It has been more than a century that young African man was exhibited in the monkey house in US. It is only now that the Bronx Zoo in New York has finally expressed regret.
The Wildlife Conservation Society’s apology for its 1906 exhibition of Ota Benga, a native of Congo, comes in the wake of global protests prompted by the videotaped police killing of George Floyd that again shone a bright light on racism in the United States.
Ota Benga, a resident of Belgian Congo was kidnapped from what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1904 by US trader Samuel Verner. His age is not known, he may have been 12 or 13. He was taken by a ship to New Orleans to be shown later that year at World’s Fair in St Louis with eight other young males.
The fair continued into the winter months where the group was kept without adequate clothing or shelter. In September 1906 he was exhibited for 20 days in New York’s Bronx Zoo, attracting huge crowds. Outrage from Christian ministers ended his incarceration and he was moved to New York’s Howard Coloured Orphan Asylum run by African American Reverend James H Gordon.
He is believed to have shot himself in March 1916, with a gun he had hidden after suffering serious depression due to his longing for home. He was thought to be aged around 25.
During a national moment of reckoning, Cristian Samper, the Wildlife Conservation Society’s president and CEO, said it was important “to reflect on WCS’s own history, and the persistence of racism in our institution”. He vowed that the society, which runs the Bronx Zoo, would commit itself to full transparency about the episode which inspired breathless headlines across Europe and the United States from 9 September 1906 – a day after Ota Benga was first exhibited – until he was released from the zoo on 28 September 1906. But the belated apology follows years of stonewalling.
Instead of capitalising on the episode as a teachable moment, the Wildlife Conservation Society engaged in a century-long cover-up during which it actively perpetuated or failed to correct misleading stories about what had actually occurred.
As early as 1906 a letter in the zoo archives reveals that officials, in the wake of growing criticism, discussed concocting a story that Ota Benga had actually been a zoo employee. Remarkably, for decades, the ruse worked.
Even now, Mr Samper has apologised for exhibiting Ota Benga for “several days”, and not for the three weeks he was held captive in the monkey house.