Mbuti or Bambuti are one of several indigenous pygmy groups in the Congo region of Africa. One famous Congolese Mbuti, who was made famous in a horrific way, committed suicide just 100 years ago. On May 20, 1916, Ota Benga put a gun to his heart and pulled the trigger. It won’t take a rocket scientist to understand why. Depression and sadness are just some modest terms to name a few of the spirits that troubled him.
In the early 1900s, a business man (or more appropriately speaking a slave trader) named Samuel Verner, tasked with the responsibility of acquiring pygmies for a cultural evolution display at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, Missouri, came into contact with Benga in 1904. Since blacks had always been grouped into one category, “Africans”, and assumed to be the wild naked swingers from trees, the logic was that Samuel was saving the young man from a wildly, beastly, cannibalistic life in Africa.
Ota’s family were killed by a Belgium militia group who set out to control the natives of that land for the large supply of rubber in the Congo. Ota had a wife and two children who were killed in such raids on villages and survived because he was on a hunting mission. To make a long story short, Ota was kidnapped and taken to America by Samuel and not just Benga but other pygmies were kidnapped as well and brought to America for an experiment.
Benga’s physical appearance, as is most Mbuti, astonished onlookers who immediately compared him to an animal, specifically for his short stature and razor sharp teeth.
Displays of humans were very common in the early 20th century in order to prove the theory of the evolution of man. Most specifically, men and women of color from the Eastern part of the world were used as examples of the lower class of humans and often put on display. Its no surprise then that Ota and his fellow men became an instant attraction. Ota’s personality was also said to have been lively and the men attracted spectators wherever they went until Ota was eventually caged at a Bronx Zoo in 1906. He eventually became fond, allegedly, of a monkey and so began The Caged Man in the Monkey House.
Ota Benga was caged like an animal at the zoo and people would come to see him the same as they would go to see a Gorilla:
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 Cen-
tral Africa, by Dr. Samuel P. Verner. Ex-
hibited each afternoon during September.
I don’t think its necessary to go on and on about this story. I think we can all see the point here. Ota Benga wasn’t the only one, Saartjie Baartman and other blacks were often held in captivity the same as the animals, locked away in cages and hidden away at zoos and other places of entertainment. Sometimes they were even forced to entertain. That is to sing, dance, or participate in a sports activity. People paid money to see this and as stated, it was common so its not like Ota was an exception. However, his story is an example of where we stood, and often where we stand, in this land. Lest we forget.