The story of Ota Benga

Ota Benga

In 1904, Ota Benga was brought to the United States by the missionary and explorer Samuel Phillips Verner. Verner had been hired by the St. Louis World’s Fair to bring back pygmies for one of their ethnographic exhibits.

Verner’s story is recounted by his grandson Phillips Verner Bradford in the book ‘Ota Benga: The Pygmy in the Zoo’. According to this account, Verner purchased Ota Benga from African slave traders – his wife and children had been killed in a massacre. Verner brought Benga, seven other pygmies and a young Congolese man to St Louis where they proved to be one of the most popular attractions at the fair. The crowds gawked, jeered and at one point threw mud pies at the human exhibit.

From St Louis, the group travelled to New Orleans just in time for Mardi Gras, and finally back to Africa. Benga – expressing a desire to learn to read – asked Verner to take him with him when the explorer returned home.

Verner and Ota Benga arrived in New York in August 1906. Verner, looking for a place for Benga to live, finally brought him to the Bronx Zoo, where, at first, he walked the grounds and helped the workers. But in early September, it was decided to move Benga’s hammock into an orang utan’s cage, where he was encouraged to play with the orang utan and weave caps out of straw and to shoot his bow and arrow. The zoo was encouraged by prominent eugenicist and head of the New York Zoological Society Madison Grant and a sign soon read:

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

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