Ota Benga

I try to avoid linking to MySpace, but when the NY Times mentions that Ota Benga has his own MySpace page, I suppose its news. Even though Ota Benga died in 1916.

Next month it will be 100 years since Ota Benga was put on display in the monkey house at New York’s Bronx Zoo. It may seem unthinkable that something like this would happen today, but the recent controversy over the “African Village” in the Augsburg Zoo suggests that it is important to remember what happened to Ota Benga.

The new resident of the Monkey House was, indeed, a man, a Congolese pygmy named Ota Benga. The next day, a sign was posted that gave Ota Benga’s height as 4 feet 11 inches, his weight as 103 pounds and his age as 23. The sign concluded, “Exhibited each afternoon during September.”

Visitors to the Monkey House that second day got an even better show. Ota Benga and an orangutan frolicked together, hugging and wrestling and playing tricks on each other. The crowd loved it. To enhance the jungle effect, a parrot was put in the cage and bones had been strewn around it. The crowd laughed as the pygmy sat staring at a pair of canvas shoes he had been given. “Few expressed audible objection to the sight of a human being in a cage with monkeys as companions,” The New York Times wrote the next day, “and there could be no doubt that to the majority the joint man-and-monkey exhibition was the most interesting sight in Bronx Park.”

I won’t go into the details, but the Times piece provides some excellent background as to how it was that Ota Benga ended up in the zoo on that day. We are also referred to the book: Ota Benga: The Pygmy in the Zoo, by Phillips Verner Bradford and Harvey Blume.

The exhibit quickly sparked protests from the Colored Baptist Ministers’ Conference who objected not only to the racism of the exhibit, but also to its Darwinism. This relates to an earlier post I wrote on Savage Minds about how contemporary debates about teaching Darwin in the schools overlook the fact that one of the main objections to Darwin at the original Scopes monkey trial was the racist and eugenic implications of contemporary Darwinism.

One thought on “Ota Benga

  1. Kerim, I agree it is important to remember what happened to Ota Benga and to not forget our colonial heritage in general. Especially Ota Benga has been linked to the African Village Event in Augsburg Zoo. But I say, in this case, the historical perspective is misleading, because it prevents an adequate reflection of what is really going on on such events. The historical context that is stressed by connecting Ota Benga’s case with contemporary events like the african village made people expect tribal africans being put on display in huts. After the event opened those people’s reactions were “oh well, it isn’t that bad” and that was it–instead of asking for the marketing strategy that is behind such events and theme parks.
    Of course the marketing of cultures is rooted in our colonial past and the connection is to stress, but I really have missed and do miss anthropologists focussing on contemporary representation, with all due respect to anthros’ interest in history.

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