The Sad tale of Ota Benga, an African, caged in a U.S. zoo

Ota benga

 

100 years ago on March 20, 1916, Ota Benga returned home, but not to his homeland, when he died in Virginia after having been kidnapped from Africa and put on display in a monkey cage at an American zoo.

During the slaughter of his village while he was away hunting, Belgian soldiers and mercenaries murdered Mr. Benga’s wife and children. From 1885-1908, under the reign of terror of Belgian King Leopold II, millions of men, women, and children were exploited, enslaved, mutilated, and murdered in what was then referred to as the Belgian Congo but now officially known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Leopold killed over half of that central African country’s 20 million population, which equaled more than ten million deaths. By the way, he was such a satanically evil man that he also ordered his soldiers to chop off the hands and arms of millions more who didn’t meet his daily quota of rubber and ivory.

Mr. Benga, a 23 year-old man in 1906, was kidnapped from the Congo and sold for “a pound of salt and a bolt of cloth” to South Carolina Christian missionary and anthropologist Samuel Phillips Verner who transported Mr. Benga to New York City’s American Museum of Natural History to be put on display. Ignorantly described as a so-called “pygmy,” Mr. Benga was actually a member of the Mbuti/Batwa people descended from the Efe ethnic group who inhabited the land beginning 80,000 years ago.

Justifiably angered by such inhuman disrespect, Mr. Benga became “difficult to control.” During one incident, “it took three men to get him back into the (museum’s) Monkey House” from which he had escaped. And when they were trying to return him to the cage inside that Monkey House, he decided to “kick and fight his way free (a number of times and even) threatened them with a knife.” Another time, he “threw a chair” at a museum official, “nearly hitting her in the head.” Described as “unmanageable” and “utterly impossible to control,” he was soon transferred to the Bronx Zoo on September 8, 1906 and imprisoned in another “Monkey House,” this time with a monkey, an orangutan, a parrot, and a guinea pig. He was forced to walk around barefoot with bones strewn about in the cage.

Not only was the zoo racist for caging a human being, so was the American public. On just one day, “more than 40,000 whites” in groups of approximately “500 at a time” were “howling, jeering, and yelling” at Mr. Benga. “Some of them poked him in the ribs, (while) others tripped him up, (and) all laughed at him.” They also “poked him with lighted cigars.” Even the racist American media joined in. The Evening Post wrote, “(He) plays (with the beasts) as though one of them, rolling around the floor of the cages in wild wrestling matches and chattering to them in his own guttural tongue, which they seem to understand.” And the New York Times reported he “is probably enjoying himself as well as he could anywhere in his country, and it is absurd to make a moan over the ‘imagined humiliation and degradation’ he is (supposedly) suffering.”

When the New York Times wrote about someone making a “moan” regarding Mr. Benga’s outrageously inhumane plight, it was referring to Rev. James H. Gordon, head of the Colored Ministers Conference and Superintendent of the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum in Long Island. Rev. Gordon, along with Rev. Matthew Gilbert of Mt. Olivet Baptist Church who served as spokesperson for the Ministers Union of Charlotte, N.C., raised holy hell demanding the release of Mr. Benga. The union described such malicious mistreatment by writing “We regard the (white) actors … in this most reprehensible conduct as offering an unpardonable insult to humanity.” Also, Wilford H. Smith, Esquire, the first Black attorney to win a case in the U.S. Supreme Court, joined in to express his righteous indignation. But the zoo’s founding director, William Temple Hornady, refused to relent, stating “The display is in keeping with the practice of ‘human exhibitions’ of Africans in Europe (and America).” Rev. Gordon then appealed to Mayor George McClellan. Unfortunately, the mayor refused to even meet.

However, due to mounting pressure from the Black clergy, the Black lawyer, and others, including some civilized whites, the zoo ultimately caved in and released Mr. Benga on September 28, 1906, twenty days after he was first caged at the zoo. Thanks to Rev. Gordon, Mr. Benga was taken to the colored asylum, which served as a residential facility, hospital, and school.

After about three and a half respectful, rewarding, and productive years there with the good reverend, Mr. Benga was offered and accepted in January 1910 a decent job in Lynchburg, Va. While in Lynchburg, he became a close friend of poet Anne Spencer who took him to meet W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington on separate occasions.

As an aside, and I mean no disrespect to anyone but, here’s an indisputable anthropological fact: If you look closely at a monkey (and other simians), you will notice that it has straight hair- not thick hair. And if you shave it, you will notice that its skin is white- not black- and its lips are thin- not full. Class dismissed. Now back to Mr. Benga.

Six years after arriving in Lynchburg, meeting good people, and living a dignified life, Mr. Benga was homesick. In fact, he had always been homesick, ever since he was kidnapped. And each day away from Africa, he grew more and more depressed. And each day that he thought about the unbearable humiliation of having been caged like an animal, he grew more and more despondent. So on the early afternoon of March 20, 1916, the 32-year-old Mr. Benga built a ceremonial fire, sang “I believe I’ll go home. Lordy, won’t you help me?” (which he had learned from one of the ministers), and then used a borrowed gun to shoot himself in the heart. Then he went home.

Although he went “home” (in a spiritual and cultural sense), he didn’t go to his “homeland.” Dr. Dibinga wa Said of the Democratic Republic of the Congo has begun an international movement to exhume Mr. Benga from his unmarked grave in White Rock Cemetery in Lynchburg and send his body back to the Motherland because, as Dr. Said noted, Brother Ota Benga “wanted to go home.” For more info about assisting in this effort, call Avenging The Ancestors Coalition (ATAC) at (215) 552-8751.

Michael Coard, Esquire can be followed on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. His “Radio Courtroom” show can be heard on WURD900AM.

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