The Monkey House at The Bronx Zoological Gardens: Showcases Orangutan and African Man

2 Posted by - September 10, 2015 - Injustices, LATEST POSTS, Looking Black On Today

It was on a Sunday afternoon September 9. 1906, there was a painted sign that set outside the Bronx Zoological Gardens that greeted visitors to the Monkey House. The cage was a large open-air space with a floor that had been artfully strewn with bones to suggest that the occupants of it were savages. Quietly sitting on a hammock, wearing a jacket, trousers, and no shoes weaving a mat was diminutive man. He would occasionally get up to shoot arrows at a bale of hay. Later on during the day an orangutan would be let into the cage. The African man was encouraged to play with the often. They would hug each other and chase one another around the cage. They was not much bigger than the orangutan. The New York Times reported, that it was the best opportunity for people to study the resemblance between the two. It was reported “their heads were much alike, and they both grinned the same way when pleased.” (New York Times)

bronx zoo

Samuel Verner began traveling to the at the age of twenty-two looking for Pygmies. On his first two expeditions he brought back to Africans. He had a shopping list of things he wanted to bring back which included: twelve Pygmies, six more Africans of miscellaneous tribes, plus all the paraphernalia of daily living they would need to set themselves up as authentic exhibits in St. Louis. Verner did his best in the face of persistent fever, but in the end he could persuade just five Pygmies to accompany him to America—one of them was . had recently lost his family to butchers while he was out hunting. When he returned he found his wife and children slaughtered along with others.

"Cannibal." (Ota Benga, Pygmy. Part of Department of Anthropology at the 1904 World's Fair). Photograph by the Gerhard Sisters, 1904. Missouri History Museum Photographs and Prints collections. Gerhard Sisters Collection. n28117. {"subject_uri":"","local_id":"34468"}

“Cannibal.” (Ota Benga, Pygmy. Part of Department of Anthropology at the 1904 World’s Fair). Photograph by the Gerhard Sisters, 1904.

The Pygmies were used as the most popular attractions at the St. Louis Fair in 1904. They were made to snap their filed teeth at visitors and perform ritual dances. One of Ota Benga’s companions complained to reporters that they often gave white people presents when they visited them, but they only treated them like they do their pet monkey. They laugh at us and poke us in the face with their umbrellas.” At the end of the fair the Ota and his companions were returned to their native home. Ota remarried but his wife died of a snake bite. So, he was alone again and at his request wished to return to America despite of his treatment before.


When Verner unloaded his animals at the Bronx Zoo he left Ota Beng there as part of the package deal. At first Ota simply went unnoticed, he just walked around and fed the animals until the zoo director wanted to make more money and showcase him the paper read: BUSHMAN SHARES A CAGE WITH BRONX PARK APES, Said The New York Times, and forty thousand people turned out on a single afternoon to see the “wild man from Africa.”

There were many people who were appalled by the showcase. One white person wrote. “I lived in the south several years, and consequently am not over fond of the negro,” one wrote, “but believe him human. I think it a shame that the authorities of this great city should allow such a sight as … a negro boy on exhibition in a monkey cage.”

Otta Benga began to fight back at those who poked him with umbrellas and got in his face tormented him. Toward the end Hornaday decided his prize exhibit had become more trouble than he was worth and turned him over to the Reverend Gordon, who also headed the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum in Brooklyn. There, studying alongside children one-third his age, Ota Benga did learn to write a little. But, Howard finally admitted, “his age was against his development. It was simply impossible to put him in a class to receive instructions . . . that would be of any advantage to him. In 1910 Ota Benga finally asked to be allowed to attend the Baptist Seminary at Lynchburg, Virginia. There he received Christian baptism, had his name changed to Otto Bingo, even had his filed teeth capped.” (New York Times)

 However, in the end Ota Benga was very displeased with things in his life, he took out his capped teeth, laid them beside him and shot himself through the heart.

Video: YouTube posted by: Global Black Feminist Reading Circle


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