Genetic differences are imperative to the theory of naturalistic evolution
because they are the only source of innovation for evolutionary advancement.
History and tradition has, often with tragic consequences, grouped human
phenotypes that result from genotypic variations together into categories
now called races. Races function as evolutionary selection units that
are of such major importance that the subtitle of Darwin's classic 1859
book, The Origin of Species, was "the preservation of superior
races." This work was critical in establishing the importance of
the race fitness idea, and especially the "survival of the fittest"
concept in evolution. The question being asked in the early 1900's was:
Who was, [and] who wasn't human? It was
a big question in turn-of-the-century Europe and America. . .The Europeans.
. .were asking and answering it about Pygmies. . .often influenced by
the current interpretations of Darwinism, so it was not simply who was
human, but who was more human, and finally, who was the
most human, that concerned them (Bradford and Blume, 1992, p.
The racism that evolution spawned-the belief some
races were inferior and closer to the lower primates-included the polythyletic
view that Blacks had evolved from the strong but less intelligent Gorillas,
the Orientals from the Orangutans, and Whites from the most intelligent
of all primates, the Chimpanzees (Crookshank, 1924). The belief that
Blacks were less evolved than Whites and, as many early evolutionists
concluded, would eventually become extinct, is a major chapter in our
modem western cultural history. The nefarious fruits of evolutionism,
from the Nazis' conception of racial superiority to its utilization
in developing governmental policy, are all well documented (Bergman,
There was especially a concern about evolutionism because
of the problem of racism in early twentieth century America. Some scientists
felt that the solution was to allow Darwinian natural selection to operate
without interference. In Bradford and Blume's words,
Darwin was understood to have shown that
when left to itself, natural selection would accomplish extinction.
Without slavery to embrace and protect them, or so it was thought, blacks
would have to compete with Caucasians for survival. Whites' greater
fitness for this contest was [then believed] beyond dispute. The disappearance
of blacks as a race, then, would only be a matter of time (1992, p.
Each new American census though, showed that this prediction
of Darwin was wrong because "the Black population showed no signs
of failing, and might even on the rise.... Not content to wait for natural
selection to grind out the answer," one senator even tried to arrange
a state of affairs to convince or even force Blacks to return to Africa
(Bradford and Blume, 1992, p. 41).
One of the more interesting incidences in the history
of evolution and racism is the story of the man who was put on display
in a zoo (Brix, 1992). Brought from the Belgian Congo in 1904 by noted
African explorer Samuel Verner, he was soon "presented by Verner
to the Bronx Zoo director, William Hornaday" (Sifakis, 1984, p.
253). The man, a pygmy named Ota Benga (or "Bi" which means
"friend" in Benga's language), was born in 1881 in Africa.
When put in the zoo, he was about 23 years old, four feet-eleven inches
tall, and weighed a mere 103 pounds. Often referred to as a boy, he
was actually a twice married father-his first wife murdered by the white
colonists, and his second spouse died from a poisonous snake bite (Bridges,
He was first displayed in the anthropology wing at the
1904 St. Louis World's Fair with other pygmies as "emblematic savages"
along with other "strange people" The exhibit was under the
direction of W J. McGee of the Anthropology Department of the St. Louis
World's Fair. McGee's ambitions for the exhibit were to "be exhaustively
scientific in his demonstration of the stages of human evolution. Therefore
he required 'darkest Blacks' to set off against 'dominant whites' and
members of the 'lowest known culture' to contrast with 'its highest
culmination'" (Bradford and Blume, 1992, pp. 94-95). The exhibit
was also extremely popular and "attracted considerable attention"
(Verner, 1906a, p. 471). The pygmies were selected because they had
attracted much attention as an example of a primitive race. One Scientific
American article said:
The personal appearance, characteristics,
and traits of the Congo pygmies... [conclude they are] small, apelike,
elfish creatures, furtive and mischievois, they closely parallel the
brownies and goblins of our fairy tales. They live in the dense tangled
forests in absolute savagery, and while they exhibit many ape-like features
in their bodies, they possess a certain alertness, which appears to
make them more intelligent than other negroes.
... The existence of the pygmies is of
the rudest; they do not practise agriculture, and keep no domestic animals.
They live by means of hunting and snaring, eking this out by means of
thieving from the big negroes, on the outskirts of whose tribes they
usually establish their little colonies, though they are as unstable
as water, and range far and wide through the forests. They have seemingly
become acquainted with metal only through contact with superior beings
. . . (Keane, 1907, pp. 107-108).
While the pygmies stayed in America, they were studied
by scientists to answer such questions as "how did the barbaric
races compare with intellectual defective Caucasians on intelligence
tests" or "how quickly would they respond to pain" (Bradford
and Blume, 1992, pp. 113, 114). The anthropometricists and psychometricists
concluded that their intelligence tests proved that pygmies "behaved
a good deal in the same way as the mentally deficient person, making
many stupid errors and taking an enormous amount of time" (Bradford
and Blume, 1992, p. 121). Nor did they do very well in the sports competition.
In Bradford and Blume's words, "The disgraceful record set by the
ignoble savages" was so poor that "never before in the history
of sport in the world were such poor performances recorded." (1992,
p. 122). Ironically, Professor Franz Boas of Columbia University, a
Jew who was one of the first anthropologists who opposed the racism
of Darwinism-and who spent his life fighting the now infamous Eugenics
movement- "lent his name" to the anthropological exhibit at
the St. Louis Fair (Bradford and Blume, 1992, p. 113).
The anthropologists then measured not only the live
humans, but in one case a "primitive's" head was ... severed
from the body and boiled down to the skull. Believing skull size to
be an index of intelligence, scientists were amazed that this skull
was larger than that which had belonged to the statesman Daniel Webster"
(Bradford and Blume, 1992, p. 16).
A Scientific American editor said of the Fair, "of
the native tribes to be seen in the exposition, the most primitive are
the Negritos--little fellows of a distinctly negro type ... nothing
makes them so happy as to show their skfll, by knocking a five-cent
piece out of a twig of a tree at a distance of 15 paces. Then there
is the village of the Head-Hunting Igorotes, a race that is generally
superior to the Negritos and a fine type of agricultural barbarians"
(Munn, 1904, p. 64). The same source referred to pygmies as "ape-like
little black people" (Munn, 1905, p.107) and theorized that the
The anthropoid apes were soon followed
by the earliest type of humanity which entered the Dark Continent, and
these too, urged on by the pressure of superior tribes, were gradually
forced into the great forests. The human type, in all probability, first
emerged from the ape in southeastern Asia, possibly in India. The higher
types forced the negro from the continent in an eastward direction,
across the intervening islands, as far as Australia, and westward into
Africa. Even today, ape-like negroes are found in the gloomy forests,
who are doubtless direct descendants of these early types of man, who
probably closely resembled their simian ancestors ..... They are often
dirty-yellowish brown in color and covered with a fine down. Their faces
are fairly hairy, with great prognathism, and retreating chins, while
in general they are unintelligent and timid, having little tribal cohesion
and usually living upon the fringes of higher tribes. Among the latter,
individual types of the lower order crop out now and then, indicating
that the two were, to a certain extent merged in past ages (Munn, 1905,
When on display, the pygmies were treated quite in contrast to how
they first treated the whites who came to see them in Africa. When Verner
visited the African king,
he was met with songs and presents, food
and palm wine, drums. He was carried in a hammock ... how were the Batwa
treated in St. Louis? With laughter. Stares. People came to take their
picture and run away.. . [and] came to fight with them. ... Verner had
contracted to bring the Pygmies safely back to Africa. It was often
a struggle just to keep them from being torn to pieces at the fair.
Repeatedly...the crowds became agitated and ugly; the pushing and grabbing
took on a frenzied quality. Each time, Ota and the Batwa were "extracted
only with difficulty." Frequently, the police were summoned (Bradford
and Blume, 1992, pp.118-119).
How Ota Came to the United States
Ota Benga was spared from a massacre perpetuated by the Force Publique,
a group of thugs working for Belgium government endeavoring to extract
tribute (in other words, steal) including labor and raw materials from
the native Africans in the Belgian Congo. The story is as follows: Ota
was out on a hunt, he successfully killed an elephant, and then came
back with the good news to the people. Tragically, the "camp"
Ota left behind ceased to exist. What Ota saw when he returned was different
enough from what he remembered to make him doubt his eyes" (Bradford
and Blume, 1992, p. 104). In short, his wife and children were all murdered,
and their bodies were mutilated in a campaign of terror undertaken by
the Belgian govemment against the "evolutionarily inferior natives."
Ota himself was later captured, brought to a village, and sold into
In the meantime, Verner was looking for several pygmies to display
at the Lousiana Purchase exposition and spotted Ota at the slave market.
Verner bent down "and pulled the pygmy's lips apart to examine
his teeth. He was elated; the filed [to sharp points] teeth proved the
little man was one of those he was commissioned to bring back.... With
salt and cloth he was buying him for freedom, Darwinism, and the West"
(Bradford and Blume, 1992, p. 106). Ota's world was shattered by the
Whites, and although he did not know if the white man who was now his
master had the same intention, he did know he had little choice but
to go with him. Besides this, the events of the slave market were only
one more event in Ota's life which pushed him further into the nightmare
which began with his discovery of the slaughter and gross mutilation
of his family. Verner managed to coerce only four pygmies to go back
with him, a number which "fell far short of McGee's initial specification,
the shopping list that called for 18 Africans, but it would do"
(Bradford and Blume, 1992, p. 110).
After the fair, Verner took Ota and the other pygmies back to Africa-Ota
almost immediately remarried, but his second wife also soon died (a
victim of snake bite) . He now no longer belonged to any clan or family
since they were all killed or sold into slavery. His other people ostracized
him, calling him a warlock, and claiming that he had chosen to stand
in the White man's world outside of theirs. The white men were both
admired and feared, and were regarded with awe and concern: they could
do things like record human voices on Edison cylinder phonographs-which
the pygmies saw as machines that stole the soul out of the body, allowing
the body to sit and listen to its soul talking (Verner, 1906b).
After Verner collected his artifacts for the museums, he decided to
take Ota back to America, (although Verner claims that it was Ota's
idea) just for a visit though-Verner would take him back to Africa the
next time he visited there. Back in America, Verner endeavored to sell
his animals to zoos, sell his crates of things that he brought back
from Africa to museums, and also to place Ota Benga. When Ota was presented
to Director Hornaday of the Bronx Zoological Gardens, Hornaday's intention
was clearly to "display" Ota. Hornaday "maintained the
hierarchical view of races ... large-brained animals were to him what
Nordics were to Grant, the best evolution had to offer" (Bradford
and Blume, 1992, p. 176). This "believer in the Darwinian theory-
also concluded that there exists "a close analogy of the African
savage to the apes" (New York Times, Sept. 11, 1906, p. 2). And
too, Verner was then having serious money problems and could not afford
to take care of Ota. At first Ota was free to wander around the zoo,
helping out with the care of the animals, but this was soon to drastically
Homaday and other zoo officials had long
been subject to a recurring dream in which a man like Ota Benga played
a leading role ... a trap was being prepared, made of Darwinism, Barnumism,
pure and simple racism . . . so seamlessly did these elements come together
that later those responsible could deny, with some plausibility, that
there had ever been a trap or plan at all. There was no one to blame,
they argued, unless it was a capricious pygmy or a self-serving press
(Bradford and Blume, 1992, p. 174).
Ota was next encouraged to spend as much time as he wanted inside the
monkey house. He was even given a bow and arrow and was encouraged to
shoot it is part of "an exhibit." Ota was soon locked in his
enclosure-and when he was let out of the monkey house, 'the crowd stayed
glued to him- and a keeper stayed close by' (Bradford and Blume, 1992,
p. 180). In the meantime, the publicity began-on September 9, the New
York Times headline screamed, "bushman shares a cage with the Bronx
Park apes." Although the director, Dr. Homaday, insisted thatt
he was merely offeringan "intriguing exhibit" for the public's
edification, he "apparently saw no difference between a wild beast
and the little Black man; [and] for the first time in any American zoo,
a human being was displayed in a cage. Benga was given cage-mates to
keep him company in his captivity-a parrot and an Orangutan named Dohong"
(Sifakis, 1984, p. 253).
A contemporary account stated that Ota was "not much taller than
an orangutan . . their heads are much alike, and both grin in the same
way when pleased" (Bradford and Blume, 1992, p.181). Benga also
came over from Africa with a fine young chimpanzee" which Mr. Verner
also deposited "in the ape collection at the Primates House"
(Hornaday,1906, p. 302). Hornaday's enthusiasm for his new primate exhibit
was reflected in an article that he wrote which begins as follows:
On September 9, a genuine African
Pygmy, belonging to the sub-race commonly miscalled 'the dwarfs'. .
.Ota Benga is a well developed little man, with a good head, bright
eyes and a pleasing countenance. He is not hairy and is not covered
by the 'downy fell' described by some explorers. . . .He is happiest
when at work, making something with his hands (italics in original,
1906, p. 301).
He then tells about how he obtained the pygmy from Verner who
was specially interested in the Pygmies,
having recently returned to their homes on the Kasai River the half
dozen men and women of that race who were brought to this country by
him for exhibition in the Department of Anthropology at the St. Louis
[World's Fair] Exposition (Hornaday, 1906, p. 302).
The Influence of Evolution
The many factors motivating Verner to bring Ota to the United States
were complex, but he was evidently .much influenced by the theories
of Charles Darwin" a theory which, as it developed, increasingly
divided humankind into human contrived races (Rymer, 1992, p. 3). Darwin
also believed that the blacks were an inferior race' (Vemer, 1908a,
p. 10717). Although biological racism did not begin with Darwinism,
Darwin did more than any other man to popularize it among the masses.
As early as 1699, English Physician Edward Tyson studied a skeleton
which he believed belonged to a pygmy, concluding that this race was
apes, although it was discovered that the skeleton on which this conclusion
was based was actually a chimpanzee (Bradford and Blume, 1992, p. 20).
The conclusion in Vemer's day accepted by most scientists was that
after Darwin showed "that all humans descended from apes, the suspicion
remained that some races had descended farther than others ... [and
that] some races, namely the white ones, had left the ape far behind,
while other races, pygmies especially, had hardly matured at all"
(Bradford and Blume, 1992, p. 20). Many scholars agreed with Sir Harry
Johnson, a pygmy scholar who stated that the pygmies were "very
apelike in appearance [and] their hairy skins, the length of their arms,
the strength of their thickset frames, their furtive ways, all point
to these people as representing man in one of his earlier forms' (Keane
1907, p. 99). One of the most extensive early studies of the pygmies
concluded that they were "queer little freaks" and
T'he low state of their mental development
is shown by the following facts. They have no regard for time, nor have
they any records or traditions of the past; no religion is known among
them, nor have they any fetish rights; they do not seek to know the
future by occult means. . . in short, they are ... the closest link
with the original Darwinian anthropoid ape extant" (Burrows, 1905,
pp. 172, 182).
The pygmies were in fact a talented group-experts at mimicry physically
agile, quick, nimble, and superior hunters, but the Darwinists were
blind to an objective study of them (Johnston, 1902a; 1902b; Lloyd,
1899). An excellent modem study by Turnbull (1968) shows the pygmies
in a far more accurate light and demonstrates how absurd the evolution
world-view of the 1900s actually was.
Verner was no uninformed academic, but "compiled an academic record
unprecedented at the University of South Carolina, and in 1892, only
19 years of age, graduated first in his class" (Bradford and Blume,
1992, p. 69). In his studies, Verner
familiarized himself with the works of
Charles Darwin. The Origin of Species and Descent of Man
engaged Verner on an intellectual level, as the theory of evolution
promised to give scientific precision to racial questions that long
disturbed him. According to Darwin...'it was more probable that our
early progenitors lived on the African continent then elsewhere' (Bradford
and Blume, 1992, p. 70).
His studies especially motivated him to answer questions about Pygmies
Who and what are they? Are they men, or
the highest apes? Who and what were their ancestors? What are their
ethnic relations to the other races of men? Have they degenerated from
larger men, or are the larger men a development of Pygmy forefathers?
These questions arise naturally, and plunge the inquirer at once into
the depths of the most heated scientific discussions of this generation
(Verner, 1902b, p. 192).
One hypothesis he considered was that the
Pygmies present a case of unmodified structure
from the beginning [a view which is]...against both evolution and degeneracy.
It is true that these little people have apparently preserved an unchanged
physical entity for five thousand years. But that only carries the question
back to the debated ground of the origin of species. The point at issue
is distinct. Did the Pygmies come from a man who was a common ancestor
to many races now as far removed from one another as my friend Teku
of the Batwa village is from the late President McKinley? (Verner, 1902b,
Many people saw a conflict between evolution and Christianity, and
"For most men, the moral resolve of an evangelist like Livingstone
and the naturalism of a Darwin cancelled each other out. To Vemer, though,
there was no contradiction ... [and he was] equally drawn to evangelism
and evolutionism, Livingstone and Darwin" (1992, p. 70,72). In
short, the "huge gap between religion and science" did not
concern Verner. He soon went to Africa to "satisfy his curiosity
first hand about questions of natural history and human evolution ...
(Bradford and Blume, 1902, p. 74). He wrote much about his trips to
Africa, even advocating that the Whites take over Africa and run the
country as "friendly directors" (Vemer, 1908b, p. 10718).
Verner concluded that the Pygmies were the "most primitive race
of mankind" and were "almost as much at home in the trees
as the monkeys" (1902b, pp. 189-190). He also argued that the blacks
in Africa should be collected into reservations and colonized by "the
White race" and concerns over the social and legal relations between
blacks and whites should be solved by "local segregation of the
races" (1906b p. 8235; 1907a, 8736). Verner was not a mean person,
and cared deeply for other races, but this care was influenced in a
major adverse way by his evolutionary beliefs (Vemer, 1902a).
Henry Fairfield Osborn-a staunch advocate of evolution who spent much
of his life proselytizing his faith and attacking those who were critical
of evolution, notably Williams Jennings Bryan, made the opening-day
remarks when the zoo first opened (Bradford and Blume, 1992, p. 175).
Osborn and other prominent zoo officials believed that not only was
Ota less evolved, but that in this exhibit the Nordic race had "access
to the wild in order to recharge itself. The great race, as he sometimes
called it, needed a place to turn to now and then where, rifle in hand,
it could hone its instincts" (Bradford and Blume, 1992, p. 175).
In one of the announcements, Ota was described as a sensation-he made
faces and "the crowd loved that" (Bradford and Blume, 1992,
p. 180). Some officials may have denied what they were trying to do,
but the public knew full well the purpose of the new exhibit: "There
was always a crowd before the cage, most of the time roaring with laughter,
and from almost every corner of the garden could be heard the question
'Where is the Pygmy?" and the answer was, 'in the monkey house'"
(NewYork Times, Sept. 10, 1906, p.1). The implications of the
exhibit were also clear from the visitors' questions:
Was he a man or monkey? Was he something
in between? "Ist das ein Mensch?" asked a German spectator.
"Is it a man?" ... No one really mistook apes or parrots for
human beings. This-it-came so much closer. Was it a man? Was it a monkey?
Was it a forgotten stage of evolution? (Bradford and Blume, 1992, p.
One learned doctor even suggested that the exhibit should also be used
to help indoctrinate the public in evolution.
It is a pity that Dr. Hornaday does not
introduce the system of short lectures or talks in connection with such
exhibitions. This would emphasize the scientific character of the service,
enhance immeasurably the usefulness of the Zoological Park to our public
in general, and to help our clergymen to familiarize themselves with
the scientific point of view so absolutely foreign to many of them (Gabriel,
1906, p. 6).
That he was on display was indisputable: a sign was posted on the enclosure
which said "The African Pygmy, '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" (New York Times, Sept. 10, 1906,
p. 1). And what an exhibit it was.
The orangutan imitated the man. The man
imitated the monkey. They hugged, they let go, flopped into each other's
arms. Dohong [the orangutan] snatched the woven straw off Ota's head
and placed it on his own.... the crowd hooted and applauded...the children
squealed with delight. To adults there was a more serious side to the
display. Something about the boundary condition of 'being human was
exemplified in that cage. Somewhere man shaded into non-human. Perhaps
if they look hard enough the moment of transition might be seen....
to a generation raised on talk of that absentee star of evolution, the
Missing Link, the point of Dohong and Ota disporting in the monkey house
was obvious (Bradford and Blume, 1992, p. 181).
It was also obvious to a New York Times reporter who stated "the
pygmy was not much taller than the orangutan, and one had a good opportunity
to study their points of resemblance. Their heads are much alike, andd
both grin in the same way when pleased" (Sept. 10, 1906, p. 1).
That he was made much fun of is also indisputable: he was once, given
a pair of shoes which over and over again the crowd laughed at him as
he sat in mute admiration of them" (New York Times, Sept. 10, 1906,
p.1). Another New York Times article by one of the editors, after studying
the situation, penned the following:
Ota Benga ... is a normal specimen of his
race or tribe, with a brain as much developed as are those of its other
members. Whether they are held to be illustrations of arrested development,
and really closer to the anthropoid apes than the other African savages,
or whether they are viewed as the degenerate descendants of ordinary
negroes, they are of equal interest to the student of ethnology, and
can be studied with profit.... As for Benga himself, he is probably
enjoying himself as well -as he could anywhere in this country, and
it is absurd to make moan over the imagined humiliation and degradation
he is suffering. The pygmies are a fairly efficient people in their
native forests....but they are very low in the human scale, and the
suggestion that Benga should be in a school instead of a cage ignores
the high probability that school would be a place of torture to him
and one from which he could draw no advantage whatever. The idea that
men are all much alike except as they have had or lacked opportunities
for getting an education out of books is now far out of date. With training
carefully adapted to his mental limitations, this pygmy would doubtless
be taught many things. . .but there is no chance that he could learn
anything in an ordinary school. (September 11, 1906, p. 6).
That the display was also extremely successful there was never
any doubt. Bradford and Blume claimed that on September 16, "40,000
visitors roamed the New York zoological Park ... the sudden surge of
interest ... was entirely attributable to Ota Benga" (1992, p.
185). The crowds were so enormous that a police officer was assigned
full-time to guard Ota (the zoo claimed this was to protect him) as
he was 'always in danger of being grabbed, yanked, poked, and pulled
to pieces by the mob" (Bradford and Blume, 1992, p. 187).
Although it was widely believed at this time, even by eminent scientists,
that Blacks were evolutionarily inferior to Caucasians, caging one m
a zoo produced much publicity, especially by ministers and Afro-Americans.
In Bridges' words
The Pygmy worked-or played-with the animals
in a cage, naturally, and the spectacle of a black man in a cage gave
a Times reporter the springboard of a story that worked up a storm of
protest among Negro ministers in the city. Their indignation was made
known to Mayor George B. McClellan, but he refused to take action (1974,
When the storm of protests broke, Hornaday "saw no reason to apologize
stating that he "had the full support of the Zoological Society
in what he was doing" (Bradford and Blume, 1992, p. 182). Evidently
not many persons were very concerned about doing anything until the
Afro-American community entered the foray. Although even some Blacks
at this time accepted the notion that the pygmies were "defective
specimens of mankind" several Black ministers were determined to
stop the exhibit (New York Times, Sept. 10, 1906, p. 1). Especially
did the use of the display to argue that Blacks were an inferior race
make them "indignant." Their concern was "they had heard
Blacks compared with apes often enough before; now the comparison was
being played flagrantly at the largest zoo on earth." In Reverend
Gordon's words, "our race ... is depressed enough without exhibiting
one of us with the apes. We think we are worthy of being considered
human beings, with souls" (New York Times, Sept. 11, 1906, P. 2).
Further, many of the ministers opposed the theory of evolution, concluding
that "the exhibition evidently aims to be a demonstration of the
Darwinian theory of evolution. The Darwinian theory is absolutely opposed
to Christianity, and a public demonstration in its favor should not
be permitted" (New York Times, quoted in Bradford and'Blume, 1992,
A Times article responded to the criticism that the display lent credibility
to evolution with the following words: -One reverend colored brother
objects to the curious exhibition on the grounds that it is an impious
effort to lend credibility to Darwin's dreadful theories ... the reverend
colored brother should be told that evolution ... is now taught in the
textbooks of all the schools, and that it is no more debatable than
the multiplication table" (Sept. 12, 1906, p. 8). Yet, Publishers
Weekly commented the creationist ministers were the only ones that "truly
cared about him" (Anon., 1992, p. 56).
Soon, some Whites also become concerned about the "caged Negro,"
and in Sifakis' words, part of the concern was because "men of
the cloth feared...that the Benga exhibition might be used to prove
the Darwinian theory of evolution" (1984, p. 253). The objections
were often vague, as in the words of the New York Times article
of September 9:
The exhibition was that of a human being
in a monkey cage. The human being happened to be a Bushman, one of a
race that scientists do not rate high in the human scale, but to the
average non-scientific person in the crowd of sightseers there was something
about the display that was unpleasant.... It is probably a good thing
that Benga doesn't think very deepIy. If he did it isn't likely that
he was very proud ot himself when he woke in the morning and found himself
under the same roof with the orangutans and monkeys, for that is where
he really is (1906, p. 9).
Some reporters, instead of ridiculing the zoo, criticized those who
objected to the exhibit because they did not accept evolution. In Bradford
and Blume's words, "New York scientists and preachers" wrangled
over Ota, and those who believed that "humans were not descended
from the apes and that Darwinism was an anti-Christian fraud ... were
subject to ridicule on the editorial pages of the New York Times"
(1992, p. 191 ,196). Although opinions about the incident varied, it
did result in many formal protests and threats of legal action to which
the zoo director eventually acquiesced, and "finally ... allowed
the pygmy out of his cage" (Sifakis, 1984,. p. 253). Once freed,
Benga spent most of his time walking around the zoo grounds in a white
suit, often with huge crowds following him. He returned to the monkey
house only to sleep at night. Being treated as a curiosity, mocked,
and made fun of by the visitors eventually caused Benga to "hate
being mobbed by curious tourists and mean children" (Milner, 1990,
p. 42). In a letter to Verner, Homaday revealed some of the many problems
that the situation had caused:
Of course we have not exhibited him [Benga]
in the cage since the trouble began. Since dictating the above, we have
had a great time with Ota Benga. He procured a carving knife from the
feeding room of the Monkey House, and went around the Park flourishing
it in a most alarming manner, and for a long time refused to give it
up. Eventually it was taken away from him. Shortly after that he went
to the soda fountain near the Bird House, to get some soda, and because
he was refused the soda he got into a great rage.... This led to a great
fracas. He fought like a tiger, and it took three men to get him back
to the monkey house. He has struck a number of visitors, and has 'raised
Cain' generally (Bridges, 1974, pp. 227-228).
He later "fashioned a little bow and a set of arrows and began
shooting at zoo visitors he found particularly obnoxious! After he wounded
a few gawkers, he had to leave the Zoological Park for good" (Milner,
1990, p.42). The New York Times described the problem as follows:
There were 40,000 visitors to the park
on Sunday. Nearly every man, woman and child of this crowd made for
the monkey house to see the star attraction in the park-the wfld man
from Africa. They chased him about the grounds all day, howling, leering,
and yelling. Some of them poked him in the ribs, others tripped him
up, all laughed at him (Sept. 18, 1906, p. 9).
The resolution of the controversy, in Ward's words, came about because:
In the end Homaday decided his prize exhibit
had become more trouble than he was worth and turned him over to the
Reverend Gordon, who also headed the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum in
Brooklyn (1992, p. 14).
Although Hornaday claimed that he was "merely offering an interesting
exhibit and that Benga was happy. . ." Milner (1990, p. 42) notes
that this "statement could not be confirmed" since we have
no record of Benga's feelings, but many of his actions reveal that he
did not adiust very well to zoo fife. Ota Benga unfortunately has left
no written records whatsoever of his thoughts about the affair or anything
else, thus the only side of the story that we have is Verner's volumous
records, the writings by Homaday, the many newspaper accounts, and a
281 page book entitled The Pygmy in the Zoo by Philip Verner
Bradford, Verner's grandson. Bradford had the good fortune in his research
that Verner saved virtually every letter that he had ever received,
many of which discuss the Ota Benga situation, all which he had access
to when doing his research. Interestingly Verner related what he feels
is the pygmy view of evolution:
After my acquaintance with the Pygmies
had ripened into complete mutual confidence, I once made bold to tell
them that some of the wise men of my country asserted that they had
descended from the apes of the forest. This statement, far from provoking
mirth, met with a storm of indignant protestation, and furnished the
theme for many a heated discussion around the Batwa firesides (Vemer,
1902a, p. 190).
After Benga left the zoo, he was able to find care at a succession
of institutions and with several sympathetic individuals, but he was
never able to shed his freak label history. First sent to a "colored"
orphanage, Ota learned English and also took an interest in a certain
young lady there, a woman named Creola. Somehow even Ota's supporters
half believed some of the stories about him, andd an incident"
soon took place there which touched off a controversy. As a result,
Ota was soon forever shuffled miles away from Brooklyn and Creola. In
January 1910 he arrived at a Black community in Lynchburg, VA, and there
he seemed to shine.
Black families [there] entrusted their
young to Ota's care. They felt their boys were secure with him. He taught
them to hunt, fish, gather wild honey ... The children felt safe when
they were in the woods with him. If anything, they found him overprotective,
except in regard to gathering wild honey - there was no such thing as
too much protection when it came to raiding hives .... A bee sting can
feel catastrophic to a child, but Ota couldn't help himself, he thought
bee stings were hilarious (Bradford and Blume, 1992, pp. 206-207).
He became a Christian, was baptized, and his English vocabulary rapidly
improved. He also learned how to read-and occasionally attended classes
at a Lynchburg seminary. He was popular among the boys, and learned
several sports such as baseball (at which he did quite well). He later
ceased attending classes and became a laborer on the Obery farm for
10 dollars a month plus room and board (Bradford and Blume,1992, p.
204). The school concluded that his lack of education progress was because
of his African 'attitude" when actually probably "his age
was against his development. It was simply impossible to put him in
a class to receive instructions ... that would be of any advantage to
him" (Ward, 1992, p. 14). He had enormous curiosity and a drive
to learn, but preferred performance tests as opposed to the multiple
Every effort was made to help him blend in (even his teeth were capped
to help him look more normal), and although he seemingly had adjusted,
inwardly he had not. Several events and changes that occurred there
caused him to become despondent. He checked on the price of steamship
tickets to Africa, and concluded that he would never have enough money
to purchase one. He had not heard from Verner in a while, and did not
know bow to contact him. Later employed as a laborer in a tobacco factory
in Lynchburg, VA, he grew increasingly depressed, hostile, irrational,
and forlorn. When people spoke to him, they noticed that he had tears
in his eyes when he told them he wanted to go home. Concluding that
he would never be able to return to his native land, on March 20, 1916
Benga committed suicide with a revolver (Sanborn, 1916). In Ward's words:
"Ota ... removed the caps from his teeth. When his small companions
asked him to lead them into the woods again, he turned them away. Once
they were safely out of sight, he shot himself . . (1992, p. 14).
To the end, Hornaday was inhumane, seriously distorting his situation,
even slanderously stating that Ota ... would rather die than work for
a living" (Bradford and Blume, 1992, p. 220). An account of his
suicide was published by Homaday in the 1916 Zoological Bulletin. Even
at this late date, Homaday's evolution-inspired racist feelings clearly
the young negro was brought to Lynchburg
about six years ago, by some kindly disposed person, and was placed
in the Virginia Theological Seminary and College here, where for several
years he labored to demonstrate to his benefactors that he did not possess
the power of leaming; and some two or three years ago he quit the school
and went to work as a laborer (emphasis mine, 1916, p. 1356).
In Hornaday's words, Ota committed suicide because "the burdern
became so heavy that the young negro secured a revolver belonging to
the woman with whom he lived, went to the cow stable and there send
a bullet through his heart, ending his life.
How did Verner's grandson, a Darwinist himself, feel about the story?
In his words,
the forest dwellers of Africa still arouse
the interest of science. Biologists seek them out to test their blood
and to bring samples of their DNA. They are drawn by new forms of the
same questions that once vexed S. P. Verner and Chief McGee; What role
do Pygmies play in human evolution? What relationship do they have to
the original human type?. . . (Bradford and Blume, 1992, pp. 230-231).
He adds that one clear difference does exist, and that is, "Today's
evolutionists do not, like yesterday's anthropometricists, inclued demeaning
comments and rough treatments in their studies (p. 231)." They
now openly admit that the "triumph of Darwinism" was "soon
after its inception [used] to reinforce every possible division by race,
gender, and nationality" (p. xx). Part of the problem also was
the press, like the public, was fascinated by, or addicted to, the spectacle
of primitive man" (p. 7). The tragedy, as Buhler expressed in a
From his native land of darkness, to the
country of the free, in the interest of science . . .brought wee little
Ota Benga . . scarcely more ape or monkey, yet a man the while! . .
.Teach the freedom we have here in this land of foremost progress-in
this Wisdom's ripest age-we have placed him, in high honor, in a monkey's
cage! Mid companions we provide him, apes, gorillas, chimpanzees (1906,
Note: the spelling in some of these quotes
has been modernized.
Newspaper Articles on Ota Benga in St. Louis
African Pygmies for the World's Fair; amazing Dwarfs of the Congo Valley
to be seen in St. Louis, some red, some black. They antedate the Negro
in Equatorial Africa. Fearless Midgets who boldly attack elephants with
tiny lances, bows and arrows. St. Louis Post-Dispach. June 26, 1904.
An untold chapter of my adventures while hunting Pygmies in Africa
[by] Samuel P. Verner. St. Louis Post-Dispatch. September 4, 1904.
Barbarians meet in athletic games; Pygmies in mud fight, pelted each
other until one side was put to rout. Crow Indian won mile run; Negritos
captured pole-climbing event and Patagonians beat Syrians in tug-of-war.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch. August 6, 1904.
Cannibals will sing and dance. St. Louis Post-Dispatch. August 6, 190-4.
Driven from huts by rainstorm; Pygmies and Ainus seek shelter for night
in Indian school; resembles Noah's Ark; savages insist on taking pets
from jungle homes with them to escape terrors of lightning. St. Louis
Post-Dispatch. Aug. 20, 1904.
Enraged Pyirmies attack visitor; H. S. Gibbons of Durango, Colorado,
photographed them, but gave no tips. He was pursued and beaten; money
would have been an effective weapon, but he wouldn't use it. July 19,
Exposition envoy Pygmies' victim? Fair officials have not heard for
two months from explorer sent to African wilds. Tribe uses deadly arrows;
perilous undertaking of Anthropological Department approved by Belgian
Colonial Government. St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Monday. April 18, 1904.
Gifts to royal pair cost $2.50; President Francis makes happy the liearts
of World's Fair Pygmies for $8.35. Barrel of salt for king; and other
presents of similar value are given little Africans before departure.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Dec. 4, 1904.
Pygmies demand a monkey's diet; gentlemen from South Africa at the
Fair likely to prove troublesome in matter of food. St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
July 2, 1904.
Pygmies shiver over camp fire; "Give us blankets," is their
greeting to missionary who brought them out of Africa. Say it's cold
in St. Louis; discard palm leaf suits for warmer clothing-declare Americans
treat them as they would monkeys. St. Louis Republic. Saturday. August
Pygmy dance starts panic in Fair Plaza; seeing unclad Africans advancing
toward her, brandishing their spears, woman screams and crowd follows
her in terror. St. Louis Post-Dispatch. July, 1904.
10,000 strange people for Fair; The World's Fair Pike will soon be
the most cosmopolitan spot on face of the earth. Whole shiploads en
route; furthermost corners of the earth are to be represented by natives
in their characteristic splendor. St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Friday. April
To exhibit man at the St. Louis Fair; Dr. McGee gathering types and
freaks from every land. He explains the plans of the Department of Anthropology,
of which he is the head. New York Times. Nov. 16, 1904?
Trying ordeal for savages; scientists will begin a special study of
World's Fair Tribes September 1. St. Louis Republic. Aug. 14, 1904.
Verner escapes being eaten by cannibals; Man who went in quest of African
Pygmies cables exposition company. St. Louis Republic. May 5, 1904.
World's Fair Department of Anthropology: portions of ancient cities
are to be represented and unwritten history revealed. Treasures of antiquity
will be so arranged as to show the bearing man's past achievements have
upon contemporary progress. St. Louis Republic. March 6, 1904
Newspaper Articles on Ota Benga in New York
African Pygmy's fate is still undecided; Director Hornaday of the Bronx
Zoo throws up his hands. Asylum doesn't take him; Benga meanwhile laughs
and plays with a ball and mouth organ at the same time. New York Times.
Sept 18, 1906, p. 9.
A Pygmy among the primates; one of the "bantams" of the African
race it the Zoological Park-his diversion-twenty-three, and twice married-to
return to Africa later. [New York] Evening Post. Sept. 10, 1906.
A word for Benga; Mr. Verner asks New York not to spoil his friend,
the bushman. New York Daily Tribune. Oct. 3, 1906.
Benga. New York Times. Sept. 23,1906: [Editorial] p. 8.
Bushman shares a cage with Bronx Park apes; some laugh over his antics,
but many are not pleased; keeper frees him at times; then, with bow
and arrow, the Pygmy from the Congo takes to the woods. New York Tirnes.
Sept. 9, 1906, P. 6.
Benga tries to kill; Pygmy slashes at keeper who objected to his garb.
New York Daily Tribune. Sept. 26, 1906.
Colored orphan home gets the Pygmy; he has a room to himself and may
smoke if he likes. To be educated if possible; when he returns to the
Congo he may help to civilize his people. New York Times. Sept. 29,
1906, p. 7.
Escaped the gridiron: Pygmy Man saved from cannibals visits New York.
New York Daily Tribune. Sept. 16,1906.
Hope for Ota Benga: if little, he's no fool; and has good reason for
staying in the white man's land. Won't be an entree here; but his chief
in Africa may die soon and the custom is to have a cannibal feast. New
York Times. Sept. 30,1906. p. 9.
Lively row over Pygmy. New York Times. Sept. 10, 1906.
Man and monkey show disapproved by clergy; The Rev. Dr. MacArthur thinks
the exhibition degrading. Colored ministers to act; The Pygmy has an
orang-outang as a companion now and their antics delight the Bronx crowds.
New York Times. Sept. 10, 1906, p. 1.
M'Clellan snubs colored ministers; curtly refuses to receive protest
against exhibition of man in ape cage. New York American. Sept. 12,
Negro clergy protest; displeased at exhibition of bushman in monkey
house. New York Daily Tribune. Sept. 11, 1906, p. 6.
Negro ministers act to free the Pygmy; will ask the mayor to have him
taken from monkey cage. Committee visits the zoo; public exhibitions
of the dwarf discontinued, but will be resumed, Mr. Hornaday says. New
York Times. Sept. 11, 1906, p. 2.
No aid from M'Clellen; Mayor "too busy" to see committee
of colored men; they visited to protest against the public exhibition
of a Negro dwarf in the monkey house at the Zoological Park-the delegation
told by a subordinate to complain to the New York Zoological Society.
The [New York] Evening Post. Sept. 11, 1906.
Benga at Hippodrome; Pygmy meets his old friend, the baby elephant,
giving out programmes. New York Daily Tribune. Oct. 3, 1906.
Ota Benga now a real colored gentleman; little African Pygmy being
taught ways of civilization at Howard Colored Orphan Asylum. New York
Daily Globe. Oct. 16, 1906.
Ota Benga, Pygmy tired of America; the strange little African finally
ended life at Lynchburg, Va. Once at the Bronx Zoo; his American sponsor
found him shrewd and courageous-wanted to be educated. New York Times.
July 16, 1916, p. 12.
Ota Benga says civilization is all witchcraft; on exhibition at the
New York Zoological Park, in Bronx, he rules monkey house by jungle
dread. Wants to go home to buy him a wife; African Pygmy asserts New
York is not wonderful and that we are all madmen. New York World. Sept.
Pygmy to be kept here; colored ministers want to take him when guardian
comes. New York Times. Sept. 19, 1906, p. 1.
Still stirred about Benga. New York Times. Sept. 23, 1906, p. 9.
The Black Pigmy in the monkey cage; an exhibition in bad taste, offensive
to honest men, and unworthy of New York City's government. New York
Journal. Sept. 17, 1906.
The Mayor won't help to free caged Pygmy; he refers Negro ministers
to the Zoological Society. Crowd annoys the dwarf; failing to get action
from other sources the committee will ask the courts to interfere. New
York Times. Sept. 12,1906, p. 9.
Topics of the times; send him back to the woods. New York Times. Sept.
11, 1906, p. 6.
Topics of the times; the Pigmy is not the point. New York Times. Sept.
12, 1906, p. 8.
Zoo has a pygmy too many; does anybody want this orphan boarder? He
does not bite, he does not vote, his manners, though various, are mild-Prof.
Verner, African Traveler, why don't you come and get him. New York Sun.