Ota Benga: The man who was caged in a zoo

Ota Benga was kidnapped from Congo and taken to US, where he was exhibited with monkeys.

Ota Benga, born on circa 1883, was a Mbuti (Congo pygym) man. At the time, many Congolese forced labourers had their limbs chopped off for not meeting rubber quotas production by the Belgians during colonial occupation of the territory.

Though the new colony was to be called Congo Free State, there was nothing free about it. It was King Leopold’s II personal property.

Under the overseers of King Leopold’s administration, the Belgian Congo became the nightmare of whippings, amputations, forced labor and mass killings. It was estimated that as many as 10 million Congolese were killed under Leopold.

Ota Benga, second left.

This is the misery environment into which Ota Benga was born.

When he was a teenager, the eastern Congo erupted into a war that saw mass deportations, raids by Arab and Portuguese slavers, and invasion by the Force Publique, a Belgian-led occupying army that was manned by the brutal Belgian personnels.

Like many colonial militias, they were very corrupt: they raped and murdered villagers, even collecting severed hands and heads. Sometimes in 1890s, Ota Benga’s entire family was killed by Force Publique while out hunting at the time. He was married with two kids.

To a hunter like Benga, the family meant life, so without family life was really hard, so he had the choice of wandering alone until he died, or maybe seeking out a new family group and begging them to take him as a helper.

A Short time after losing his family, Benga faced a third option, he was picked up by slave traders who put him in chains and dragged him from forest, which had been the only home ever known to him. They put him to work as a labourer in an agricultural village. It was there, in 1904, that he was discovered by an American white supremacist businessman and amateur explorer, Samuel Verner.

Verner had been sent to the Congo on an expedition commissioned by the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, which was planning an exhibit for the St. Louis World’s Fair that would “educate” the public in what was then a racist, pseudoscientific brand of anthropology.

Verner’s job was to find some authentic African pygymies to display as “missing links” in human evolution. Looking at Benga, a lean, very black, very short man with teeth filled into points (due to their ritual culture), Verner knew he had what he needed. He bought Benga for a pound of salt and a bolt of cloth.

He and other captive Africans lumped in with quickly figured out that the crowd wanted to see genuine African “savage”, so they started imitating the dancing and war-whoops they saw the American Indians doing. At one point, the National Guard had to be called to in to control the crowds because they were getting large.

Benga would again return to Africa with Verner, where he met another Congolese tribe Batwa and married a woman from the tribe. The marriage lasted months after Benga’s wife died from a snakebite. Benga travelled again to United States with Verner in 1906.

Upon returning to the United States in 1906, Benga’s first stop was a spare room at the American Museum of Natural History, where again he “delighted” visitors by pretending to be a bubbling half-human.

Benga was eventually released into the custody of James Gordon, the minister who had led the charge to free him. He then went to in Gordon’s black orphanage.

Still unhappy with his life, Benga eventually moved to live with friends of Gordon named McCrays. Gordon continued to manage Benga’s affairs, he arranged to have Benga’s teeth capped and enrolled to a school of non-white children. He also get Benga job to a local tobacco industry.

However, by 1914, Benga was fed up by life in America, he was planning a final return to Africa. Life in America according to Benga, wasn’t for him. He started putting things in order and looking for passage to the nearest port to his homeland with the money he earned from tobacco jobs.

But this passage was not forthcoming, with the outbreak World War I, most cross-Atlantic shipping was suspended, and the Germans occupations of Belgium threw the Congo into bureaucratic chaos, with nobody allowed in or out. Ota Benga realised he won’t make it to his homeland, he became depressed and shot himself in the heart on March 20, 1916.

To your amusements, today, nothing much has changed in Ota Benga’s place of birth, many were and still are suffering the same fate occurred to Ota Benga’s family.


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