Ota Benga – stolen from Congo and caged in a zoo 

Many times, the Caucasian race was taught that they were better than the Black race. And that education came from the high in society: the Pope, the Bishops, the doctors, the scientists who framed up all sorts of theories to prove that the Black man was sub-human.

The atrocities done by Americans on the Black man are sometimes too heavy on the heart to let go. Most times, we have wondered why humans would treat fellow humans this way. But we have realized that is a conditioning of the mind.

In the early 1900s, a young African boy, Ota Benga, was kidnapped from Congo and taken to the United States of America. There, he was put in a zoo with monkeys and was displayed together with them.

By 1906, he became popular among the white folks who go to watch him. On the 9th of September 1906, the New York Times published a report about a young African man, who was put on display in the monkey house in New York’s largest zoo.

The article referred to him as a so-called “pygmy”, and they used the headline “Bushman Shares a Cage with Bronx Park Apes”.

The paper reported that over 500 white folks had gathered that day with their children to laugh and jeer at Benga.

The outing on the 9th of September was a good one for the zookeepers because they had a large turnout. Expecting the next ones to be bigger, they moved the teenager to a larger cage where he was joined with an orangutan named Dohang. As the crowd gathered and made jest of him, he wondered how people could be so mean to steal him from his home and treat him like an animal.

By the end of September, over 220,000 people had gone to the zoo to see Benga. One in their right sense and conscience would wonder what was so fulfilling in caging and molesting a young boy. But no matter how much one wonders, one would still have concluded that white-America has no conscience or soul.

 As expected, The inhumane and satanic display of Ota Benga started to spread around the world. The Caucasian world endorsed it while many Black ministers, scholars, and persons were angered by the insult of placing a Black man in a cage with animals. 

On the 10th of September 1906, few Black ministers gathered at Harlem’ Mount Olivet Baptists Church, for an emergency meeting about the matter. It was led by Reverend James H Gordon, who was popular at the time and hailed by the Brooklyn Eagles as “one of the most eloquent Negroes in the country”.

After a few words, he and the other ministers headed to Bronx Zoo, where Benga was imprisoned with animals. On arrival, they found Benga in the cage with the Orangutan.

He stubbornly insisted that their dehumanization of Benga was in keeping with the practice of “human exhibitions” of Africans in Europe, breezily evoking the continent’s indisputable status as the world’s paragon of culture and civilization.

The ministers pressed harder with their complaints and displeasure, but Hornaday was unrepentant. He declared that the exhibition would continue until the Zoological society asked him to stop as he had the backing of the Zoological Society and many highly placed government officials. At the time, he was a close friend to the President, Theodore Roosevelt. 

The group tried to communicate with him, but he was not in a mood to speak or relate to anyone. He wore a sad face and only stared at them. This made them more furious.

They confronted the zookeepers, and Gordon fumed, saying that: 

“We are frank enough to say we do not like this exhibition of one of our races with the monkeys. 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.”

But nothing the ministers said was important to the zoo authorities as to the zoo director and curator, William Temple Hornaday defended their actions bravely and claimed that it was done on the ground of science.

He said that “I am giving the exhibition purely as an ethnological exhibit”.

The ministers did not succeed in freeing young Benga that day, so they left in anger and promised to make a case for Benga at the office of the Mayor of New York. But unfortunately, when the New York Times heard of what the Ministers did, they were angry and published an inhumane submission, something a media house should not do.

New York Times published the following:

“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 is those of its other members.”

On the 16th of September the same year, the zookeepers released Benga from his cage and allowed him to walk around the zoo park, although the rangers guarded and kept an eye on him. That day was overwhelming for sad Benga, as about 40,000 people who were at the park that day, all followed him wherever he went.

The zookeeper in a protest letter, said the following:

“I regret to say that Ota Benga has become quite unmanageable”.

“The boy does quite as he pleases, and it is utterly impossible to control him”. He expressed dismay that Ota Benga threatened to bite the keepers and sees no way out of the dilemma but for him to be taken away.”

As the pressure kept rising, many people reported that the zoo took money to allow people to come into the boy’s cage. So an investigator was sent from the office of the city controller on the 26th of September. Fortunately, his reports shed more light on why Benga should be free.

As more newspaper publications decried the use of Benga as an animal exhibit, Benga himself started to fight everyone and anyone who came close to him. He would bite and kick and even once used a knife to threaten the keepers.

With more street protests and newspaper publications speaking against Benga’s situation, the Zoo curator and keeper released him on the 28th of September, 1906. He was taken away quietly without any media notice and was relocated by Minister Gordon to an orphanage in Brooklyn.

There, he was given a room to himself and had his freedom to do what he pleased.

After a few years in the orphanage, Gordon sent Benga to a Theological Seminary and College in Virginia – an all-Black school that thought Blacks what the white theological schools had refused to teach them.

Benga grew with the community, taught the young boys how to make bow and arrows and hunt. He seemed happy, but as the weeks went by, he became withdrawn, depressed and was always talking about going home.

Unfortunately, on the 19th of March 1916, out of frustration, he left the house, sneaked into a battered grey shed and shot himself in the heart before morning.