"They are remarkable mimics ... and ... are fond of playing… their antics are childish... and... if caught young they are said to make excellent servants”
~ St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 26, 1904
I thought I’d try something new here and begin a new category of posts: Zoo History. Though we think of them as a modern invention (and the modern zoo as we know it dates back to the early 1800’s), zoos do have a very long history, longer perhaps than any other cultural institution. Captive collections of exotic animals date back thousands of millennia, appearing in places as varied as Ancient China, Ptolemaic Egypt, and Aztec Mexico.Ironically, the first post I’ve written for this new series isn’t about animals – it’s about a man.
Ota Benga was probably born in the 1880s, in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. Even today the Congo is considered a fairly mysterious place, and back then it was practically a lost world, with exciting discoveries – the gorilla, the okapi – emerging all of the time. One of the most extraordinary discoveries that Europeans and Americans found there was the Mbuti – the pygmies. Ota Benga was of these people. The Mbuti were barely considered human by many people at the time, especially by neighboring tribes, who captured them and sold them as curiosities. Ota Benga was taken by slave traders before being rescued by an American, Samuel Phillips Verner.Verner’s motives weren’t entirely humanitarian: he had actually be sent to Africa to recruit “native performers” for an upcoming exposition in the US. Ota Benga was recruited, along with several other Mbuti, and left for America. Except for one visit shortly afterwards, he was never to return to Africa.
Ota Benga performed at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase exposition in St. Louis, where he was exhibited alongside other indigenous peoples from around the world (he met and befriended the Apache chief Geronimo there). At the close of the exposition, Verner briefly took Benga back to Africa before the pair returned to the United States. Needing a place for the Mbuti to stay while he took care of some business, Verner first housed Benga as a living exhibit the American Museum of Natural History. When those living arrangements proved unsuitable, Verner sent him to WilliamT. Hornaday of the Bronx Zoo.Benga roamed the zoo grounds, was encouraged to “act native” – shoot arrows, build hammocks – and befriended an orangutan. In might have been the later the put the idea in Hornaday’s head to place the Mbuti on exhibit… in the Monkey House. He was supported in this by the New York Zoological Society’s president, Madison Grant (who went on to become famous for his advocacy of eugenics and racial “hygiene”). Not surprisingly, Benga’s exhibition proved controversial… but not for the reasons that you might expect. The main argument against it was it some clergy felt that displaying a “primitive” human alongside other primates amounted to an endorsement of Darwin’s theory of evolution. Benga eventually left the zoo.
Ota Benga never returned to Africa, but his remaining life in the United States did not improve. He was placed in an orphanage, got a job, and pined away for home. Return to Africa was made almost impossible by World War I, and the Mbuti sank into depression. On March 20, 1916, he took his life.