12 September 2015

The Guardian: “The man who was caged in a zoo”

In anticipation of larger crowds after the publicity in the New York Times, Benga was moved from a smaller chimpanzee cage to one far larger, to make him more visible to spectators. He was also joined by an orangutan called Dohang. While crowds massed to leer at him, the boyish Benga, who was said to be 23 but appeared far younger, sat silently on a stool, staring – sometimes glaring – through the bars.

The exhibition of a visibly shaken African with apes in the New York Zoological Gardens, four decades after the end of slavery in America, would highlight the precarious status of black people in the nation’s imperial city. It pitted the “coloured” ministers, and a few elite allies, against a wall of white indifference, as New York’s newspapers, scientists, public officials, and ordinary citizens revelled in the spectacle. By the end of September, more than 220,000 people had visited the zoo – twice as many as the same month one year earlier. Nearly all of them headed directly to the primate house to see Ota Benga.

Pamela Newkirk

When people get outraged about the treatment of women and minorities in the third world, it would help to remember that similar abuses were common in the West just a century ago. Or, in the case of the United States, are still happening today.

Ota Benga at St Louis World's Fair
Ota Benga (second from left) and fellow countrymen at the St Louis World’s Fair, 1904 | Photograph: University of South Carolina

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