The life, and death, of Ota Benga


During the past week I’ve been tracking down information about various performing primates and famous apes like “Consul” and John Daniel, but as I did so something kept bothering me. Didn’t the Bronx Zoo, sometime early in the 20th century, display a person from Africa in the Monkey House?

Although my recollection was a little fuzzy, it turns out that a man named Ota Benga (a pygmy from Congo) was kept at the Bronx Zoo in 1907. Publicly heralded as a “missing link,” he was kept in a cage with other primates, and visitors flocked to see him.

Ota had been brought to America by S.P. Verner, and Once he had arrived and it was determined that he should live at the zoo. Later attempts to whitewash the tragedy claimed that he had chosen to live in the monkey house because it was kept warm, but why was Ota sent to the zoo in the first place? Was there no better place for him to go or no one who would offer him care?

[Interestingly, in a brief summation of an issue of The Zoological Society Bulletin that appeared in Science, a paper on Ota barely receives mention. The age of one of the tortoises at the zoo received a larger part of the summary.]

The captivity of Ota was made out to be a misunderstanding, but the public uproar over the matter could not be quieted. The monkey house was no place to confine a person. It was arranged that Ota would go to an orphanage in Brooklyn for a time, where he would receive better care and an education.

Later that same year, Ota was offered the chance to return home. He refused. Although he was still growing accustomed to his new surroundings, the Missionary Review of the World (with a new identical passage reprinted in Life and Light for Women) reported that he wanted to remain in America for a few years to receive training as a missionary.

The zoo held a grudge about the whole incident, however. After accusations that an Indian elephant, Gunda, had been tortured, an article in the 1914 Annual Report of the New York Zoological Society asserted that there were many people who would rather live in the lavish zoo conditions than continue their hard life on the streets. Of the Ota Benga controversy, the article said;

All the world knows what a fully equipped newspaper can do in creating sentiment when it applies itself to a given task with unflagging industry and abundant space. A few years ago the colored people of New York were very successfully wrought up to a state of excitement by a shrewdly developed newspaper sensation regarding Ota Benga, the African pygmy.

It seems that the author of the report felt that the zoo had done nothing wrong, and that the entire controversy had been manufactured by the unscrupulous media.

Ota never returned to Africa. When Ota went to Virgina to enroll in seminary, his patron soon died, and he was taken in by a woman named Mary Allen. Ota was deeply troubled by his time behind bars at the zoo, and although he was cheerful when he first arrived, he became increasingly solemn and homesick. He did not have the money to return to his home, and there seemed to be no way for him to get it. He ultimately committed suicide by shooting himself after so many years of misery. The cruelty he had suffered in the Bronx and his inability to go home crushed him.


  1. #1 Pierce R. Butler
    December 1, 2008

    Ota Benga’s story was summed up quite pithily in Andrew Vachss’s novel Terminal:

    A hundred years ago, the New York Zoological Society – yeah, that’s right, they own the Bronx Zoo now – actually kept an African Pygmy in a cage, right next to the orangutans and chimps. Sure, slavery was outlawed by then, but that only applied to humans. An “explorer” had captured the Pygmy in the Congo, and turned him into an exhibit at the St. Louis World’s Fair. When the show was over, the owner sold his property. It’s the American way.

    You know who finally busted him out? The forebears of the same “true believers” who are trying to stop schools from teaching evolution today. How can there be a “missing link” if the whole world went from Nothing to Now in seven days? That’s downright ungodly. And America is a nation under God, isn’t it?

    Yeah, speak of the Devil.

    After they got him loose, they gave the Pygmy a name – Ota Benga, I think it was. They handed him a Bible and taught him to use tools. He finally got to go home, the same way a lot of locked-down, no-hope kids do: he took his own life, is what it says in the history books.

    By me, he took his life back.

    I understand he used a firearm to do the job. Somebody must have taught him how to shoot. Too bad they never taught him who to aim at.

  2. #2 Mo Hassan
    December 1, 2008

    Wow, I have never even thought that it was possible for people to put another human in a zoo, but with the white man thinking he was superior to everyone and everything else, I suppose it was inevitable that a human from a different part of the world would be shown in a “curiosity garden”. Thanks for making me aware of this very interesting piece of history.

  3. #3 Crazyharp81602
    December 1, 2008

    This is the story creationists, especially Ken Ham through his idiot book One Blood, often used to justify their oft paraded evolution = racism fallacy.. and yet turn around and promote forms of racism of their own.

  4. #4 Christophe Thill
    December 2, 2008

    Reminds me of the movie “Man to Man” :

  5. #5 Wanda Perry
    December 2, 2008

    This is one the most heart-wrenching story I have ever read. What bothers me more, not much has been learned from this tragedy that engulfed Ota Benga.

  6. #6 Greg Laden
    December 2, 2008

    Thanks for posting this.

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