Photo credit: Michael Lionstar
A girlfriend gave me a book about Ota Benga. It was a used book with marks made with a pink highlighter. Then, a few weeks later, she gave me another copy of the same book. Did she not remember her earlier gift? For my part, I not only kept tabs on every gift I gave her, but, and I’m sure this wasn’t just because I was poor, I also remembered the price. I’m not proud of this; I’m just stating the facts.
All this is from more than two decades ago. Not Ota Benga, though. He was earlier. In the summer of 1904, Ota Benga was bought in the Congo from slave traders for a pound of salt and a bolt of cloth. The man who purchased him was an American entrepreneur and explorer named Samuel Phillips Verner. Verner was under contract to bring pygmies for display at the St. Louis World Fair. Later, Verner was awarded a gold medal for his services to the young discipline of anthropology.
In 1906, two years after being exhibited at the World Fair, Ota Benga was brought to the Bronx Zoo and locked in a monkey cage to be displayed under a sign saying “African Pygmy.” His teeth had been filed into sharp points, and this was seen as a sign of cannibalism. Ota Benga was a member of the tribe of Mbuti pygmies; he stood less than five feet tall and weighed only 100 pounds. He spoke no English. He arrived at the Bronx Zoo wearing a white linen suit, in the company of Verner, who was broke. Benga had with him a wooden box, a set of arrows, and his pet chimpanzee. Verner had contacted the zoo’s director in the hopes of securing an apartment for Benga on the zoo’s premises. The director of the Bronx Zoo decided it was better to display Benga in the orangutan’s cage. I read somewhere that bones were scattered about the cage to add a whiff of cannibalism. The zoo attracted as many as 40,000 visitors a day.
I’m not proud of this; I’m just stating the facts.
I didn’t discover all this from the books my girlfriend had given me. In fact, I had been put off by the double gift. Our relationship also ended soon thereafter. The book about Ota Benga remained unread. But his story was part of a general obsession of mine. Years earlier, as a new immigrant to America, I had begun to tell a story about myself and this story drew upon the memories of the monkeys in my childhood in India. And then another incident took place. In 2006, the senator from Virginia, a Republican named George Allen, called an Indian American youth a “macaca.” Allen was on the campaign trail and the teen that he called “macaca” was working for his Democratic opponent. At his rally, Allen drew his supporters’ attention to the young man: “Let’s give a welcome to Macaca here. Welcome to America and the real world.” Then Allen began to talk about the War on Terror.
The racist story of seeing the foreigner from Africa or Asia as a less evolved animal seemed familiar enough, but the story I wanted to tell about the monkeys from my Indian childhood quickly became complicated when I discovered through newspaper reports and further research that young male monkeys, rhesus macaques, had been exported to the U.S. in large numbers. This had happened right up to the 1980s. The Indian government had been told that the monkeys would be used in the U.S. for medical research, but the reality was likely grimmer. Morarji Desai, the Indian Prime Minister at that time, banned the export of monkeys because he had reason to believe that they were being put to military use to test defense systems and new weaponry.
Soon, I was coming across bits of information about monkeys having been used in past decades for research in the U.S. NASA’s public records indicate that on June 11, 1948, a V-2 Blossom launched into space from White Sands, New Mexico, carried Albert I, a rhesus monkey. On June 11, 1949, Albert II was sent into space, gaining an altitude of 83 miles. Upon return, the monkey died on impact. On December 12, 1949, the last V-2 monkey flight was launched at White Sands. On this occasion the passenger was Albert IV: “It was a successful flight, with no ill effects on the monkey until impact, when it died.” One of the statements I read and remembered was the following one about the use of monkeys in the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.: “These animals performed a service to their respective countries that no human could or would have performed.” While reading such accounts as immigration narratives, I told myself that if I had at all been using the monkeys for autobiographical purposes I needed to stop and take note of the fact that they went further than I ever did. An adult monkey has the intelligence of a two-year-old human, and when zipped into its suit, locked into place in a metal case, its confusion and, if I can use this word, its courage, must have been extraordinary.
The stories I had found about monkeys I wove into the broader story I was telling in my novel Immigrant, Montana
. And when the book was complete, I returned to Ota Benga and the book that had remained unread on my bookshelf. A picture emerged — if not of Ota Benga, then of his mute humanity. Here’s The New York Times
on September 10, 1906: “Perhaps as a concession to the fact that it was Sunday, a pair of canvas shoes had been given to the Bushman to wear. He was barefooted on Saturday. He seemed to like the shoes very much. Over and over again the crowd laughed at him as he sat in mute admiration of them on his stool in the monkey cage. But he didn’t mind that. He has grown used to the crowd laughing, has discovered that they laugh at everything he does. If he wonders why, he does not show it.”
I also learned that a group of African American clergymen protested the display at Bronx Zoo, and brought Ota Benga to the Colored Orphan Asylum. The New York Times
reported on September 30, 1906, that he was given a new set of clothes and a dollar watch. “He can shake hands and say ‘How de do!’ in accents so startlingly positive that one is tempted to make a further remark.”
One is tempted to make a further remark.
There is very little of Ota Benga’s own voice in such reports. We learn that three days later the pygmy from Africa “took his first step toward civilization when he saw the performance at the Hippodrome.” A baby elephant was in the lobby distributing programmes. Here’s how Ota Benga is described as having responded to the sight of the animal: “The moment he recognized his fellow countryman, he gave three shrill shrieks and fairly danced for joy. Then rushing forward but keeping at a respectful distance, he muttered a great variety of unintelligible sounds that could only be translated as words of pleasure.”
In 1910, Ota Benga moved to Lynchburg and was put to work in a tobacco factory. He wanted to go home to Africa. World War One broke out and this idea of return became remote. Ota Benga, according to my book, checked for steam tickets. One day, he built a ceremonial fire and chipped off the caps on his teeth. Then he took out a gun he had stolen and shot himself. He was 32 years old.
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is a writer and journalist. He was born in Ara, and grew up in the nearby town of Patna, famous for its corruption, crushing poverty, and delicious mangoes. Kumar is the author of several books of nonfiction and a novel. He lives in Poughkeepsie, in upstate New York, where he is Helen D. Lockwood Professor of English at Vassar College. In 2016, Amitava Kumar was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship (General Nonfiction) as well as a Ford Fellowship in Literature from United States Artists. Immigrant, Montana
is his most recent book.