2006_08_06_Ota_Benga.jpg One of the things we love about the City section is that sometimes you can see their heads working. For instance, a month ago they had an Andy Newman story on letters to the Mayor which had a throwaway line about a letter referring to the African pygmy who was put on display at the Bronx Zoo. Eureka! Sure enough, today we get a good long look at the life of Ota Benga by Mitch Keller. Good call City section.

Like most kids growing up in Gotham we feel like we've always been aware of that the Bronx Zoo at one point put a pygmy on display in the Monkey House, but we'd never registered any of the details other then that there was a scandal and that it was over in a few days. Which is a shame because the story is so much more surprising than even that. You really want to read the article but to whet your appetite, a few facts about Ota Benga:

  • After surviving a Belgium sponsored pygmy slaughter in his native Congo, which took his wife and children, Benga, who was about 4'11" tall with teeth filed sharp in a traditional manner, was sold into slavery.
  • Bought by a missionary from South Carolina named Phillips Verner he was brought to St. Louis where he appeared in one of the "extensive anthropological exhibits" at the 1904 World's Fair there. After the fair he was brought back to Africa but wasn't able to readjust.
  • In 1906 he came back with Verner to America. Needing cash, Verner headed south and left Benga at the Museum of Natural History. Right out of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler's files Benga was given a room in the museum and "seems to have been free to roam the museum." But after he grew difficult to control (he threw a chair at Florence Guggenheim!) he was asked to leave.
  • So he moved to the Bronx Zoo, which had opened in 1899. Not just put in a cage, he had was allowed to go pretty much anywhere he pleased in the Zoo. But when it became apparent he was spending quite some time in the Monkey House "it was but a small step to encourage him to hang his hammock in an empty cage."
  • An uproar followed which included this lovely bit from the Times: In this land of foremost progress/ In this wisdom's ripest age/ We have placed him in high honor in a monkey's cage
  • In his later years after the Zoo-incident (Benga shot himself in the chest in 1916) he changed his name to Otto Bingo and spent time with the poet Anne Spencer, W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington.

And that's just a bare outline. We've left out some good bits, so read the whole thing. Its just one of those stories that puts the massive shifts in our culture over the past century right into perspective. Also, this is why Zoo's tend to kind of creep us out.

Photograph of Ota Benga in 1904 by Jessie Tarbox Beals/St. Louis Public LIbrary via Wikipedia.