New book details story of black man caged in a New York zoo in early 1900s

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A new book details the shocking story of a Congolese man who was caged in a New York zoo and put on display as the “missing link” between man and ape.

The book, Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Bengawas written by journalist Pamela Newkirk and details the sad tale of how one man came to be a zoo exhibit, according to the Daily Mail.

Ota Benga, at 4 feet 11 inches and 103 pounds, was a small man whose teeth had been filed into points in a decorative custom of his tribe. He was the star attraction of the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904, along with a tribe of Ainu people from an island north of Japan, but two years later, he was moved into a cage with an orangutan at what is now called the Bronx zoo.

Ota was called a Congolese pygmy, and visitors would pay a quarter to come stare at the man as he played with the orangutan and chattered in a language that the orangutan seemed to understand. But beyond his pointed teeth, which the zoo used as proof that he was “wild” and could tear apart his prey, he seemed to be no different from any other man.

While on display, Ota wore modern clothing but went barefoot. He showed off his prowess with a bow and arrow and with weaving mats.

The book described the scene of spectators: “Children giggled and hooted with delight while adults laughed, many uneasily, at the human spectacle.”

Eventually, black clergymen were able to get the exhibit closed after they pointed out the egregious racism of the whole thing, and Ota was sent to an orphanage, where he learned to speak English and was eventually taken in by a family in Virginia.

However, Ota’s experience, while unique, was not a singular incident. It was part of a larger problem of racism as well as extreme atrocities committed in the Belgian Congo.

“During Leopold II’s savage reign between 1885 and 1905, ten million or more of Benga’s people were systematically murdered, and more were tortured and enslaved while the country’s resources were plundered,” Newkirk writes. “Leopold enforced labor through routinely executed rape, mutilation, torture, and murder to enrich himself by feeding the international demand for rubber, copper and other minerals.”

While Ota was eventually freed from his cage, he could not return home to the Congo, and in 1916, “he fired a bullet through his broken heart.”

“This appears to be the saga of one man’s degradation – of a shocking and shameful spectacle – on closer inspection it is also the story of an era, of science, of elite men and institutions, and of racial ideologies that endure today,” Newkirk writes.

“It says a lot about where we were at that moment in time where race was concerned. When people think of New York, they think of this as a progressive city. Just shows we’re not as progressive as we like to believe,” Newkirk told a reporter.