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Life and Death of an African man, Ota Benga the human exhibited at the Bronx Zoo

Story of Ota Benga, the pygmy held captive as a human zoo exhibit

African savage
In 1906, the New York Bronx Zoo put Ota Benga, an African man on display in a cage with a monkey and over 220,000 visitors came to see the caged African pygmy.

The true story of Ota Benga, the pygmy held captive at the 1904 St. Louis worlds fair, American Museum of Natural History and as a human zoo exhibit in New York.

Explore and Understand Africa Through Her Food and Culture



Life and Death of an African man.



Ota Benga was just 5ft tall. An American missionary, Samuel Philips Verner, bought the 103 pounds, dark skin, with artificially sharpened teeth for exhibition slavery.
Ota Benga was just 5ft tall. An American missionary, Samuel Philips Verner, bought the 103 pounds, dark skin, with artificially sharpened teeth for exhibition slavery. He purchased him and several other Pygmies who were brought to live in the anthropology exhibit at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904. The pygmies took up residence in the anthropology exhibit, next to a group of Native Americans that included the legendary Geronimo. Benga and his group won the gold medal for entertaining the crowds with their dances and other tribal rituals.

Two years later in 1906 when Verner and Benga arrived in New York City from Africa, he arranged for Ota Benga to live at the American Museum of Natural History. Benga was later that year exhibited in a cage with animals, first a chimpanzee, and then an orangutan named Dohang at the New York Bronx Zoo. By the end of September, against a wall of white indifference more than 220,000 people had visited the zoo, twice as many as the same month one year earlier. Nearly all of them headed directly to the primate house to see Ota Benga.

“Bushman Shares a Cage with Bronx Park Apes,” The New York Times headlined on Sept. 9, 1906. The subhead reported: “Some Laugh at his Antics, But Many are Not Pleased.” William Temple Hornaday, the zoo’s founding director, and curator, defended the exhibition on the grounds of science. “I am giving the exhibition purely as an ethnological exhibit,” he said. The display, he insisted, was in keeping with the practice of “human exhibitions” of Africans in Europe.

The Reverend James H. Gordon wept, “Our race, we think, is depressed enough, without exhibiting one of us with apes. We think we are worthy of being considered human beings, with souls.”


The New York Times editors, among others, disagreed with Gordon, “Not feeling particularly vehement excitement ourselves over the exhibition of an African ‘pigmy’ in the Primate House of the Zoological Park, we do not quite understand all the emotion which others are expressing in the matter.”

The editorial also declared, “As for Benga himself, he is probably enjoying himself as well as he could anywhere in his country, and it is absurd to make moan over the imagined humiliation and degradation he is suffering.” Claiming, “Pygmies are very low in the human scale, “We do not quite understand all the emotion which others are expressing in the matter,” the paper said in an unsigned editorial. “Ota Benga, according to our information, is a normal specimen of his race or tribe, with a brain as much developed, as are those of its other members. Whether they are held to be illustrations of arrested development, and really closer to the anthropoid apes than the other African savages, or whether they are viewed as the degenerate descendants of ordinary Negroes, they are of equal interest to the student of ethnology, and can be studied with profit.”

Ota Benga the human exhibited in the Bronx Zoo
The Reverend Gordon turned to a leading African-American attorney, Wilford H. Smith, and they received backing from John Henry E. Millholl and, a wealthy white civil rights activist. Ota Benga was freed. Reverend Gordon placed Benga in the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum in Brooklyn but by 1910, Benga was living at the all-black Lynchburg Theological Seminary and College, in Virginia. In Lynchburg, Ota Benga’s pointed teeth were capped and his name changed to Otto Bingo. On March 20, 1916, the age of 23 he committed suicide by pulling out a gun he had secured and shot himself in the heart.

Did you know?
Ota Benga, in Africa, had children and was married twice but all his loved ones were either murdered or died of disease.

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