The Human Zoo

By James MacDougall

He lost his family to Belgian colonial enforcers, was put on exhibit at the St. Louis World’s Fair and lived in the Bronx Zoo. This is the story of Ota Benga a Mbuti (Bambuti) Pygmy born in the Congo in the 1880s and died by his own hand at the age of 32 in the United States of America.

Ota Benga
Ota Benga. Gerhard Sisters Collection. 1904. Missouri Historical Society.

At the turn of the 19th century it was a white man’s world. 1 It was the age of empire and the pinnacle of colonial expansion. Queen Victoria sat on her throne and ruled over an Empire so vast it was commonly referred to as “the empire on which the sun never sets.” 2Pax Britannica straddled the globe reaching from Canada to Hong Kong, from India to Ireland, from Egypt to Australia, from South Africa to Jamaica.  Britain was not alone in the colonial exercise as the French, Dutch, Belgians and Germans, along with the fledgling United States of America competed in dominating overseas properties.

British Empire
British Empire

The lands, resources and people of the world were seen to be the white man’s to be surveyed, managed and exploited, but it was also considered “the white man’s burden” to bring the perceived benefits of the light of Christianity, scientific knowledge and civilization to what were regarded as the ignorant and savage, primitive classes of humanity. 3

In 1884 a leading exponent of colonialism, Jules Ferry stated : “The higher races have a right over the lower races, they have a duty to civilize the inferior”. 4 In that time this was considered a perfectly rational and acceptable statement to make regarding the relationship between the white Euro-centric world and those who were not white. Evolutionary science of the time supported the notion that white people were at the top of a biological hierarchy and anthropology, the study of humanity, grew out of the requirements of colonial expansionism to observe, record and manage the ‘exotic’ people the colonials encountered 5

white man's burden
“The White Man’s Burden.” by Victor Giliam, Judge, 1899.

Ota Benga lived in what was then the Belgian Congo. His wife and children were slaughtered by Force Publique enforcers  while he was out hunting. Congolese villages were required to meet rubber and ivory quotas or face extermination. Over decades an estimated 10,000,000 Congolese were slaughtered in the pursuit of rubber. 6

he intent was to illustrate contemporary notions of cultural evolution  “representatives of all the world’s peoples, ranging from smallest pygmies to the most gigantic peoples, from the darkest blacks to the dominant whites” to show what was commonly thought then to be a sort of cultural evolution  8

Ota (along with his fairground neighbour Apache leader Geronimo) proved to be a popular attraction at the World’s Fair. His sharp filed teeth and tiny stature made him a national representative of the ” savage African cannibal” to the throngs who saw him at the fair. When the fair ended he returned for a time to Africa but found he no longer fit in and he returned to the States.

Ota Benga at the Bronx Zoo
Ota Benga at the Bronx Zoo

For a time he lived at the American Museum of Natural History where he functioned as a living exhibit acting as a “primitive” in front of a “civilized” audience. In 1906 he was taken to live at the Bronx Zoo where he was encouraged to befriend apes and monkeys. A sign was made for him:

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 Cen-
tral Africa, by Dr. Samuel P. Verner. Ex-
hibited each afternoon during September. 9

otabenga clip

Initially Ota roamed freely but was eventually made to display himself along with the apes. not everyone found this acceptable and public pressure eventually drove the Bronx Zoo to turn Ota Benga loose. This was not an easy transition for Benga. For a time he was placed in an orphanage and later with the McCray family of Lynchburg Virginia. At this time his sharpened teeth were capped as attempts were made to assimilate him into society. He went to school and worked in a tobacco plant. never feeling at home Ota wanted to return to Africa but in 1914 World War I broke out ending the likelihood of travel. “On March 20, 1916, at the age of 32, he built a ceremonial fire, chipped off the caps on his teeth, and shot himself in the heart with a stolen pistol.” 10

Ota Benga: The Pygmy in the Zoo
Ota Benga: The Pygmy in the Zoo

You can read Ota Benga’s life story in Ota Benga: The Pygmy in the Zoo. (New York: St. Martins Press, 1992) by Phillips Verner Bradford and Harvey Blume.


  1. Schwarz Bill, The White Man’s World, Oxford University Press, 2013
  2. The Official Website of the British Monarchy
  3. Said, Edward, Orientalism, (Vintage 1979).
  4. Jouannet, Emmanuelle. The Liberal-Welfarist Law of Nations: A History of International Law. (Cambridge UP, 2012). p. 142.
  5. Diane Lewis, Anthropology and Colonialism: Cultural Anthropology (December.1973)
  6. Hochschild, Adam, King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa (Mariner Books, 1999)
  7. Bradford, Phillips Verner; Blume, Harvey. Ota Benga: The Pygmy in the Zoo. (New York: St. Martins Press, 1992) pp. 102-103.
  8. Bradford, Phillips Verner; Blume, Harvey. Ota Benga: The Pygmy in the Zoo. (New York: St. Martins Press, 1992) p.5.
  9. Man and Monkey Show Disapproved by Clergy, The New York Times, September 10, 1906, pg. 1.
  10. Encyclopedia Virgina: Ota Benga

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