Race ‘science’ and the forgotten odyssey of Ota Benga

Ota Benga

Ota Benga

Published Mar 2, 2024


Wandile Kasibe

In October 2023, I was invited to Charlotte, North Carolina in the US, to participate in an American Journal of Biological Anthropology (AJBA) workshop.

Colleagues from different parts of the world converged in this convivial city of Charlotte to ruminate about the role of anthropology in today’s changing political dynamics. Intense conversations about the very problematic foundations of anthropology as a tool through which colonial ‘subjects’ were boxed into tribal and racial categories to feed the purpose of race ‘science’ pointed to the seemingly lack of rigorous critical examination and epistemological reassessment of the field itself.

According to Christopher Donohue, “Biosocial anthropology is more assuredly sociological and anthropological in its focus on human communities and the explanation of human behaviour (with animal ethology and neo-Darwinian theories of inheritance and comparative ethology assuming a foundational function”.

It is precisely in these neo-Darwinian theories drawn from colonial dogmas that these perceived foundational racial hierarchies were created to feed the perceived idea of race ‘purity’, ‘super race’ and ‘white supremacy’.

I argue that these racial dogmas were to a large extent perfected through ‘scientific’ displays in museum dioramas, human zoos, world fairs and other anthropological a spectacles.

The practice of putting indigenous and African people on display either for entertainment purposes or appeasement of white sensibilities to serve the purpose of anthropological ‘science’ comes from a long history of European racism. And with the benefit of history and hindsight we have now come to understand this entrenched systemic and institutionalised racism as a construct that was built and woven through the belief that “Africans were at least as close to the animal world as they were to the human world, that they probably constituted the ‘missing link’ in the evolutionary chain between apes and the man”.

For centuries, Africans have had to endure the pain of being what Frantz Fanon calls a “zone of nonbeing” and “sense of non-sense” emitted against their bodies by those who colonised them. The case in point is the forgotten odyssey of Ota Benga.

In 1904, Ota Benga, a Congolese ‘pygmy’ was taken away from Africa by an ambitious missionary, Samuel Phillips Verner, to be exhibited at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St Louis in the US in what Bernth Lindfors calls ‘Ethnological show business’, anthropological race ‘science’ and white gaze.

The period could be classified as the era of anthropological curiosity, as anthropology became a ‘scientific tool’ through which race classification was carried out and justified.

Bradford and Blume record that, “Dr WJ McGee, head of the Anthropological Department of the fair, where he was known simply and informally as Chief ... wanted the public to think about intraspecies variations, racial hierarchy, the descent of man, and other fine points of social Darwinism”.

And “under Chief McGee’s direction, special agents of the fair were dispatched to the four corners of the Earth. Their mission, McGee wrote, was to assemble “representatives of all the world’s races, ranging from the smallest pygmies, to the most gigantic peoples, from the darkest blacks to the dominant whites”.

The main aim was that “anthropology wanted to start with the ‘lowest known culture,’ and work its way up to man’s ‘highest culmination’.”

Benga arrived at the very heart of this anthropological miasma and “scientific” activities in the US, where notions of racial science had already been developed. It was in 1904, when Francis Galton, father of the Eugenics movement who first coined the term in 1883 had explained that, “Eugenics is the science which deals with all influences that improve the inborn qualities of a race; also with those that develop them to the utmost advantage”. In this eugenicist logic, people who were deemed lesser beings with intrinsic ‘inferior’ genes were marked for scientific experimentation and sterilisation to control their population growth.

A few years later, the International Eugenics movement hosted its first International Congress at the University of London in South Kensington from July 24 – 30, 1912. It was organised and chaired by men who believed in the ‘supremacy’ of the white race.

Many people who believed in these white supremacist ideas saw Benga and people of his kind as sub-human species.

The ‘sub-humanity’ of indigenous and black people across the colonial world was permanently attached to their darker skin pigmentation, meaning that to be black meant ‘inferior’ and white ‘superior’. And it was on this social construction of the binaries of black and white, civilised, and uncivilised, self and other that anthropology built its colonial episteme.

The second International Congress of the Eugenics movement took place at the Museum of Natural History in New York in September 1921 with a similar approach, its focus was on differences and human hierarchies, with white men at the top.

The arrival of Benga in the US in 1904 during the St Louis World’s Fair and again in 1906 was the critical and perhaps prime time in the ‘life cycle” of racial ‘science’ and politics in America and geographies such as South Africa and the rest of Africa.

In South Africa for example, it was an intense era of “Englicisation” and “Afrikanerisation” in business, labour and politics, and when the country was led into what was known as the Union of South Africa in 1910.

It was in this period when in 1906 the director of the South African Museum, Louis A Péringuey, initiated a human casting project to make life-size casts of the Khoi and San people, and history records that “between 1907 and 1924 over 60 casts were made, and although intended primarily as a scientific collection, many of the casts were placed on exhibition as examples of a primitive race”.

In the Congo, King Leopold II of Belgium (1835–1909) ruled for over 40 years usurping a 7 770km2 section of the Congo with its rich resources and minerals as his own private land.

Globally also it was a period where the culture of public spectacle or what Harvey Blume describes as “Barnumism” performed through world fairs was rife in countries such as Belgium, France, Italy, New Zealand, the UK and others that organised these world fairs.

Among these, the St Louis World’s Fair was unique and sparked debates about the morality and politics of human display. It “housed men and women who had no choice ... these were permanent wildmen of the world, the races that had been left behind, the stunted, ridiculous, romantic races. (And) looking at them was like looking straight from civilization into prehistoric”.

Among the human exhibits was a pygmy “referred to in the papers as Artiba, then Autobank”. And “his name was Ota Benga”, was later changed to “Otto Bingo”.

In her compelling account, Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga, Pamela Newkirk sharply invokes this haunting story as an institutional critique against America’s racism and weaponisation of institutions of ‘science’ and knowledge production against black bodies by men of ‘science’. It is the animalisation of Benga and his association with a “sub-human” species that prompted Newkirk to point out the fact that, ‘cruelty was cloaked in civility and a brooding darkness was hailed as light’.

It is the poignancy of this troubling story of a black African man made to frolic with a monkey in a cage that time and time again stands at the cusp of the turn of the century’s tide, only to remind us of the cruelty of the darker side of modernity. At the confluence of the narrative of this African Diaspora, lies the European and Western practice to convert race ‘science’ into a global epistemological framework and sociological discourse/s that would for centuries sit heavily in the conscience of the ‘civilised’ world.

Benga’s humiliation became the symbol around which various forms of sensibilities congealed in a critical historical moment that marked the turn of a century. It is this congealment solidifying itself at the apex of anthropological practice that jettisons us to face yet another truth, that modernity has not been confronted rigorously enough to face its own colonial crimes.

It is recorded that on March 20, 1916, Benga died by suicide, shooting himself. His wounded and scarred body lies beneath an unmarked grave in Lynchburg, Virginia, in the American South.

*Dr Kasibe is a Chevening Scholar and Curator of Culture and Identity, Iziko Museums of South Africa. He writes in his personal capacity.

Cape Times

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