Ota Benga committed suicide on March 20, 1916, at the age of 33. Born and raised in the Belgian Congo, Benga was brought to the United States at the age of 22 by a missionary who promised him a better life. Unfortunately, the remaining years of Benga’s life were anything but. From the time he stepped onto American soil, the African pygmy was labelled an “oddity” and put on display.
In the early 1900s, American missionary Samuel Phillips Verner was hired by the organizers of the St. Louis World’s Fair to recruit African pygmies for an anthropology display. Verner subsequently travelled to the Belgian Congo, where he convinced members of the Batwa people to accompany him back to the United States.
Ota Benga and seven other members of his tribe entered the United States in 1904. However, they planned to return to the Belgian Congo at the conclusion of the World’s Fair.
Verner returned the men to their former home in 1905 as planned. Unfortunately, the Batwa people were gone. NPR reports the tribe was “annihilated” while Ota and the others were being displayed at the World’s Fair.
It is unclear why Benga accompanied Samuel Phillips Verner back to the United States the following year. However, the explorer and missionary insisted the young man did not want to remain in the Congo, as he feared for his life.
Upon his return to the United States, Ota Benga was housed in the primate exhibit at the Bronx Zoo. The display, according to New York University, was labelled as the “missing link” between humans and primates.
“With only an orangutan named Dohong as a companion, Benga alternated between glowering silently, shooting a bow and arrow, and angrily mimicking the crowd’s jeers… When Benga was allowed to wander the zoo grounds, he was eagerly chased through the park by [visitors] who cornered him and poked him in the ribs.”
An estimated 40,000 people travelled to the Bronx Zoo each day to see Ota on display. The young man remained in the exhibit for a total of 20 days.
Calvary Baptist Church pastor Reverend Robert Stuart MacArthur is credited with leading the protest for Benga’s release from the display. Although he faced stark criticism, MacArthur publicly admonished the zoo for exhibiting a human being as though he were an animal.
“The person responsible for this exhibition degrades himself as much as he does the African… Instead of making a beast of this little fellow, he should be put in school for the development of such powers as God gave to him. It is too bad that there is not some society like the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. We send our missionaries to Africa to Christianize the people, and then we bring one here to brutalize him.”
Unfortunately, Ota Benga’s tragic story did not end with his release from the Bronx Zoo.
Benga was initially taken to the Howard Coloured Orphan Asylum, where he was given a room and taught to speak English. He later attended Lynchburg Theological Seminary and College, where he studied liberal arts.
Although he appeared to be acclimating to life in the United States and was accepted within his immediate community, Ota never entirely fit in. During the last years of his young life, friends noted Ota Benga had fallen into a deep depression.
On the afternoon of March 19, 1917, the former African Pygmy built a fire and performed a solemn ritual dance. Before daybreak the following morning, Ota Benga closed himself in a tool shed and took his own life.
Although it has been 100 years, Ota Benga’s tragic life and death are grim reminders of the intolerance that grows from fear of the unknown.
[Image via Audy39/Shutterstock]