Ota Benga. The name has a lyrical quality. This is the name of the early 20th century African pygmy who was brought to the United States as an exhibit subject in 1904 and met a sad end when he couldn't find happiness in the land of opportunity. So, who was Ota Benga and why in the world would he leave the Congo to live so far away from all he knew and loved?
Benga's story is complex, fascinating, and heartbreaking. He arrived first as part of an anthropological exhibit at the St. Louis World's Fair where society's growing fascination for strange human oddities featured into the entertainment. Later he lived in a zoo alongside animals, like some sort of circus exhibit. Eventually he would attempt to find a life of normalcy but, like other social pariahs before him, found it difficult. The astonishing life of Ota Benga is full of shocking surprises and provides much food for thought about identity, race, loss, and social acceptance.
Ota Benga was born in the Congo around 1883 and a member of the Mbuti people, a pygmy tribe. He had a difficult early life, as did many people on the African continent during the 19th century. Civil wars were common between peoples, and captured enemies were often sold into slavery. The interference of Europeans on the continent also created a series of crises for Africans.
Ota Benga attempted to maintain a normal life despite the strife. He married young and had two children. He and his family lived in a forest near the Kasai River. At that time, Belgium ruled over the Congo. The Belgian king, Leopold II, sent a militia into the area where the Mbuti lived. A number of people were killed in the conflict including Ota Benga's wife and children. His life was spared because he was on a hunting trip away from home.
With the Belgian army still occupying Ota Benga's ancestral lands, Benga and others in the Mbuti tribe were enslaved. He was caged and taken to a slave market. An American missionary, S.P. Verner, spotted Benga and purchased him for several bags of salt and some brass wire. Verner had been sent to Africa specifically to locate individuals to feature in the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis, Missouri.
Upon purchasing Benga, Verner freed him and invited him and a few other tribal people to go to America with him to participate in the upcoming World's Fair.
Looking back, the anthropological exhibits at the St. Louis World's Fair appear beyond ethnocentric in nature. However, Ota Benga and his fellow pygmies on the journey (all of whom were from another tribe) made the most of it. Some of the Africans were freed from slavery and enjoyed the exotic sights and sounds of America.
Ota Benga made for a particular crowd pleaser. He was eager to meet fair visitors, and joked, talked, and laughed with them. He became so popular he started to be known by name through newspaper articles featuring him around the country. Fair patrons were impressed with his engaging personality and his ritually-sharpened teeth.
Once the World's Fair was over, Verner returned Benga and his colleagues to their homes in Africa. Benga had lost his family and was now displaced from his tribe of origin. He went to live with the Batwa tribe, several of whom he had worked with in America. He tried to settle down and took a second wife. Soon, however, he realized that he did not fit in with the Batwa people. Heartbroken and at loose ends, he asked Verner if he could return to America with him to start a new life.
Verner was having a hard time financially at the time. He contacted the director of the American Museum of Natural History. An arrangement was made for Benga to live at the museum, which was every bit as odd then as it would be today. Benga was miserable living there. His behavior became unpredictable and at a fundraising gala he threw a chair at the head of donor Florence Guggenheim. During his stay at the museum, a sculpted bust of Benga was made, which survives.