The Tragic Tale of Ota Benga

Kamie Berry | November 27th, 2017

In 1904, an American businessman named Samuel Phillips Verner went to Africa for the purpose of bringing back some pygmy people for an exhibition. During his travels, he negotiated the release of a Mbuti man who was being held as a slave. This man eventually accompanied Verner back to the U.S. What followed is one of the most tragic tales you have probably never heard.

Ota Benga, the Mbuti man, had already experienced much loss and heartache before he traveled to America. While he was on a hunting expedition, military forces controlled by King Leopold II of Belgium attacked and killed many of his people, including his wife and children. Soon after, he was caught by slave traders, which is the situation Verner found him in.

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Benga’s first experience of America was of being placed on exhibit at the Louisiana Purchase Exhibition in St. Louis, Missouri in 1904. He and the other Africans who were exhibited were quite popular. People were fascinated with Benga’s short stature (he was 4’11”) and his teeth, which had been filed into sharp points when he was a child. Even though he was often billed as a cannibal, Benga was quite friendly and was always willing to pose for photos, for which he charged a small fee.

After a brief return to Africa with Verner, Benga decided to live in the United States permanently. For a brief time, he lived in a spare room at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, where Verner had obtained employment. Benga, tired of being seen as a savage by the Museum’s employees and visitors, soon became disenchanted with his life there, so Verner arranged a new home for him.

In an act that would be considered completely unacceptable today, Benga was moved to the Bronx Zoo in 1906. He was allowed to walk the zoo grounds freely, but he was encouraged to spend time in the Monkey House, where a sign was installed marking Benga as an exhibit.

Within one year of Benga’s zoo residency, visitor numbers doubled, with most heading directly to the Monkey House. Unsurprisingly, African-Americans were outraged, and many prominent clergymen spoke out against the characterization of a human being as a zoo exhibit. At the same time, as some visitors began to verbally and physically taunt Benga, he started to react violently. At the end of 1906, Benga was released to live in the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum in Brooklyn.

In 1910, Benga was moved again to Lynchburg, Virginia, where he resided with the Mc Cray family. He had his teeth capped, started wearing American clothes, and learned English. He eventually found work in a tobacco plant, but he began to desire to return to his homeland.

The beginning of World War I put an end to Benga’s hopes of returning to Africa, as travel became restricted. Having lost all hope, Benga broke the caps off his teeth and shot himself in the heart on March 20, 1916. Even in death, Ota Benga was disrespected, as he was buried in an unmarked grave. Thus ended the sad history of a man whose experience was stark evidence of man’s capacity for cruelty.

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