If I quench thee, thou flaming minister,
I can again thy former light restore
Should I repent me. But once put out thy light,
Thou cunning’st pattern of excelling nature,I know not where is that Promethean heat
That can thy light relume.
Othello, V. 2
There will be judgment on the land;
Judgment on the land.
Cedric Myton, Congo ManPrecisely in the middle of the flock of Southdowns tenure in the Sheep meadow, one human lifetime before the opening of the Stout Hall, visitors to the 1904 World Fair in St. Louis, Missouri, would have seen tableaux similar to that of the Ainu or the studious inhabitants of Korea I had just observed, except that their centerpieces not only involved actual human tissue but were, in fact, alive. As had been done at previous World Fairs and at other expositions in Europe already, the organizers incorporated individuals and even entire families which were held to be representative of various supposedly primitive cultures, and kept them in enclosures with objects and vegetation meant to simulate their "natural" habitat. There was an extended family of Inuit, a "giant" from Patagonia who competed with American cowboys in horsemanship, Geronimo himself, aged 60, and, to celebrate the recent American conquest of the Philippines, about 1,100 people representing various tribes from that archipelago, among whom the most popular are said to have been the dog-eating Igorot. Records indicate that they were supplied with twenty dogs per week, and that, as one historian notes, this was insufficient to their needs.
There was also a much smaller exhibit containing several young men of short stature from a tropical region still dominated at that time by a small, wet country in western Europe which was a small fraction of its geographical size, whose ruler had claimed it as his personal fiefdom, and, despite this, would never actually set foot upon it during his lifetime.
I learned from John Ashton's Curious Creatures in Zoology (1890) that Homer is the locus classicus of the idea that pygmies are in perpetual conflict with cranes. Ashton cites Pope's translation of Illiad III.1.3-6, which is worth full rehearsal:
So, when inclement winter vex the plain
With piercing frosts, or thick descending rain,
To warmer seas, the cranes embody'd fly,
With noise and order, through the midway sky;
To pigmy nations, wounds and death they bring,
And all the war descends upon the wing.
Ashton goes on to note that it is well known that "a race of dwarves" live in their thousands along the southern branches of the Congo, and that while Wolff found them affable and kind-hearted, Stanley, on the contrary,
found them very annoying, and had a lively recollection of their poisoned arrows - but, at the present writing, he not having returned, and we, having no record but his letters, had better suspend our judgment as to the habits and tempers of these small people.
The exhibition of Benga and his hapless cohorts earned Verner a "Gold Medal in Anthropology" from the Fair's organizers. After the Fair was over, they all returned to Africa with Verner. Benga attempted to start life anew with another pygmy tribe, but his integration was compromised by the death of his second wife by snakebite, and, without any means of support and bereft of connections in local society, he sailed again with Verner for New York. The pair arrived in 1906, and Benga took up residency in the American Museum of Natural History, along with a pair of chimpanzees and a variety of artifacts which Verner had brought back from the Congo, the good doctor being forced by straitened finances to sell his collection to the museum and return to his home in the American South. In this development his story paralleled thematically, and very nearly chronologically, that of Ishi, the last of the Californian Yahi, who was a resident of the Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology in San Francisco from 1911 until he and Benga both died in 1916.
The Evening Post reported thatThe African Pigmy, "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.
[Benga] has a great influence with the beasts — even with the larger kind, including the orang-outang with whom he plays as though one of them, rolling around the floor of the cages in wild wrestling matches and chattering to them in his own guttural tongue, which they seem to understand.Benga's exhibition immediately provoked outrage, primarily from clergymen, who objected to the implied equation of an adult African man with monkeys both on the grounds that it violated the essential dignity of man, and also because "The Darwinian theory is absolutely opposed to Christianity, and a public demonstration in its favor should not be permitted." Benga's story is, in fact, still used by contemporary Creationists as an illustration of what evolutionary theory makes possible. At the time, however, most saw nothing wrong with an adult human being confined to a zoo enclosure with a heterogenous assortment of apes; in the flurry of public commentary which immediately succeeded Benga's exhbition, an editor of what Americans refer to as a "newspaper of record" wrote that
Ota Benga ... is a normal specimen of his race or tribe, with a brain as much developed as are those of its other members. Whether they are held to be illustrations of arrested development, and really closer to the anthropoid apes than the other African savages, or whether they are viewed as the degenerate descendants of ordinary negroes, they are of equal interest to the student of ethnology, and can be studied with profit.... As for Benga himself, he is probably enjoying himself as well -as he could anywhere in this country, and it is absurd to make moan over the imagined humiliation and degradation he is suffering. The pygmies are a fairly efficient people in their native forests....but they are very low in the human scale, and the suggestion that Benga should be in a school instead of a cage ignores the high probability that school would be a place of torture to him and one from which he could draw no advantage whatever. The idea that men are all much alike except as they have had or lacked opportunities for getting an education out of books is now far out of date. With training carefully adapted to his mental limitations, this pygmy would doubtless be taught many things. . .but there is no chance that he could learn anything in an ordinary school.imperative that the Society should not even seem to be dictated to" by critics of Benga's supposed degredation.
Nonetheless, Hornaday arranged for Benga's transfer to the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum, whence he was sent shortly afterwards to Lynchburg, Virginia, to live with a local family and attend the Lynchburg Baptist Seminary. A benefactor paid for his filed teeth to be capped, so that he might more easily integrate into African-American society. He improved his English rapidly, and after a short time left his studies, supporting himself through farm labor and by working on tobacco plantations. He is said to have been a favorite of local boys, for whom he fashioned bows and arrows and whom he would take on expeditions into the woods, hunting for small game.
The traditional explanation, although it is scarcely more than conjecture, for the fact that Ota Benga shot himself in the heart with a borrowed revolver in 1916, is that he had learned the price of a steamer ticket to Africa, and compared it with the wages he earned as a laborer. It was noted by those who found his body that, before ending his life, he had removed the caps from his pointed teeth.
On the occasion of Benga's suicide William Hornaday, the man who had put him in the monkey house to begin with, included an item in the New York Zoological Society Bulletin of May, 1916, in which he called attention to "the closing chapter in the life history of a savage who tried vainly to leap from savagery to civilization, over the intervening stage of barbarism," before moving on without evident remorse to discuss the meteorological import of anomalies observed that year in the migration of birds, and the intractability of the Zoologic Park's collection of beavers, which insisted on obstructing the spillways carefully built into their dam by the zoo's workmen.