Ota Benga was born in the year 1883 in the Ituri Forest which became the Congo Free State and it is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He was born into the Mbuti Pygmy colony, one of many small groups of extended family groups of between 15 to 20 people. These colonies were always wandering about, moving from one temporary village or camp to another as shown by the seasons and hunting opportunities throughout the year.
At the 1885 Berlin Conference that separated parts of Africa, King Leopold II of Belgium was allowed to take possession of the Congo Free State. In order to make his possession profitable, Leopold began to exploit the region’s resources including rubber and established authorities by forcing labor on the inhabitants including the Mbuti Pygmies which often were reinforced by beatings, handicappings, and murderings.
When Benga, was a teenager, he used to go for animal hunts. After returning from an elephant hunt one day, he found out his entire family and village had been slaughtered by Force Publique, the private army of King Leopold created to enforce rubber production quotas. Benga now alone and defenseless, he was kidnapped by slave traders and put to work as a laborer in an agricultural village.
In 1904, Benga was freed by an American missionary and amateur anthropologist Samuel Phillips Verner who was under contract from the Louisiana Purchase Exposition to bring back pygmies to be part of a human exhibition at the fair. Verner found Benga and negotiated his release from the slave traders for a pound of salt and a bolt of cloth. Verner then enlisted other Africans for the exhibit as well and the group was brought to St. Louis in June, 1904.
The Africans were displayed and Ota Benga became a particularly popular “performer” who attracted huge crowds. On exhibit at the same time with the Apache chief Geronimo, the two became friends. For his efforts, Verner was awarded a gold medal in anthropology at the close of the Expedition.
Verner and Benga returned to central Africa at the end of the Exposition but Benga, feeling he no longer belonged, chose to come back with the anthropologist to the United States in 1906. Verner took Benga to the Bronx Zoo where he was hired to help with the animalizing the beginning but however the Zoo officials however began to exhibit him in the Monkey House where again he attracted large crowds. While Benga proved a popular “attraction,” a group of black New York clergymen led by Rev. James H. Gordon, demanded that he should be freed. By the end of 1906, the 23-year-old Benga was released to the custody of Rev. Gordon who placed him in the New York City’s Howard Colored Orphan Asylum.
In 1910, Gordon arranged for Benga to relocate to Lynchburg, Virginia where he received formal schooling and religious training for the first time. Benga started to work at a local tobacco factory to pay for his journey back to Central Africa. By 1914, however World War I began and severely limited passenger ship travel. On March 20th, 1916, Ota was overwhelmed with depression and heartbreak, Ota Benga then committed suicide in Lynchburg, Virginia. He died at the age of 33 in Lynchburg, in Virginia.
Video credit: Wealthy Casual