Thursday, 1 October 2009

What to make of this?

To the intellectuals of 19th Century Europe and America, it was thought that apes and black people were very similar. In this picture, from a book by Robert Knox called The Races of Men (1851), the slant of the brow is used to draw connections between the “Negro” and the “Oran Outan” and differences between those two and the “European.”

During this same period, African people were kept in zoos alongside animals. These pictures below are of Ota Benga, a Congolese Pygmy who spent some time as an attraction at The Bronx Zoo in New York City. He was featured in a 1906 human zoo exhibit at the zoo. Benga roamed freely on the grounds and was encouraged to interact with patrons; he later came to be "exhibited" in the zoo's Monkey House as part of a display intended to promote the concepts of human evolution and scientific racism. It is said that at the time of his capture in the Congo, he saw most of his local ethnic community, including his wife and child, murdered before he was brought to the zoo.
Public outcry eventually led to Benga's removal from the zoo, and he was released into the custody of African American clergy. He lived in a local orphanage until he was relocated in 1910 to Lynchburg, Virginia. There he was groomed for the American way of life, dressing in Western-style clothing and attending primary school. When the outbreak of World War I made a return to the Congo impossible, Benga became depressed. In 1916, he committed suicide with a stolen revolver. A book has been written about him and his life.

The theory that the African person was at the bottom of the hierarchy of the races was upheld not simply for “science” or “fun.” It was a central tool in justifying efforts to colonise, enslave, and even exterminate people. If it could be established that certain kinds of people were indeed less than human, then it was acceptable to treat them as such.

Sources: Sociological Images,


Mama Shujaa said...


Anengiyefa said...

Hi Mama Shujaa, it just shows the extremes of atrociousness to which people went in those days. Many of the things that happened to African people in the hands of the Europeans and Euro-Americans are unspeakable. I was livid with rage when I confirmd this story, although I'd heard of it before now.

I mulled it over in my mind for a while as to the impression that would be created if I did a blogpost on it, not being sure whether my post could be interpreted as promoting this barbaric episode in recent human history. But let it not be in doubt that promoting this cruelty that was inflicted on my ancestors is the furthest thing from my mind.

By the way, I understand that Benga's teeth were sharpened as was the custom among his people

Rethabile said...


laBiscuitnapper said...

/ just shows the extremes of atrociousness to which people went in those days.../

*sighs* They might not go to such extremes today, but they can certainly get close enough, if only by using much more subtle language.