Saturday, March 05, 2005

Ota Benga: a Pygmy at the Bronx Zoo (1906)

From the Trenton Times (1906):

Ota Benga Creates Almost as Much Excitement as W.R.Hearst

Publishers' Press Dlrect Wire.

UC Berkeley - Poster for Alfeu Franca's documentary 'Ota Benga in America'

New York City Sept. 12.- Ota Benga,an African pigmy, exhibited in the same cage in the Bronx Park Zoo with an Orang-outang, is crowding William R. Hearst for the vantage point in the New York spotlight. The ministers of the city are up in arms against the "brutalising" of Ota, while the colored population objects from the racial standpoint. OtaBenga has been in the cage with Dohong, the educated ourang outang, and according to Director Hornaday the little pigmy is having the time of his life.

Do-hong also seemed pleased. Exponents of the Darwin theory and dentists in general were interested in the sight and pronounced it educational. The ministers, however, and the colored population declare that the educational side of the sights eclipsed in the brutalizing influence of putting a man on exhibition in a city's park alongside monkeys.

The movement against the exhibition was led by Dr. MacArthur. Five colored Clergymen called on the mayor to protest at last the exhibition, bu the tent out word that he was "too busy" with politics to discuss pigmys.

The newspapers have taken up the ethical side of it and the "Ota Benga question" has become an issue in city affairs"

and in 1907, the New York Sun prints this:


From the New York Sun.
(10 March 1907)

Ota Benga, the Congo pygmy, -who has been leading the simple life In the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum, at 1550 Bean Street, Brooklyn, since he was rescued from the monkey house In the Bronx Zoo last September by the combined efforts of the negro clergymen of Greater New York, had a chance to go back to the jungle yesterday with his discoverer, Prof. S. p. Verner. Ota didn't care to renew his acquaintance with the simian residents of Central Africa, so the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, which carried tho members of the Congo expedition out yesterday without him.

Prof Verner had an encounter with the Bashilele tribe In Central Africa several years ago, and rescued Ota Benga, who was being held a captive. Ota became deeply attached to Prof. Verner, and when he brought a cluster of pygmies over to the St. Louis Exposition, Ota was one of them. They all took a liking to this country, but Prof Verner had agreed to take them back to the Congo safe and sound, and he carried out his agreement. When Prof. Verner came -over here last summer with two valuable chimpanzees for the Bronx Zoo, Ota drifted along as their custodian. Ota handed his charges over to Dr. W. T. Harnaday, director of the zoo, in prime condition, and made such a hit with the director that he was engaged as assistant keeper of the monkeys. In a little while Ota, who is of a sensitive nature, discovered that because he wasn't a member of the Monkey Keepers' Union, Local No 1, the other keepers were pestering him by hanging cards on the cages of the primates' house, which drew great crowds. These cards announced that at a certain hour every day Ota Benga would appear tn the monkey cage and amuse the ladies and children. When an English-speaking monk tipped Ota off that the other keepers were making a monkey of him, he made things so warm around the zoo that Director Hornaday gladly gave him his discharge papers after the negro clergymen offered to take him away.

Prof. Verner, who is the only person able to converse freely with Benga, told him frankly that if he stayed in this country and went to college he might grow up to be a great man like Washington (Booker), after which he could go back to the Congo Free State and make a great hit as the father of his country. If he went back now the chances were that he would drop what little English he already knows, would settle down with a couple of dozen wives, and be perfectly contented with boosting the rubber business for King Leopold. The pygmy, who may have felt that Prof. Verner hadn't quite done the square thing by him in the Bronx Zoo incident, said he would think it over. While he was trying to decide, the Rev. Mr. Gordon, superintendent of the orphan asylum, finding that Ota was religiously inclined and had been taught to say, "I love God," as though he really meant it, suggested to a number of clergymen that the pygmy was cut out for a missionary. The result was that another half hour was added to his daily English lesson, and in a few days, with the excitement of picking up a 300-word English vocabulary, he forgot all about the Congo. Ota didn't know at first whether he was so keen for the missionary proposition. It seems that he had met a few, and he gave his idea of missionaries in this way: "The white men come. They say 'Look up to heaven.' While we are looking up to heaven, they steal all the ground ". When it was explained that he wouldn't have to be that kind of a missionary, Ota consented to start training. Rev. Gordon said yesterday that the Baptist Ministers Association of New York intends to send Ota down to the Virginia Seminary at Lynchburg as soon as he gets a good hold on the English language. He thinks it will take about eight years to make a good missionary out of Ota. Ota is making a hit with the orphan asylum folks by his exemplary conduct. They say he is easier to manage than a native Brooklynite, and when it comes to work, he will do his share and part of his neighbor's. His chief job is bossing the daily scrubbing and the fish scaling on Wednesdays. Many persons who visit the orphanage to get a glimpse of Ota wrestling with dog, cat, cow, and other preliminaries of the English language are disappointed. He refuses to be looked at since his experience's in the monkey cages."

From we learn that:

"In time Ota Benga began to hate being the object of curiosity. There were 40,000 visitors to the park on Sunday. Nearly every man, woman and child of this crowd made for the monkey house to see the star attraction in the park - the wild man from Africa. They chased him about the grounds all day, howling, jeering, and yelling. Some of them poked him in the ribs, others tripped him up, all laughed at him." (Creation Ex Nihilo, quoting Phillip V. Bradford and Harvey Blume, "Ota Benga: The Pygmy in the Zoo", St. Martins, 1992, p. 269, from the "New York Times" Sept. 18, 1906) At one point, he got hold of a knife and flourished it around the park, another time he produced a fracas after being denied a soda from the soda fountain."

and a favorite tidbit:

"Finally, after fabricating a small bow and arrows and shooting at obnoxious park visitors he had to leave the park for good."

Can you imagine?

For more about the Ota Benga story,
read here

A movie was also recently presented at the Margaret Mead Film Festival.

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