The Tragic Tale of Ota Benga: A Congolese Pygmy Who Was Kept As A Human Exhibit With Monkeys

The Tragic Tale of Ota Benga: A Congolese Pygmy Who Was Kept As A Human Exhibit With Monkeys

Ota Benga was born into a tribe of Mbuti pygmies who populated the Ituri Forest in small family groups of 15-20 people. The small family groups survived by migrating to places with hunting opportunities and mostly kept to themselves. Born in 1883, Ota Benga was a Congolese man who lived in equatorial forests near the Kasai River. He was to one day lead a group of his own, but things took a turn when the Belgians came to their forest and invaded their lands.

The Force Publique, a brutal military force, established by King Leopold II of Belgium, attacked and killed Ota Benga’s family.

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Image: Missouri History Museum/PD

The Belgians, who went to colonize the Congolese land, were corrupt and greedy. As soon as they moved in, they started kidnapping the natives of the Congo, turning them into slaves for hard labor. They also beat them, raped the women and murdered or cut off limbs of those who resisted. Soon, families in the equatorial forests near the Kasai River found themselves to be working in rubber factories.

One day, Ota Benga, who married young, went elephant hunting. Upon his return, his village was in ruins and his people dead.

Ota Benga with eight other pygmies
Image via Wikimedia/PD

Ota Benga, who went elephant hunting to provide for his family and members of his community, came back to discover his village in ruins and his people slaughtered. He too was captured and taken as a slave to be sold. In 1904, S.P. Verner, who was visiting Africa to collect pygmies for the St. Louis World’s Fair, discovered Ota Benga at a slave market.

Benga’s dark skin, short stature and teeth were perfect for the fair to educate people on a perverse brand of anthropology. S.P. Verner bought Ota his freedom for a pound of salt and a bolt of cloth, along with eight other pygmies from a tribe called Batwa. He then convinced all of them to travel with him to St. Louis. The pygmies accepted the offer and took up residence in the anthropology exhibit along with Native Americans.

In 1905, Verner returned the pygmies to Africa.

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Image: screengrab via YouTube

Although amateur explorer Samuel Verner returned the men to Africa, he still owned them. Ota Benga tried to start a new life by marrying a Batwa woman. Ota Benga and Verner traveled around Africa together for a short period of time. However, after the death of his second wife, Ota Benga asked Verner if he could return to America with him.

The pair then traveled back to New York, but Verner started having money trouble. In order to make some money, Verner decided to loan Ota Benga to the Museum of Natural History for a period of time. During a gathering of wealthy donors at the Museum, Ota Benga, who was unfamiliar with the lifestyle, flung a chair at the head of Florence Guggenheim. The Museum decided to transfer Ota Benga to a place which was not only humiliating, but degrading to human beings.

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Image via Blogspot

Ota Benga was now transferred to the Bronx Zoo. There, he enjoyed the time, since he had many privileges that his previous owners failed to provide him. He roamed the zoo whenever he wanted to and even helped the zookeepers with chores. He spent most of the time with the monkeys inside the monkey house and that attracted a lot of visitors to the zoo.

The zookeepers, however, decided to take it up a notch and give Ota Benga his own exhibit. They hung up a pygmy hammock in a cage and put Ota Benga in there. He was also given a bow and arrow to make it look appealing to the visitors. This was the beginning of the Ota Benga controversy. Many supported the idea, while many people believed it to be inhumane (which it was).

Ota Benga
Image via Wikimedia/PD

When newspapers started picking up the story, the zoo decided to end the exhibit. Soon after the exhibit was closed, Ota Benga who roamed the zoo, was being harassed by its visitors. Then, during an argument with the zookeepers, Ota Benga pulled a knife on them. This of course made the situation worse and led to his permanent removal from the zoo. He was first transferred to a New York orphan asylum where he spent a couple of years but later moved to the Lynchburg, Virginia seminary.

After moving to the Lynchburg, Virginia seminary, Ota Benga’s name was changed to Ota Bingo.

Ota Bengi, Ota Bingo, Ota Benga
Image: The Library of Congress/PD

His teeth were also capped to hide the African pygmy practice. Ota Bingo wanted to return to his native country but he did not possess the sufficient funds. He tried to make the best of his situation and landed a job at a tobacco factory. He even enrolled himself in a school for non-white children. By 1914, Ota Bingo missed his home and felt that life in America wasn’t suited for him. He decided to use the money he saved up from working at the tobacco factory to return to Africa, but sadly, his plans did not go as he thought they would.

As Ota Bingo was putting things in motion for his final journey home, the outbreak of World War I suspended most cross-Atlantic shipping. Apart from that, the German occupation of Belgium caused a great deal of destruction within Congo, leading the country into bureaucratic chaos. This caused the country to stop anyone from leaving Congo or even getting in. By this time, Ota Bingo was depressed and found himself stuck in a nightmare. On March 22, 1916, Ota Bingo shot himself in the heart with a stolen revolver. Thus, the legacy of a man who was meant to lead his own group of family in his native country ended with a tragedy.

What do you think of Ota Benga’s story? Share your thoughts with us through the comments section!

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