Ota Benga and scientific racism

Continuing the story of Madison Grant, who helped to found the Bronx Zoo, from David Samuels’s essay “Wild Things: Animal nature, human racism, and the future of zoos” in the June 2012 Harper’s magazine: the sad tale of Ota Benga.

The first concrete application of Grant’s theoretical interests [in preserving species in  “pure”, untouched state] to actual human beings came in 1906, with the arrival of an African pygmy named Ota Benga at the Bronx Zoo. Brought to the United States by the American explorer and collector Samuel Verner, who obtained him from local captors in the Congo in exchange for a pound of salt and a bolt of cloth, Ota Benga was “employed” at the zoo in a capacity that involved his being dressed in white trousers and a khaki coat, and presented to the public for viewing. On Sunday, September 16, 40,000 people went to the zoo, and everywhere Ota Benga went that day, the New York Times reported, crowds pursued him, “howling, jeering, and yelling.” The newspaper reported that “some of them poked him in the ribs, others tripped him up, all laughed at him.” When a group of colored ministers protested against what they viewed as Grant and Hornaday’s degrading treatment of the pygmy [William Temple Hornaday was director of the zoo at the time], the Times haughtily protested, “It is absurd to make moan over the imagined humiliation and degradation Benga is suffering. The pygmies … are very low on the human scale.” In March 1916, Grant’s pygmy, who had since moved to Lynchburg, Virginia, where he was called Otto Bingo and sent to work in a tobacco factory, went behind a stable and then shot himself in the heart with a borrowed gun.

That is, Ota Benga was treated as an exhibit in the zoo. And then:

In that same year, Scribner’s published what was almost immediately hailed as Grant’s masterwork, The Passing of the Great Race, or The Racial Basis of European History.

The book was a celebration of the “Nordic race”. From his Wikipedia entry:

Nordic theory, in Grant’s formulation, was similar to many 19th century racial philosophies which divided the human species into primarily three distinct races: Caucasoids (based in Europe), Negroids (based in Africa), and Mongoloids (based in Asia). Nordic theory, however, further subdivided Caucasoids into three groups: Nordics (who inhabited Northern Europe and other parts of the continent), Alpines (whose territory included central Europe and parts of Asia), and Mediterraneans (who inhabited Southern Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East).

Samuels writes:

“The Nordics are, all over the world, a race of soldiers, sailors, adventurers and explorers, but above all, of rulers, organizers, and aristocrats,” Grant wrote. Mocking the idea that environment, education, and opportunity could alter heredity, Grant expressed his great disgust for Negroes and issued dire warings about the Jewish [and southern Italian] immigrants …

Grant’s solution to [the horrors of immigration from Eastern Europe and southern Italy] lay in the application of the theories of “scientific management” of wildlife populations he had developed to the germplasm of the United States and other endangered Western countries.

.. Grant promoted his version of applied racism through his own writings, as well as through a spidery network of research programs sponsored by major American foundations and universities. These programs … had a decisive and entirely regrettable influence on the racial attitudes and immigration laws of 1920s and ’30s America.

Following other writers on Grant, Samuels exposes the connection “between Madison Grant’s murderous racial theories and his conservationist achievements”. From Wikipedia, where the great anthropologist and linguist Franz Boas enters the story:

Madison Grant (November 19, 1865 – May 30, 1937) was an American lawyer, historian and physical anthropologist, known primarily for his work as a eugenicist and conservationist. As a eugenicist, Grant was responsible for one of the most famous works of scientific racism, and played an active role in crafting strong immigration restriction and anti-miscegenation laws in the United States.

As a conservationist, Grant was credited with the saving of many different species of animals, founding many different environmental and philanthropic organizations and developing much of the discipline of wildlife management.

… Grant’s work, while a subject of popular discussion in the United States from the 1910s through the 1930s, was often attacked by scientists. who believed it to be little more than racism by an amateur in the fields of history and anthropology. It is considered one of the most influential and vociferous works of scientific racism and eugenics to come out of the United States. One of his long-time opponents was the anthropologist Franz Boas. Grant disliked Boas and for several years tried to get him fired from his position at Columbia University. Boas and Grant were involved in a bitter struggle for control over the discipline of anthropology in the United States while they both served (along with others) on the National Research Council Committee on Anthropology after the First World War.

Boas won the war for the American Anthropological Association, and Grant went on to found the Galton Society to promote eugenics.

The image of Ota Benga at the Bronx Zoo is hard to shake — like Billy Pilgrim on exhibit on Trafalmadore in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, but in real life rather than fiction. Here’s the cover of a 1992 book about Benga and the beginning of his Wikipedia entry:

Ota Benga (circa 1883 – March 20, 1916) was a Congolese Mbuti pygmy known for being featured with other Africans in an anthropology exhibit at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, Missouri in 1904, and later in a controversial human zoo exhibit in the Bronx Zoo in 1906. Benga had been freed from slave traders in the Congo by the missionary Samuel Phillips Verner, who had taken him to Missouri. At the Bronx Zoo, Benga had free run of the grounds before and after he was “exhibited” in the zoo’s Monkey House. The display was intended to promote the contemporary concepts of human evolution and scientific racism.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: