The Sad Story of Ota Benga

Ota Benga was a pygmy who was brought from what was then the Belgian Congo to be an anthropology exhibit at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (e.g. the St. Louis World Fair) in 1904.  He was later exhibited at the Bronx Zoo in 1906 as a human species.  I happened to have visited that zoo some 90 years later which I will discuss later in this post.

ota_benga_1904Benga was bought by African slave traders by the explorer Samuel Phillips Verner.  He was specifically looking to buy humans for the big exposition.

His sad tale eventually included being exhibited with monkeys at the Bronx Zoo although he was free to roam around the zoo.  The exhibit sign at the zoo said the following:

The African Pigmy, “Ota Benga”

Age, 23 years. Height, 4 feet 11 inches.  Weight, 103 pounds. Brought from the Kasai River, Congo Free State, South Central Africa, by Dr. Samuel P. Verner. Exhibited each afternoon during September.

Note the sign didn’t mention he was bought from slave traders – just that he was “brought”.  A delegation of African American churches petitioned for Benga’s release from the Bronx Zoo which was granted.  He was released to the Reverend James M. Gordon and eventually made his way to Virginia.  Eventually he committed suicide at the age of 32.

Stories like this are a quickly forgotten part of our dark history as a country.  I am  not a hater of our country but do prefer our whole history be taught.  Its also important to point out that it might well be the case that Benga was captured and sold by other Africans – that is part of the later slave trade history as Sheldon Stern points out:

However, confronting the history of the Atlantic slave trade requires more than a sentence acknowledging that the Amistad prisoners “had been captured in Africa by Africans who sold them to European slave traders.” Website readers must understand that this terrible traffic in millions of human beings had been, as affirmed by the PBS Africans in America series, a joint venture: “During this era, Africans and Europeans stood together as equals, companions in commerce and profit. Kings exchanged respectful letters across color lines and addressed each other as colleagues. Natives of the two continents were tied into a common economy.”2

– See more at:

Ironically a number of years ago I did a presentation at the Bronx Zoo to help build their presence on the Internet (this was the early Dot Com boom days of the 90s).  The gate I pulled up to was covered with sheet metal that was riddled with bullets.  We asked the guard why that was the case and he said at night the locals like to have fun shooting at the guards.  At lunch that day we ate on the “Italian” street that was controlled by the mafia and we made sure to not wander to any of the surrounding streets.

Even 90 some years later the sad side of mankind was on display around the Bronx Zoo.  The sad truth is that humans can be mean, ugly, smelly, ruthless, evil and cruel creatures.  The sooner we realize that there is only one hope for Earth, Christ, the sooner we can begin to heal and bring reconciliation.


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