Ota Benga

>>  Friday, September 23, 2016

Cog and I went to the Birmingham Sealife in the summer.  I hesitatingly call it summer, as it was cold and throwing it down with rain or sea 'life' as it appeared to be no life at all for the poor creatures in it.  There was a small poking pool in which starfish could be systematically tortured by toddlers, some penguins that had clearly drawn the 'confinement' card and a lot of other water dwellers that seemed cramped and overcrowded in inadequate surroundings.  I was unimpressed.

But didn't think too hard about it until I read feuerthoughts describing exactly how I felt as I shuffled around Sealife  "The justifications for these exhibits fall flat, sound weak and defensive"  But tucked away in a quiet corner it also mentions Ota Benga.

The story of Ota Benga's life was dreadful.  He was taken from the Congo to New York, put in a monkey cage at a zoo and exhibited.   He was eventually released and taken to an orphanage and then he worked but when all hope of returning home was lost he shot himself.

This Guardian write up details his life and it is shameful.  Initially I thought it must have been an ironic living art piece or a demonstration of some sort but no, this was 1906, it was the actual belief that the pygmies were worthless enough to be displayed as animals in a zoo.

The African Pygmy, "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. VernerExhibited each afternoon during September.

A New York Times article said it was absurd to imagine Benga’s suffering or humiliation. “Pygmies 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 … The idea that men are all much alike except as they have had or lacked opportunities for getting an education of books is now far out of date.”

A statement like that leaves us reeling now and yet at the time it was believed.  In the same way now we still believe it is ok to take Orca babies from their mums for our entertainment and shoot gorillas when that entertainment is not safely controlled.

"Two years before Ota Benga arrived in New York, Daniel Brinton, a professor of linguistics and archaeology at the University of Pennsylvania, had used his farewell address as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science to attack claims that education and opportunity accounted for varying levels of achievement among the races. “The black, the brown, and the red races differ anatomically so much from the white, especially in their splanchnic organs, that even with equal cerebral capacity they never could rival its results by equal efforts” "

100 years ago in the UK the class system was holding down the poor,  people with few rights. It was then the very start of welfare reforms. Despite the massive changes with the welfare state, education for all and the opportunities available today we still have a them and us feeling.  We know that the class system still exists to a certain extent and that the most of us will always be in the lower parts of it.  Its no wonder we have so many disenfranchised people here.

100 years ago in America black men were put in zoos in Monkey cages, 100 years is not enough to change attitudes completely, it's no wonder that Black Live Matter still needs to be a thing.

How many generations of knowing something is wrong must pass before there is a complete mind shift with equality for all - regardless of wealth, colour, creed and maybe even one day species.

When will Zoos and Aquariums in the form we know them now be seen as cruel and unacceptable?

As Steven Feuerstein said "simply substitute "Ota Benga" for "elephant" or "stingray" and see how it reads."

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