March 20, 2008

March 20 | Ota Benga

1881 or 1884 - March 20, 1916: Age 32 or 35

During the late nineteenth century, the Congo was viewed by Europeans as the private property of King LĂ©opold II of Belgium. He "managed" his property through a force of Belgian soldiers and white mercenaries, who in turn commanded an ethnically-mixed army. The official role of this army, known as the "Force Publique", was to defend the area from Arab slavers, but their real role was to ensure that rubber quotas were met. This meant managing and supplying a large force of slaves.

In the course of this, a detachment of the Force Publique raided and massacred the village of Ota Benga, a pygmy of the Batwa people living in the forest. His wife and two children were killed, but Benga was captured and sold to an American businessman Samuel Verner, along with eight others. Verner was working under contract from the St. Louis World's Fair, with the mandate to bring back pygmies for the exhibition.

Of course, slavery had been illegal in all US states for about 40 years, so theoretically Benga was free to do what he liked once he was there. After several months of travel in the US, Verner took Benga to the Bronx Zoo in New York to live, at the suggestion of the then-Director of the American Museum of Natural History. At the zoo, Benga was encouraged to hang his hammock in the Monkey House exhibit and to shoot arrows at the target. A sign on the exhibit read:
The African Pigmy, 'Ota Benga'. Age, 23 years. Height, 4 feet 11 inches. Weight, 103 pounds. Brought from the Kasai River, Congo Free State, South Central Africa, by Dr. Samuel P. Verner. Exhibited each afternoon during September.

The zoo director and other scientifically-minded men saw the exhibit as a valuable demonstration of how man evolved from the apes. This incurred controversy, most notably drawing protests from African-Americans and clergymen, who pointed out that the exhibit was racist and anti-Christian in that it promoted Darwinism. From a New York Times article of September 1906:

The person responsible for this exhibition degrades himself as much as he does the African," said Rev. Dr. R. MacArthur of Calvary Baptist Church. "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.

In response to the outcry, the zoo management allowed Benga to roam the zoo grounds as a sort of interactive exhibit. Zoo visitors, however, tended to administer verbal and physical prods to try to get Benga to "do something". His behaviour began to show signs of frustration.

By the end of September 1906 Benga came under the protection of Rev. James Gordon, and African-American pastor, who placed him in a "coloured" orphan asylum. Later he was relocated to Virginia, where his teeth, which had been filed to points in the Congo, were capped, and he dressed in American-style clothes. He learned about reading and writing from a tutor and attended classes at a Theological Seminary, however he seemed to find more happiness discarding his clothes and roaming the nearby woods with his bow and arrow. Later he quit school and got a job at a nearby tobacco factory. He was popular, telling stories to his fellow employees in exchange for sandwiches and root beer, and he could climb up the poles to get the dried tobacco leaves without a ladder. They called him "Bingo".

On March 20, 1916, he built a ceremonial fire, chipped the caps off his teeth, performed final tribal dance, and shot himself in the heart with a stolen pistol. He was buried in an unmarked grave in the coloured section of the cemetery.

Source: Wikipedia

1 comment:

daap said...

That is hardly a way to live life. R.I.P.