Profile: Ota Benga (1883-1916)

Early Years

Benga was born around 1883 and raised in the Kasai River region of the Congo, then owned by King Leopold II of Belgium and called the “Congo Free State.” Reportedly a member of the Badi Pygmy tribe, he was approximately 4 feet, 9 inches tall, and weighed about 100 pounds. His front teeth were filed to sharp points in the traditional manner of Congolese Pygmies.

Benga’s wife and two children, along with many others in their tribe, were killed in a raid on their camp by the territorial police force sometime around 1903 or 1904. Benga was captured and later sold into slavery in a distant village. In March 1904, a Presbyterian missionary and adventurer Samuel Phillips Verner discovered Benga for sale in the village’s slave market. Verner, who was on a special mission to bring Pygmies from the Congo to the Saint Louis World’s Fair, purchased Benga’s freedom for a pound of salt and a bolt of cloth.

Travels with Verner

Although apparently free to leave at any time, Benga chose to remain with Verner for five years as he traveled throughout the Congo and made several trips to the United States. Benga feared re-enslavement and becoming the victim of cannibals if he left Verner and attempted to find the remnants of his tribe.

Benga helped Verner collect artifacts and specimens and procure rubber and ivory for resale. Like the fictional duo Robinson Crusoe and Friday, Verner and Benga became close friends, with Benga once telling Verner he would commit suicide if Verner did not take him on a return trip to America.

In 1904 Benga was largely responsible for convincing eight Pygmies to travel with him and Verner to the Saint Louis World’s Fair, where they became the premier “anthropology” exhibition.

Bronx Zoo and Howard Colored Orphan Asylum

In late August or early September 1906, Verner found a temporary home for Benga at the New York Zoological Park, also known as the Bronx Zoo, in New York City. Benga was lodged in the Primate House, ostensibly to feed and care for the animals there. However, once a sign was posted on his cage reading, “The African Pigmy, ‘Ota Benga’… Exhibited each afternoon during September,” he quickly became the zoo’s most popular attraction.

During that September, tens of thousands of people came to see the famous Pygmy who shared a cage with an Asian orangutan, several chimpanzees, and a parrot. Zookeepers designed a matinee “exhibit” almost devoid of educational content and heavy on P. T. Barnum–style entertainment. The intense and unrelenting spotlight eventually riled Benga. Jeering spectators constantly ridiculed and teased him, and whenever he ventured outside the Primate House, he required police protection from the crowds.

The so-called man and monkey show was immediately controversial. The Colored Baptist Ministers Conference of New York City led a campaign against the exhibition. The group’s threat of legal action, combined with the public backlash fomented by the press and Benga’s growing agitation, led to the closing of the exhibition late in September 1906.

On September 27, 1906, Verner delivered Benga to the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum in Brooklyn. Benga spent the next three years there and at the orphanage’s satellite farm on Long Island, New York. In 1907 Verner offered to take Benga with him back to the Congo, but Benga declined, having decided to make a new life on his own in America.

Final Years in Lynchburg

In January 1910, at age 26, Ota Benga moved to Lynchburg to attend Virginia Theological Seminary and College, a black Baptist school located in Durmid, a suburb south of the city. Ever since the scandal at the zoo, and largely thanks to the advocacy of seminary president Gregory W. Hayes, Benga’s guardians had sought to send him to Lynchburg. They believed the seminary would give him the best chance to receive a formal education and convert to Christianity, and, in doing so, he would support their larger goal of proving that Africans did not possess inferior intelligence.

The close-knit seminary community embraced Benga. He lived in the heart of campus, first with widowed store owner Josephine Anderson and later with Mary Rice Hayes, Gregory Hayes’s widow and a former seminary president herself. Benga tried attending elementary classes at the college, but he gradually gave up his formal education for other pursuits. He did chores and odd jobs in exchange for room and board, and he earned a modest income as a day laborer and tobacco factory worker.

During his years in Lynchburg, Benga tried to integrate into American culture and adopt local ways of life. When he hunted, he alternated bows and arrows with shotguns or rifles. He had a dentist cap his filed teeth to make his smile less startling. Around the seminary and throughout the city he became known by the less exotic name Otto Bingo.

Benga spent most of his free time in forests and the countryside. He often hunted with a small band of young admirers, including Mary Rice Hayes’s three sons and Chauncey Spencer. He taught them to hunt, fish, and gather wild honey just as he had done in the forests of the Congo. Benga also befriended Chauncey’s mother, Anne Spencer, a poet who taught at the seminary. He and Spencer shared a special affinity for the natural world, and he was a frequent visitor to her renowned garden, Edankraal, on Pierce Street.

Suicide and Burial

Despite his efforts to assimilate, Benga struggled to make a new life in Lynchburg, and he became increasingly hopeless about his future there. He had lost contact with his friend Verner, and, even if he had wanted to return to the Congo, he couldn’t afford the cost of travel on his own.

On March 20, 1916, Benga committed suicide in a stable behind Josephine Anderson’s house. A coroner’s inquest determined that he died by a self-inflicted pistol shot to the left breast. A group described as the “Baptist Ministers Conference, colored” hired a local black funeral home to embalm Benga and oversee his funeral and burial.

On Wednesday, March 22, Benga’s funeral was held at Diamond Hill Baptist Church in Lynchburg, followed by interment in the Old City Cemetery. Strong and persistent oral history suggests Benga’s body was removed sometime later to Lynchburg’s White Rock Cemetery. No documentation of disinterment or reburial has been found, and no grave marker has survived in either cemetery.

Nearly a century after his death, Ota Benga’s extraordinary life has inspired countless writers, artists, and activists, in both academia and popular culture. Benga is frequently cited by scholars in studies of the evolutionist roots of racism, exploitation of third world cultures, museum theory, and injustices of the African American experience. He was the basis for fictional characters in the 1998 children’s book The Song of the Molimo and the 2008 motion picture The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. An international conference on Benga and modern-day African Pygmies was held at Lynchburg College in October 2007. Benga is even at the forefront of twenty-first-century social media with several Facebook and MySpace Web pages created in his name.

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