Around the beginning of the last century—in 1906, to be exact—the 4’11” Ota Benga was featured in an infamous human exhibit at the Bronx Zoo’s Monkey House. Ota Benga, a Mbuti (Congolese pygmy) man from what was then known as the Congo Free State, stayed at the zoo for just a few months until the public outcry over his treatment at the zoo resulted in another home for him. However, Benga’s short life was marked with tragedy.
Ota Benga was born in the Congo Free State around 1883. At that time, the country was controlled by despotic King Leopold II of Belgium, who was responsible for the death of perhaps 10 million Congolese.
Three of the people killed by King Leopold’s Force Publique, a militia that terrorized the natives and forced them into slavery so Belgium could profit from Congo’s vast rubber trade, were young Ota Benga’s wife and two children. The only reason Benga survived was that he was out on a hunting expedition when the Force Publique attacked his village.
Benga himself was later captured by slave traders. In 1904, American entrepreneur and explorer Samuel Phillips Verner bought Benga from the traders. Verner had been commissioned to bring “representatives of all the world’s peoples, ranging from smallest pygmies to the most gigantic peoples, from the darkest blacks to the dominant whites” to the St. Louis World’s Fair.
On display at the 1904 World’s Fair, Benga became a star attraction. He had a pleasant personality, and visitors were fascinated by his teeth, which had been filed to sharp points when he was young—a common practice among the Mbuti.
Verner took Benga and other Africans back to Africa. While there, Benga married for a second time, but his wife soon died from a snakebite. Feeling out of place among the Batwa people, Benga elected to return to the US with Verner.
When Verner fell on hard times, he found a home for Benga at the Bronx Zoo. At first, Benga helped maintain animal habitats, although there’s no record he received payment for his work. The zoo director noticed that Benga was more popular than the animals, and he eventually created an exhibit at the Monkey House that spotlighted Benga.
African-American clergymen and newspapers decried Benga’s treatment at the zoo, and Benga was released to the custody of James Gordon, who ran the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum in Brooklyn. Four years later, Gordon had Benga moved to Lynchburg, Virginia, and paid to cap Benga’s famous teeth.
Although Benga had decided to stay in the US for a time, he was planning to return to his homeland. But World War I rendered travel to the Congo impossible. In 1916, depressed by his fading hopes to return to his people, 32-year-old Ota Benga ended his tragic life with a borrowed pistol.
But before killing himself, Benga built a ceremonial fire and chipped off the caps on his teeth.