Verner Bradford is the grandson of Samuel Phillips Verner, missionary, explorer, anthropologist and the man who bought Ota Benga out of slavery and ushered him west. Bradford’s grandfather told him, “No one, including you, gets to choose their parents.”

“Perhaps,” Bradford writes, “it was a reminder that I was bonded to him, whether I liked it or not.”

When he visited the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the curator presented him with a letter addressed to the museum from his grandfather, dated before Bradford’s parents were even married. “It stated that someday a descendent of his would come to the American Museum to set the record straight.”

With this task, Bradford was also bound to his grandfather’s trophy, the man Verner might even have called his friend. Bradford describes his book as “a memorial to one of the bravest men of this twentieth century.” He is referring to the pygmy.


At the Berlin Conference of 1884-85, fourteen European countries and the United States granted King Leopold II a portion of the African continent seventy-six times larger than his own country. This was not a gift to the Belgian people or their parliament, it was the area of land that Leopold had hired the explorer Henry Morton Stanley to help him claim, and it was his.

Assisted by the chicotte, a whip made from hippopotamus hide, and a militia known as the Force Publique, infamous for its collection of victims’ hands, the king would tax the natives of his Congo Free State for a personal fortune in rubber and ivory. In 1908, he conceded his private colony to the Belgian state, largely in response to the century’s first international protest movement led by Edmund Morel, but not before approximately three million people had been killed (other estimates place that number higher).

Ota Benga stood four feet, eleven inches tall. He weighed about a hundred pounds. His teeth were sharpened to points. He hunted elephants, sometimes alone.

After succeeding in one of these solo pursuits in either 1903 or early 1904, Benga returned to his camp to find nearly every member of his tribe slaughtered, including his wife and children. He was captured by the Force Publique and placed in the possession of the Baschilele tribe, one known for its slave trade success.

That is where Special Agent Doctor Verner procured his first pygmy for a pound of salt and a bolt of cloth. He had an order to fill and a deadline. W.J. McGee, president of the American Anthropological Association, had given Verner eight thousand five hundred dollars and a shopping list that included a pygmy chief, a priestess, two infants and a medicine man. They were to be delivered before the opening ceremonies of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in April 1904.

Verner ended up with Benga and four young adult males from the Batwa tribe, related but culturally distinct from Benga’s people. The men were offered the opportunity to travel to the land of the muzungus (westerners) and they accepted, but only in response to the enthusiasm of Benga himself.

Benga had joined Verner because his world and the worldview that framed it had been destroyed. As Bernard writes, “Atrocity brings with it the added anguish of disbelief, the shattering of faith,” and Benga assumed this white man was leading him to the land of the dead. It turned out he was also curious.

Between the territory of King Ndombe and a stop on the Mississippi, the pygmies experienced many firsts—an ocean liner, a train, a city, and men who ate meat three times a day. Verner arrived in New Orleans on a stretcher, cut down by malaria. His living exhibition traveled ahead of him to their destination—a fair that dwarfed all previous fairs, spread out over nearly two square miles. They resided alongside Eskimos, inhabitants of the conquered Philippines, the indigenous people of Japan (the Ainu), natives of South America, Zulus and representatives of fifty North American tribes.

Geromino, the Apache leader and United States prisoner of war, who had become a regular on the exhibition circuit, presented Benga with a stone arrowhead. The twenty-six year old African learned quickly that American crowds were often aggressive and to demand a nickel before bearing his teeth.

Verner won a grand prize for his presentation of the pygmies and the tribesmen received eight dollars and thirty-five cents worth of gifts that included a barrel of salt for King Ndombe and a fake pearl necklace. Verner also honored an unprecedented promise. He had taken indigenous people to the land into which so many Africans had disappeared, and he brought them back.

For the spectators and Batwas alike, the World’s Fair experience, a social movement to be negated by world war, showed them something they would never see again.

“It was as if the high point of their lives had already elapsed while they were still teenagers or children. Never again would they experience so many lights, hundreds of thousands of them, concentrated to such effect. Never again would mere electricity bear down upon their imaginations like a magical force.”

Ota Benga wasn’t finished. He threatened to drown himself in the Kasai River if Verner didn’t facilitate his return to the West. He wanted to read and speak English and continue his own study of the muzungus. Though the journalists, spectators and scientists were “impervious to the fact that their attention was returned. Ota wanted to know with equal intensity and a greater necessity what a Westerner was.”

They arrived in New York in 1906 with a monkey, a deadly snake and crates packed with tribal artifacts. Verner intended to sell his goods to the Smithsonian or the American Museum of Natural History for the highest bid and secure himself a well-paid position within one of those institutions. Transactions were made, but Verner’s reputation as a man unhinged by the ravages of tropical disease was dismissed. With his funds depleted, he set out on a lecture tour, arranging a deal with Director Herman C. Bumpus to have Benga sheltered amongst the exhibits at the Natural History Museum.

At first Benga enjoyed interacting with the guards and stealing away to his favorite spot atop a giant meteor that had plummeted to Earth hundreds of years before. He became restless, though, as life inside the building “deepened an impression he had formed at the fair; the muzungus swallowed other beings whole. What they couldn’t digest they deposited in fairs and museums.” His anxiety led to mischief and eventually revolt, culminating in the form of a chair sent whizzing inches from Florence Guggenheim’s head.

Hounded by the Guardian Trust Company for a two hundred and sixty-two dollar check, with his animals sick and the sheriff having confiscated half of his crates, Verner contacted William Temple Hornaday at the Bronx Zoological Gardens and transferred his snake, monkey and man into Hornaday’s care.

For two weeks, Benga wandered freely in western clothes, occasionally helping the keepers with their chores. He displayed interest and affection toward an orangutan named Dohong and was permitted to visit the animal at any time. Hornaday encouraged Benga to string up his hammock in an empty Monkey House cage that opened to an enclosure shared by Dohong and the chimpanzees. On September 8th, a target was constructed out of straw and Benga was cheered into demonstrating his skills with the bow.

Although this turn of events seemed to occur circumstantially, in response to Benga’s need for supervision and shelter, the result satisfied an initial intention. In 1899, Fairfield Osborn, President of the American Museum of Natural History and zoo trustee, had promised in his opening-day remarks that Bronx Zoo visitors would soon find New York’s original inhabitants, including elk, moose, deer and beaver, restored to “their old haunts” along with “all other noble aborigines of Manhattan.” Benga was not a member of the Delaware, Erie or Iroquois tribes, but, again, he became a spectacle.

One man who took interest in the zoo’s newest exhibit was Reverend R.S. MacArthur of the Calvary Baptist Church. He brought a delegation of African-American church leaders to visit Benga and assess the conditions in which he lived. MacArthur declared that, “The person responsible for this exhibition degrades himself as much as he does the African,” but Benga appeared neither upset nor angry. It was only when Benga’s behavior again grew unpredictable that Hornaday wrote to Verner, expressing concern about the situation. The man responsible for Benga’s presence in American society suggested a sedative.

When Verner finally made his first appearance at zoo he said, “I heard you had a little trouble, Ota.” Benga responded, “Noise, Fwela, noise.”

On September 27th, Benga moved to the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum in New York, a black-run institution directed by Reverend James Gordon, wearing a pair of canvas shoes that the Bronx Zoo crowds had believed was his first and the white duck suit he had been given at the Museum of Natural History. Benga’s teeth were capped and he studied English while working on local farms to earn his board. He remained at Howard for three years, but Reverend Gordon, unable to fully convert Benga to the culture of his institution, ceded his mission.

“Ota was willing to learn English; he was not willing to unlearn the ways of the forest. He was willing to study the beliefs of the muzungu; he was not engaged in forgetting his own. What it came down to was a test of wills, or rather forest stealth versus a four-square Baptist approach.”

In 1909, Benga went south to Lynchburg, Virginia to continue his studies at a local seminary. He lived mostly outdoors, but integrated himself partially into the African-American community that knew him as Otto Bingo, teaching children as young as four to hunt and gather food in the forests.

After seven years, Benga was ready to go home. He inquired about the price of a trans-Atlantic ticket and realized he would never have the money. By this time, Verner was working as a medical officer on the Isthmus of Panama and had long fallen out of contact.

Bradford writes, “Ota never intended to remain abroad,” but what he hoped to return to remained unclear. Benga’s family and tribe were gone and, though Leopold II no longer held claim over the region, much of the brutality and exploitation persisted under the Belgian state.

On March 20, 1916 at five o’clock in the afternoon, Benga built a fire. He removed the caps from his teeth, danced, sang and shot himself in the heart with a revolver.


It would be difficult to argue that Ota Benga’s life suffered from his journey into America. He had escaped slavery and torture, and he remained inquisitive and open toward the westerners he encountered. Maybe, as Reverend MacArthur insisted, it was the men who displayed him as well as the admission-paying public who were truly degraded.

“Something about the boundary condition of being human was exemplified in that cage. Somewhere man shaded into non-man. Perhaps if they looked hard enough the moment of transition might be seen.”

The hunger for spectacle that placed Ota on his stage was and remains a powerful cultural force—humanity, a condition both stolen and fought for.

Principal source: Ota Benga: The Pygmy in the Zoo, Phillips Verner Bradford and Harvey Blume, St. Martin’s Press (New York, 1992).

Related texts: King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild and In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz: Living on the Brink of Disaster in Mobutu's Congo by Michela Wrong.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

otto bingo... who knew? Those pictures are amazing.

cdozo said...

What an amazing story. It's too bad he couldn't go home.

Thanks for posting this.

Anonymous said...

Your blog keeps getting better and better! Your older articles are not as good as newer ones you have a lot more creativity and originality now keep it up!