Ota Benga 1883 – March 20, 1916 was an Mbuti (Congo pygmy) man, known for being featured in an anthropology exhibit at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1904, and in a human zoo exhibit in 1906 at the Bronx Zoo. Benga had been purchased from African slave traders by the missionary and anthropologist Samuel Phillips Verner, a businessman searching for African people for the exhibition. He traveled with Verner to the United States. At the Bronx Zoo, Benga had free run of the grounds before and after he was exhibited in the zoo's Monkey House. Except for a brief visit with Verner to Africa after the close of the St. Louis Fair, Benga lived in the United States, mostly in Virginia, for the rest of his life.
Benga was tutored in English and began to work at a Lynchburg tobacco factory. He proved a valuable employee because he could climb up the poles to get the tobacco leaves without having to use a ladder. He began to plan a return to Africa, but the outbreak of World War I in 1914 stopped ship passenger travel.
As a member of the Mbuti people, Ota Benga lived in equatorial forests near the Kasai River in what was then the Congo Free State. His people were attacked by the Force Publique, established by King Leopold II of Belgium as a militia to control the natives for labor in order to exploit the large supply of rubber in the Congo. Benga lost his wife and two children, surviving only because he was on a hunting expedition when the Force Publique attacked his village. He was later captured by "Baschelel" (Bashilele) slave traders.
American businessman and explorer Samuel Phillips Verner travelled to Africa in 1904 under contract from the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (St. Louis World Fair) to bring back an assortment of pygmies to be part of an exhibition. To demonstrate the fledgling discipline of anthropology, the noted scientist W. J. McGee intended to display "representatives of all the world's peoples, ranging from smallest pygmies to the most gigantic peoples, from the darkest blacks to the dominant whites" to show cultural evolution.
Verner discovered Ota Benga and rescued him from the cannibal slave traders by purchasing him for a pound of salt and a bolt of cloth.
The two spent several weeks together before reaching the village. There the villagers had developed distrust for the muzungu (white man) due to the abuses of King Leopold's forces. Verner was unable to recruit any villagers to join him until Benga spoke of the muzungu saving his life, the bond that had grown between them, and his own curiosity about the world Verner came from. Four Batwa, all male, ultimately accompanied them. Verner recruited other Africans who were not pygmies: five men from the Bakuba, including the son of King Ndombe, ruler of the Bakuba, and other related peoples – "Red Africans" as they were collectively labeled by contemporary anthropologists.
The group was brought to St. Louis, Missouri, in late June 1904 without Verner, who had been taken ill with malaria. The Louisiana Purchase Exposition had already begun, and the Africans immediately became the center of attention. Ota Benga was particularly popular, and his name was reported variously by the press as Artiba, Autobank, Ota Bang, and Otabenga. He had an amiable personality, and visitors were eager to see his teeth, which had been filed to sharp points in his early youth as ritual decoration. The Africans learned to charge for photographs and performances. One newspaper account, promoting Ota Benga as "the only genuine African cannibal in America", claimed "[his teeth were] worth the five cents he charges for showing them to visitors".
Their attempts to congregate peacefully in the forest on Sundays were thwarted by the crowds' fascination with them. Resulting in the First Illinois Regiment being called in to control the mob. Benga and the other Africans eventually performed in a warlike fashion, imitating American Indians they saw at the Exhibition. The Apache chief Geronimo (featured as "The Human Tyger" – with special dispensation from the Department of War) grew to admire Benga, and gave him one of his arrowheads. For his efforts, Verner was awarded the gold medal in anthropology at the close of the Exposition.
Benga accompanied Verner when he returned the other Africans to the Congo. He briefly lived amongst the Batwa while continuing to accompany Verner on his African adventures. He married a Batwa woman who later died of snakebite, and little is known of his second marriage. Not feeling that he belonged with the Batwa, Benga chose to return with Verner to the United States.
Verner eventually arranged for Benga to stay in a spare room at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City while he was tending to other business. Verner negotiated with the curator Henry Bumpus over the presentation of his acquisitions from Africa and potential employment. While Bumpus was put off by Verner's request of the prohibitively high salary of $175 a month and was not impressed with the man's credentials, he was interested in Benga. Wearing a Southern-style linen suit to entertain visitors, Benga initially enjoyed his time at the museum. He became homesick, however.
The writers Bradford and Blume imagined his feelings:
What at first held his attention now made him want to flee. It was maddening to be inside – to be swallowed whole – so long. He had an image of himself, stuffed, behind glass, but somehow still alive, crouching over a fake campfire, feeding meat to a lifeless child. Museum silence became a source of torment, a kind of noise; he needed birdsong, breezes, trees.
The disaffected Benga attempted to find relief by exploiting his employers' presentation of him as a 'savage'. He tried to slip past the guards as a large crowd was leaving the premises; when asked on one occasion to seat a wealthy donor's wife, he pretended to misunderstand, instead hurling the chair across the room, just missing the woman's head. Meanwhile, Verner was struggling financially and had made little progress in his negotiations with the museum. He soon found another home for Benga.
At the suggestion of Bumpus, Verner took Benga to the Bronx Zoo in 1906. William Hornaday, director of the zoo, initially hired Benga to use as help in maintaining the animal habitats. However, Hornaday saw that people took more notice of Benga than the animals at the zoo, eventually making Hornaday create an exhibition to feature Benga. There, the Mbuti man was allowed to roam the grounds freely. He became fond of an orangutan named Dohong, "the presiding genius of the Monkey House", who had been taught to perform tricks and imitate human behavior. The events leading to his "exhibition" alongside Dohong were gradual: Benga spent some of his time in the Monkey House exhibit, and the zoo encouraged him to hang his hammock there, and to shoot his bow and arrow at a target. On the first day of the exhibit, September 8, 1906, visitors found Benga in the Monkey House. Soon, a sign on the exhibit read:
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 Cen-
tral Africa, by Dr. Samuel P. Verner. Ex-
hibited each afternoon during September.
Ota Benga at the Bronx Zoo in 1906. Only five promotional photos exist of Benga's time here, none of them in the "Monkey House"; cameras were not allowed.
Hornaday considered the exhibit a valuable spectacle for visitors; he was supported by Madison Grant, Secretary of the New York Zoological Society, who lobbied to put Ota Benga on display alongside apes at the Bronx Zoo.
Gordon an African-American clergymen later protested to zoo officials about the exhibit. Gordon thought the exhibit was hostile to Christianity and a promotion of Darwinism. A number of clergymen backed Gordon.
After the controversy the zoo finally removed Benga from the grounds. Verner was unsuccessful in his continued search for employment, but he occasionally spoke to Benga. The two had agreed that it was in Benga's best interests to remain in the United States despite the unwelcome spotlight at the zoo. Toward the end of 1906, Benga was released into Reverend Gordon's custody.
Gordon placed Benga in the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum, a church-sponsored orphanage which he supervised. In January 1910, Gordon arranged for Benga's relocation to Lynchburg, Virginia, where he lived with the McCray family. Gordon arranged for the African's teeth to be capped and bought him American-style clothes. Tutored by Lynchburg poet Anne Spencer, Benga could improve his English, and he began to attend elementary school at the Baptist Seminary in Lynchburg.
Once he felt his English had improved sufficiently, Benga discontinued his formal education. He began working at a Lynchburg tobacco factory. He proved a valuable employee because he could climb up the poles to get the tobacco leaves without having to use a ladder. His fellow workers called him "Bingo". He often told his life story in exchange for sandwiches and beer.
Benga grew tired of living life in modern society. He began to plan a return to Africa.
In 1914 when World War I broke out, a return to the Congo became impossible as passenger ship traffic ended. Benga became depressed as his hopes for a return to his homeland faded. On March 20, 1916, at the age of 32, he built a ceremonial fire, chipped off the caps on his teeth, and shot himself in the heart with a stolen pistol.