On Sunday, September 9, 1906, throngs of spectators filed in to the New York Zoological Gardens—better known as the Bronx Zoo—to gape at a new Primate House exhibit. Those deep in the crowd may have struggled to make out the sign on the cage:
Age, 23 years. Height, 4 feet 11 inches.
Weight 103 pound. Brought from the Kasai River,
Congo Free State, South Central Africa,
By Dr Samuel P Verner.
Exhibited each afternoon during September
Having debuted the previous afternoon, Ota Benga was an overnight sensation, with the headline “Bushman Shares a Cage with Bronx Park Apes” hitting Sunday morning’s New York Times. The floor was scattered with bones to suggest Benga, whose teeth had been chipped into sharp points (as was customary among young men in his forest-dwelling Congolese tribe), was a cannibal.
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. While some in the mob might have felt pity or shame at the sight of a caged man, the Times reassured readers that he was “one of a race that scientists do not rate high in the human scale.”
“…there was an utter disregard for his life, his will, his being”
That month, the zoo saw nearly a quarter of a million visitors, almost twice as many as the previous September. When Benga was allowed to wander the zoo grounds, he was eagerly chased through the park by what Pamela Newkirk, in her new book Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga (Harper Collins 2015), wryly describes as “feral visitors” who cornered him and poked him in the ribs.
‘Why would they be friends?’
Newkirk, director of undergraduate studies at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, got sucked in to Benga’s story when she read an account of his life co-written by Phillips Verner Bradford—the grandson of the self-styled African explorer who brought him to the United States. Bradford’s 1992 account, Ota Benga: The Pygmy in the Zoo, which landed on the New York Times notable book list, suggests that Benga left the Congo with Samuel Verner voluntarily—and describes a years-long friendship between the two men.
Immediately, Newkirk was suspicious. “Why would they be friends?” she wondered. “I just don’t understand: ‘We’re friends, we go to the zoo together, and one of us ends up in the monkey house and one of us doesn’t?'” When Newkirk started doing her own research in the Bronx Zoo archives, she quickly uncovered letters between Verner and zoo officials that suggested a very different kind of relationship.
Then there were ship passenger records, census data, anthropological field notes, letters between scientists and explorers—a veritable mountain of evidence that Bradford’s story, which had more or less made it into the “hard drive of history,” as Newkirk puts it, was far from the whole truth. “It was so stunning and so clear that Ota Benga was being held against his wishes and that there was an utter disregard for his life, his will, his being,” she says.
With her account, Newkirk rights the record, offering a profoundly unsettling look at the racism deeply rooted in even the city’s (and the nation’s) progressive institutions at the start of the 20th century. As she writes in an author’s note at the start of her book, “At the presumed summits of civilization, cruelty was cloaked in civility and brooding darkness was hailed as light.”
Case in point—three of the men who orchestrated Benga’s display were respected scientists with considerable social and political clout: One of the Bronx Zoo’s cofounders, Madison Grant, was author of the influential book The Passing of the Great Race, which argued for anti-miscegenation laws and sterilization of “inferior” races—and carried a ringing endorsement from Theodore Roosevelt on its book jacket.
Another cofounder, Henry Fairfield Osborn, was the son of railroad magnate William Henry Osborn, taught at Columbia, served as a paleontologist for the US Geological Survey, and ultimately became president of the American Museum of Natural History. The zoo’s first director, top zoologist William Temple Hornaday, had previously served as the first superintendent of the National Zoological Park in Washington, DC.
It was Hornaday who argued that exhibiting Benga in a cage with animals wasn’t so different from recent popular attractions in Europe, including “human zoos” displaying so-called “primitive” peoples in Hamburg, Barcelona, and Milan, and a touring 1876 exhibition of Egyptian Nubians that traveled through Berlin, Paris, and London.
Closer to home, and less than a decade earlier, six Eskimo brought back from Robert Peary’s exhibition to Greenland had been housed as specimens in the damp basement of the American Museum of Natural History until four of them fell ill and died.
Just a few generations ago
For the Bronx Zoo scientists and others, the Benga exhibit offered a rare opportunity to educate the public about the still-controversial theory of evolution by presenting the African “pygmy” as the “missing link” between humans and apes. “This wasn’t the idea of some crackpot on the side,” Newkirk says. “It was the mainstream view of race embedded in the field of anthropology at the time.”
As inconceivable as it would be to envision a person in captivity alongside zoo monkeys in 2015, Newkirk cautions that this shameful episode isn’t so distant as it might seem. “My grandmother was alive when this happened,” she says. “She was six years old, living in upstate New York, when an African was exhibited in the Bronx Zoo.”
“We think we are worthy of being considered human beings, with souls”
Moreover, she argues, studying how black bodies were portrayed just a few short generations ago can inform our thinking about the racial nightmares—including the crisis of police violence that has inspired the #blacklivesmatter movement—of our own time.
20 days in the zoo
And despite the glee with which much of the public (and the tabloids) greeted his captivity, there were others who spoke up on Benga’s behalf. Reverend Robert Stuart MacArthur, pastor of Manhattan’s Calvary Baptist Church, declared: “The person responsible for this exhibition degrades himself as much as he does the African,” and met with the city’s black clergy to plan a protest.
There were others, too, including William Randolph Hearst, whose New York Journal editorialized that the exhibit was “a shameful disgrace to every man in any way connected with it.” Reverend James H. Gordon, superintendent of Howard Color Orphan Asylum in Brooklyn and leader of the group of African-American clergymen who, tipped off by MacArthur, traveled to the Monkey House to express their disapproval, said: “We are frank enough to say we do not like this exhibition of one of our own race 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.”
Finally, as criticism of the exhibit mounted, and the confrontations between Benga and his spectators grew increasingly contentious, Benga was quietly released. He’d spent 20 days in the zoo.