I’ve been in a bubble of work and illness the last several weeks. I work for a performing arts organization, which becomes a world of its own during the season. Flu is no excuse for not showing up for work, so added to 10 and 12 hour days, I was looking only for light entertainment in my down time.
To my surprise, it wasn’t the lightweight books that were able to hold my attention. Instead, it was the true story of a young Congolese man brought to the United States under questionable circumstances in the early part of the century.
Spectacle, Pamela Newkirk’s new book, details the tragic life and death of Ota Benga, a member of the Mbeti people of Congo. The short, slight-statured people were called pygmies by the African explorers who swarmed through Africa in the latter half of the 19th century, seeking to prove evolutionary theory by finding and displaying “sub-species” proving that the white man was the pinnacle of natural selection.
Samuel Phillips Verner, a member of the Southern aristocracy, was one of these explorers. A self-styled missionary, his true aim was to plunder the wealth and treasures of African tribes and exploit the natural resources of Congo as King Leopold of Belgium was also doing so notoriously. Verner either kidnapped Ota Benga or enticed him to come with him to the US with improbable promises. Verner’s own stories of meeting Ota vary, but he did manage to bring the young man (whom he described as a cannibal) to put on display at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904.
The fair’s theme was the arc of human development, and organizers were keen to display African “savages” as counterpoint to white achievement. The Smithsonian Institution and the National Geographic Society were both complicit in seeing that the theme was fulfilled. And indeed, the “pygmies” secured by Verner for the fair were a great success with fair-goers.
Two years later, Ota Benga ended up on display in the monkey house at the New York Zoological Gardens, now the Bronx Zoo. He was there for a month before the indignation of a group of New York’s African-American ministers and welfare workers got him released to the care of an orphanage for black children.
The wonder of Ms. Newkirk’s book is not only her painstaking research in finding out details about Ota Benga and his sojourn in the US, but the reminding history of Belgium’s depredations in Congo, which reverberate down to this very day. Ota Benga’s story has been known for years, and as recently as two years ago, items about him were posted to YouTube. However, they still contain legends handed down from the Verner family. Ms. Newkirk followed up every possible clue to put together a story about a real human being who suffered such indignities that he found his only way out to be suicide.
What happened to Ota Benga in the US had the full endorsement of the white elite of the time, including President Theodore Roosevelt. Mark Twain and Booker T. Washington were among those who protested the outrageous treatment Ota received.
Ms. Newkirk also introduces us to an influential African-American missionary in Congo, William Sheppard, who was one of the first to bring the tragedy of King Leopold’s rape of the Congo to public attention; she also writes about the African-American neighborhood of Weeksville in the Bronx, a once-thriving community that disproved the rule that blacks were any kind of sub-species.
Somehow, Ms. Newkirk managed to fit her research and her history into just 254 pages, a small book by today’s standards of weighty tomes that often provide much less than does Spectacle.