In some ways, we haven’t come as far as we like to think we have on issues of race. It has proven, for instance, rather difficult to convince the police that refraining from murdering scads of black people is the right and honourable thing to do. But on the other hand, at least the days of openly displaying them at a zoo’s primate exhibit appear to be behind us. Yes, this is a real thing that happened. In the United States. In the 20th century.
His name was Ota Benga, and he was a member of a pygmy tribe called the Mbuti that resided in the Congo. Through a series of events that are not and may not ever be completely clear, he wound up traveling with a missionary/explorer named Samuel Phillips Verner. I don’t want to speculate on the sort of relationship the two men had, but considering that Benga ended up being displayed in zoos twice in the span of two years, it’s hard to imagine it being a free and equal friendship.
In 1904, Verner brought Benga to the U.S., where he displayed him at the St. Louis World Fair (officially called the Louisiana Purchase Exposition). The main draw was his sharpened teeth, which he showed for five cents. Though newspapers at the time said they were shaped to facilitate cannibalism, tooth sharpening was a common form of body modification within Benga’s tribe, and did not indicate someone who noshed on human flesh.
After the fair, Benga returned to Africa with Verner, then later accompanied the missionary back to the United States.
By the time Verner brought Benga to New York City, the explorer was broke. Eventually, he contacted William Temple Hornaday, the then-director of what is now the Bronx Zoo, who agreed to temporarily loan Benga an apartment on the grounds. Whether Hornaday had ulterior motives from the start is unclear, but before long, he was displaying Benga as another exhibit.
According to New York Magazine, in his first few weeks, Benga wandered around the grounds of the zoo freely. But soon, Hornaday had his zookeepers urge Benga to play with the orangutan in its enclosure. Crowds gathered to watch. Next, the zookeepers convinced Benga to use his bow and arrow to shoot targets, along with the occasional squirrel or rat. They also scattered some stray bones around the enclosure to suggest the idea of Benga being a savage. Finally, they cajoled Benga into rushing the bars of the cage and baring his whittled teeth at the patrons. Kids were terrified. Some adults were, too—though more of them were just plain curious about Benga. “Is that a man?” one visitor asked.
Hornaday posted a sign in the Primates’ House listing Benga’s height and weight—4 feet, 11 inches tall and 103 pounds—and how he had ended up at the zoo. “Exhibited each afternoon during September,” it read.
If you’re hoping for a happy ending here, I’m sorry. Benga’s post-zoo life consisted of spending some time in a “Colored Orphan Asylum” before eventually learning some English, doing odd jobs and ultimately killing himself in 1916.
Sitting here now, it’s difficult to imagine that stories like these are real and so relatively recent. But it’s also not easy to imagine that as enlightened a society as we’re supposed to be, that there are still people struggling to be treated with dignity, respect and humanity. Equality should never have been and should not be this hard.