February 23, 2009

Harvesting the evolutionary crop - The Ota Benga story

Stephen Jay Gould,
Ontogeny and Phylogeny, 1977
Biological arguments for racism may have been common before 1859, but they increased by orders of magnitude following the acceptance of evolutionary theory.

He crouched in the corner of the cage. With his head between his knees and his arms pulling his legs tightly to his chest, he shielded himself as best he could from the crowd. The iron bars around him offered a certain level of physical protection from the mob that swirled around him—but they did nothing to protect him from the stares, from the laughter, from the jeers that rained down upon him day after day after day. Coins and stones pelted his flesh, the crowd hoping to instigate some sort of reaction. His infrequent backlashes of anger only incited them further.

Thousands of miles from his home and the graves of his slaughtered ancestors, he dreamed of the days when he moved freely and intently through his homeland. He longed to hunt again with his kinsman. He starved for the warm immersion of fellowship with his wife and children.

But that was all behind him now. His family and his tribe had been murdered in the name of evolution. And now he cow­ered in the cage, a prisoner in Darwin’s plantation.

A Man Named “Ota”

Ota Benga was born in 1881 in Central Africa where he grew strong and keen in the ways of the wilderness. The husband of one and the father of two, he returned one day from a successful elephant hunt to find that the camp he called “home” had ceased to exist. His wife, children, and friends lay slaughtered, their bodies mutilated in a campaign of terror by the Belgian government’s thugs against “the evolutionary inferior natives.” Ota was later captured, taken to a village, and sold into slavery.

He was first brought to the United States from the Belgian Congo in 1904 by the noted African explorer Samuel Verner, who had bought him at a slave auction. At 4' 11" tall, weighing a mere 103 pounds, he was often referred to as “the boy.” In reality, he was a son, a husband, and a father. Ota was first displayed as an “emblematic savage” in the anthropology wing of the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. Along with other pygmies, he was studied by scientists to learn how the “barbaric races” compared with intellectually defective Caucasians on intelligence tests and how they responded to things such as pain [ref].

The July 23, 1904, Scientific American reported:

They are small, ape-like, elfish creatures … they live in absolute savagery, and while they exhibit many ape-like features in their bodies, they possess a certain alertness which appears to make them more intelligent than other Negroes … the existence of the pygmies is of the rudest; they do not practice agriculture, and keep no domestic animals. They live by means of hunting and snaring, eking this out by means of thieving from the big Negroes, on the outskirts of whose tribes they usually establish their little colonies, though they are as unstable as water, and range far and wide through the forests. They have seemingly become acquainted with metal only through contact with superior beings.

They failed to mention 1902 research by H.H. Johnston in the Smithsonian Report that found the pygmies to be a very talented group. When studied in their natural environment, Johnston found that they were experts at mimicry, and they were physically agile, quick, and nimble. They were exceptional hunters, with highly developed social skills and structure. While outsiders considered them primitive, the pygmies actually held strong monotheistic beliefs about God. More recent research has confirmed, “The religion of the Ituri Forest Pygmies is founded on the belief that God possesses the totality of vital force, of which he distributes part to his creatures, an act by which he brings them into existence or perfects them .... According to a favorite pygmies saying, ‘He who made the light also makes the darkness.’ [ref] When Verner had visited their African king, “He was met with songs and presents, food and palm wine, drums. He was carried in a hammock.”

But the Darwinists failed to take note of any of these things. Such observations didn’t fit their preconceived notions of evolution or their view that the pygmies were inferior, sub-human beings. When the pygmies were in St. Louis, they were greeted with laughter, staring, poking, and prodding. “People came to take their picture and run away ... some came to fight with them .... Verner had contracted to bring pygmies safely back to Africa. It was often a struggle just to keep them from being torn to pieces at the fair. Repeatedly ... the crowds became agitated and ugly; pushing and grabbing in a frenzied quality. Each time Ota and the Batwa were extracted only with difficulty.” [ref]

Entrance to White Rock Cemetery, Lynchburg, VA -
Ota Benga's final resting place

The exhibit was said to be “exhaustively scientific” in its demonstration of the stages of human evolution. Therefore, they required the darkest blacks to be clearly distinguished from the dominant whites. Ota’s presence as a member of “the lowest known culture” was meant to be a graphic contrast with the Caucasians, who represented humanity’s “highest culmination.”

Meanwhile, the anthropologists in charge of the display continued their research by testing and measuring. In one case “the primitive’s head was severed from the body and boiled down to the skull.” Believing that skull size was an index of intelligence, the scientists were amazed to discover that the “primitive” skull was larger than that which belonged to the statesman Daniel Webster. [ref]

After the fair, Verner took Ota and the other pygmies back to Africa. Ota soon remarried, but his second spouse died from a poisonous snakebite. He was also ostracized from his own people because of his association with the white people. Back in his homeland, Ota had found himself entirely alone. He returned to America with Verner, who said he would return him to Africa on his next trip. It was not to be. Once back in America, Verner tried to sell his animals to zoos and sell the crates of artifacts that he brought back from Africa. Verner was also having serious money problems and could not afford to take care of Ota.

Four unmarked graves. Ota Benga was reportedly
buried in an unmarked grave.

When Verner presented Ota to Dr. Hornady, the director of the Bronx Zoological Gardens, it was clear that he would again go on display—but this time, the display took on an even more sinister twist. On September 9, 1906, The New York Times head­line screamed, “Bushman shares a cage with Bronx Park apes.” Although Dr. Hornady insisted that he was merely offering an “intriguing exhibit” for the public, the Times reported that Dr. Hornady “apparently saw no difference between a wild beast and the little black man; and for the first time in any American zoo, a human being was being displayed in a cage.”

On September 10, the Times reported:

There was always a crowd before the cage, most of the time roaring with laughter, and from almost every corner of the garden could be heard the question “Where is the pygmy?” The answer was, “In the monkey house.”

Bradford and Blume, who extensively researched Ota’s life for the book Ota Benga; The Pygmy in the Zoo, noted:

The implications of the exhibit were also clear from the visitor’s questions. Was he a man or a monkey? Was he something in between? “Ist das ein Mensch?” asked a German spectator. “Is it a man?” ... No one really mistook apes or parrots for human beings. This “it” came so much closer. Was it a man? Was it a monkey? Was it a forgotten stage of evolution?

Dr. Hornady was a staunch believer in Darwin’s theory. The New York Times on September 11, 1906, reported that he had concluded that there was “a close analogy of the African savage to the apes” and that he “maintained a hierarchical view of the races….”

The display was extremely successful. On September 16, 40,000 visitors came to the zoo. The crowds were so enormous that a police officer was assigned to guard Ota full time because he was “always in danger of being grabbed, yanked, poked, and pulled to pieces by the mob.” [ref]

Not all condoned the frenzy. A group of concerned black ministers went to Ota’s defense. The September 10 Times reported Reverend Gordon saying, “Our race ... is depressed enough without exhibiting one of us with the apes.” On September 12, however, the Times retorted by saying, “The reverend colored brother should be told that evolution ... is now taught in the textbooks of all the schools, and that it is no more debatable than the multiplication table.”

The media frenzy eventually led to Ota being released from the cage, but the spectacle continued. The Times reported on September 18, “There were 40,000 visitors to the park on Sunday. Nearly every man, woman, and child of this crowd made for the monkey house to see the star attraction in the park—a wild man from Africa. They chased him about the grounds all day, howling, cheering, and yelling. Some of them poked him in the ribs, others tripped him up, all laughed at him.”

Eventually, Hornady himself was worn down (either by the media pressure or by the exhaustion that the spectacle had created). Ota was released from the zoo. In the following months, he found care at a succession of institutions and with several sympathetic individuals. In 1910, he arrived at a black community in Lynchburg, Virginia, where he found companionship and care. He became a baptized Christian and his English vocabulary rapidly improved. He regularly cared for the children, protecting them and teaching them to hunt. He also learned how to read and occasionally attended classes at a Lynchburg seminary. Later he was employed as a tobacco factory worker.

But Ota grew increasingly depressed, hostile, irrational, and forlorn. When people spoke to him, they noticed that he had tears in his eyes when he told them he wanted to go home. Concluding that he would never be able to return to his native land, on March 20, 1916, Ota pressed a revolver to his chest and sent a bullet through his heart.

Reprinted with permission of Answers In Genesis, Darwin’s Plantation, Ken Ham and A. Charles Ware, pp. 15–21, Master Books, Green Forest, AR

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