The man who was caged in a zoo

A day earlier, the New York Times had reported that a young African man – a so-called “pygmy” – had been put on display in the monkey house of the city’s largest zoo. Under the headline “Bushman Shares a Cage With Bronx Park Apes”, the paper reported that crowds of up to 500 people at a time had gathered around the cage to gawk at the diminutive Ota Benga – just under 5ft tall, weighing 103lb – while he preoccupied himself with a pet parrot, deftly shot his bow and arrow, or wove a mat and hammock from bundles of twine placed in the cage. Children giggled and hooted with delight while adults laughed, many uneasily, at the sight. 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 (…) That it could have occurred in America’s most cosmopolitan city in the 20th century would seem enough cause for astonishment. But what appears on the surface to be a saga of one man’s degradation – a shameful spectacle – is, on closer inspection, the story of an era, of science, of elite men and institutions, and of racial ideologies that still endure today. (…) By Sunday 16 September, a week after his debut, Benga was no longer in the cage, but roamed the park under the watchful eye of park rangers. That day a record 40,000 people visited the zoo. Wherever Benga went, hordes followed in hot pursuit. The rowdy crowd chased Benga, and when he was cornered, some people poked him in the ribs or tripped him, while others merely laughed at the sight of a frightened “pygmy”. In self-defence, Benga struck several visitors, and it took three men to get him back to the monkey house (…) In this midst of this free-for-all, Reverend Matthew Gilbert, of Mount Olivet Baptist Church, wrote to the New York Times to report that the spectacle of Benga’s captivity had ignited the outrage of African-Americans across the US. “Only prejudice against the negro race made such a thing possible in this country,” Gilbert said. “I have had occasion to travel abroad, and I am confident that such a thing would not have been tolerated a day in any other civilised country.” (…) Benga was now mounting increased resistance. When handlers tried to return him to the cage, he would bite, kick and fight his way free. On at least one occasion he threatened caretakers with a knife he had somehow got hold of.

Pamela Newkirk in The man who was caged in a zoo (Guardian)