William Temple Hornaday, the zoologist and founding director of Bronx Zoo, where Ota Benga was exhibited. Photo: Wildlife Conservation Society
Another self-described African explorer, John F Vane-Tempest, published an article in the New York Times, disputing the zoos the categories of Benga as a pygmy. Under the headline What Is Ota Benga? Vane-Tempest used to say on the basis of his experience, Benga was actually a southern African Hottentot, and claimed to have conducted a dialogue with Benga in the tongue of the Hottentots. According to Vane-Tempest, Benga had professed great satisfaction with his captivity. He liked the white mans country, where he was treated as a King, had a cozy room, a splendid room in a palace full of monkeys, and enjoyed all the consolations of home except a few spouses. This preposterous account was nevertheless presented as a straightforward news story.
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 sight of Bengas captivity had erupted the outrage of African-Americans across the US. Merely racism against the negro race built 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.
He enclosed a sober statement from a committee of the Ministers Union of Charlotte, North Carolina, that read: We consider the actors or authorities in this most reprehensible conduct as offering an unpardonable insult to humanity, and especially to the religion of our Lord Jesus Christ.
But others were not so sure. The Minneapolis Journal published a photograph of Benga holding a monkey, and claimed, He is about as near an approach to the missing link as any human species yet found.
On 26 September, with protests mounting, the city controllers office sent an official to investigate a report that the zookeepers were accepting pays to permit visitors to enter Bengas sleeping quarters. The unnamed inspector visited Benga, whom he found garb in a khaki suit and a soft gray cap. He noted Bengas boyish appearance and described him as an African aborigine who park visitors believed was some sort of a wild man who can understand monkey talk. He concluded: Without attempting to discuss the intellectual accomplishments or demerits of the gentleman, it may be stated that to the unscientific intellect this aborigine of Darkest Africa does not materially differ in outward appearance at the least from some of the natives of darkest New York. He also was sceptical about claims that Bengas intellect was stunted and that he could understand the chattering monkey. He said that he would be more convinced of Bengas arrested development if Benga did not speak some English, and said that if Benga could understand the monkey, he kept the secret well to himself.
The tide had begun to turn against Hornaday and the zoo. Heated objections had begun to appear even in the pages of the New York Times. Even worse, Benga was now mounting increased resistance. When handlers tried to return him to the cage, he would bite, kick and fight his style free. On at the least one occasion he threatened custodians with a knife he had somehow got hold of. Hornaday was also unsettled by the unruly mobs that chased and taunted Ota Benga. Exasperated, Hornaday attempted to reach Verner, who had inexplicably left the city. The son must either leave here immediately or be confined, Hornaday said in a letter to Verner. Without you, he is a very unruly savage.
But as much as much as he wished to unload Benga, Hornaday refused to release him to Gordons orphanage unless Gordon promised to return him to Verner upon his return to New York. Gordon would not agree.
In the meantime, disagreement swirled around the zoo as protests picked up steam around the country. Even white southerners leapt at the opportunity to mock New Yorkers for the unseemly display A Northern Outrage, in the words of one Louisiana newspaper, which added: Yes, in the sacred city of New York where almost daily mobs find exciting athletic in chasing negroes through the street without much being said about it.
Finally, on the afternoon of Friday 28 September, 20 days after he first went on display Benga quietly left the zoo, escorted by the man who had captured him. His deviation would be as pacifies and contained as his debut was frenetic and flamboyant. Apparently no reporters were alerted to witness Bengas farewell. He was taken to the Howard Coloured Orphan Asylum, in Brooklyns Weeksville neighbourhood the finely appointed orphanage run by Gordon, in the citys largest and most affluent African-American community.
He looks like a instead dwarfed colored son of unusual amiability and curiosity, Gordon said. Now our plan is this: We are going to treat him as a visitor. We have given him a room to himself, where he can smoking if he prefers. Gordon said Benga had already learned a surprising number of English words and would soon be able to express himself.
This, he asserted, will be the beginning of his education.
In January 1910, Ota Benga is delivered to Lynchburg, Virginia a city of nearly 30,000 people, with electric streetcars, sumptuous mansions, sycamore trees and soaring mounds. As Gordon had promised when Benga first came into his care, he was sent to the Lynchburg Theological Seminary and College, a school noted for its all-black faculty and staff, which prided itself on its fierce autonomy from the white American Baptist Home Mission. At the time, many white patrons of black education insisted that blacks only receive an industrial education, but Lynchburg Theological continued to offer its students liberal arts courses.
Benga lived in a rambling yellow house across the road from the school with Mary Hayes Allen, the widow of the former president of the seminary, and her seven children. Benga, usually barefoot, often led a band of neighborhood boys to the forest to teach them the ways of a hunter: how to construct bows from vines, hunting wild turkeys and squirrels, and trap small animals. In his scrappy English, Benga often regaled the boys with narratives of his adventures hunting elephants Big, big, he would say, with outstretched arms and recounted how he celebrated a kill with a triumphant hunting song.
In Benga they found an open and patient educator, and a companion who uninhibitedly relived memories of a lost and longed-for life. Benga, in turn, had seen a surrogate home and family, and would learn their customs and the contours of their binding blackness. In their sermons and spirituals, he surely recognised a familiar sorrow.
Still, they did not know the piercing rupture of captivity the infinity of alienation that many of their forebears had known, which Benga himself now knew. While the latter are burdened and disdained in America, it was the land they had tilled and spilled blood on, the land where they created life and interred their dead. For all the rejection, they were home.
Benga had only memories, and no one but he could know what form they took. Was his sleep troubled by nightmares of being stalked by mobs, or being caged? Was he haunted by visions of murdered loved ones, or of starve, tortured, and chained Congolese?
Some nights, beneath a star-speckled sky, the boys recollected, they would watch Benga build a fire, and dance and sing around it. They were enraptured as he circled the flames, hopping and singing as if they were not there. They were no older than 10, too young to comprehend the poignancy of the ancient ritual.
But as he, and they, grew older, something changed. By 1916, Benga had lost interest in their outings to hunt and fish, and no longer seemed so eager a friend to the neighborhood children. Many had noticed his darkening disposition, his all-consuming longing be going. For hours he would sit alone in silence under a tree. Some of his young companions would recollect, decades later, a sung he used to sing, which he had learned at the Theological Seminary: I believe Ill go home/ Lordy, wont you help me.
In the late afternoon of 19 March 1916, the boys watched as Benga met timber to build a fire in the field. As the fire rose to a brilliant flame, Benga danced around it while chanting and moaning. The boys had watched his ritual before, but this time they saw a profound sorrow: he seemed eerily remote, as vacant as a ghost.
That night, as they slept, Ota Benga stole into a battered grey shed across the road from his home. Before sunup, he picked up a firearm that he had concealed there, and fired a single bullet through his own heart.
In the harrowing stillness, he was free.
Adapted from Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga, published this week( US) and 2nd July( UK) by HarperCollins.
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