Ota Benga at Bronx Zoo

Ota Benga: The Caged Man of the Bronx Zoo

Why has it taken us so long to apologise for the mistreatment of the Congolese captives, of the boys we enslaved, of Ota Benga? Why does it take us so long to say sorry for the horrific racist crimes we have committed in the past?

Famously, Sorry is the hardest word, but why on earth can it take a century to recognise and publicly acknowledge the wrongs of our past? We are not for one moment suggesting that the current owners of the Bronx Zoo would think it’s ok to take a man and cage him – whether from their own continent or any other. But why had they not apoligised sooner.

The more you read into the story of Ota Benga, the stranger it all seems. In 1906 he formed part of a human exhibition at the Bronx Zoo having already been featured at the Louisiana Purchase Exhibition in 1904. 1906? I have relatives I met when alive that were born in 1906.

Ota Benga at Bronx Zoo
Ota Benga at Bronx Zoo

According to the written oracle, Ota Benga and the group of Batwa he was with were not intentionally restricted in their movements, until their popularity caused even their free time to be impacted by crowds of interested people.

Benga traveled back to the Congo with Samuel Phillips Verner, the man who had brought him to the USA in the first place – he married whilst there and tried to adapt back to the Congolese way of life, but after his wife’s death, he allegedly did not feel at home there and decided to return to America with Verner.

In 1906 Ota Benga worked at the Bronx Zoo, working with some of the animal exhibits. It seems that little by little he was encouraged into becoming the exhibit himself.

The African Pygmy, “Ota Benga.”

Age, 23 years. Height, 4 feet 11 inches. Weight, 103 pounds. Brought from the Kasai River, Congo Free State, South Central Africa, by Dr Samuel P. Verner. Exhibited each afternoon during September.

“Man and Monkey Show Disapproved by Clergy,” The New York Times, September 10, 1906, p. 1.

This is not OK. And without even need to reference the Black Lives Matter movement and the huge (but not enough) efforts that have been made in addressing racism over the last half century – it should go without saying that even if you believe the line that Ota Benga went along with this voluntarily or for work – there is no doubt that societal pressure, the power-imbalance, and plain old slavery led him to this showtime incarceration.

I’m sorry.

I know I am from another country, in another time, with no direct links to any part of this story, but I’m sorry that it happened, I’m sorry that it has taken us all so long to understand that something like this is wrong. I’m sorry that even when we understood that it was wrong that it’s taken us over one hundred years to publicly acknowledge that.

Sorry on its own is not enough. Let us all look through our pasts to make sure we have learned from them.

Read more from the BBC https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-53917733