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Caged Congolese man: Why a zoo took 114 years to apologise



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Library of Congress

Ota Benga was kidnapped from what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1904 and taken to the US to be exhibited. Journalist Pamela Newkirk, who has written extensively about the subject, looks at the attempts over the decades to cover up what happened to him.

More than a century after it drew international headlines for exhibiting a young African man in the monkey house, the Bronx Zoo in New York has finally expressed regret.

The Wildlife Conservation Society’s apology for its 1906 exhibition of Ota Benga, a native of Congo, comes in the wake of global protests prompted by the videotaped police killing of George Floyd that again shone a bright light on racism in the United States.

During a national moment of reckoning, Cristian Samper, the Wildlife Conservation Society’s president and CEO, said it was important “to reflect on WCS’s own history, and the persistence of racism in our institution”.

He vowed that the society, which runs the Bronx Zoo, would commit itself to full transparency about the episode which inspired breathless headlines across Europe and the United States from 9 September 1906 – a day after Ota Benga was first exhibited – until he was released from the zoo on 28 September 1906.

But the belated apology follows years of stonewalling.

‘He was a zoo employee’

Instead of capitalising on the episode as a teachable moment, the Wildlife Conservation Society engaged in a century-long cover-up during which it actively perpetuated or failed to correct misleading stories about what had actually occurred.

As early as 1906 a letter in the zoo archives reveals that officials, in the wake of growing criticism, discussed concocting a story that Ota Benga had actually been a zoo employee. Remarkably, for decades, the ruse worked.

Who was Ota Benga?

  • Captured in March 1904 by US trader Samuel Verner from what was then Belgium Congo. His age is not known, he may have been 12 or 13
  • Taken by ship to New Orleans to be shown later that year at World’s Fair in St Louis with eight other young males
  • The fair continued into the winter months where the group was kept without adequate clothing or shelter
  • In September 1906 he was exhibited for 20 days in New York’s Bronx Zoo, attracting huge crowds
  • Outrage from Christian ministers ended his incarceration and he was moved to New York’s Howard Coloured Orphan Asylum run by African American Reverend James H Gordon
  • In January 1910 he went to live at the Lynchburg Theological Seminary and College for black students in Virginia
  • There he taught neighbourhood boys how to hunt and fish and told stories of his adventures back home
  • He later reportedly became depressed with his longing for home and in March 1916 shot himself with a gun he had hidden. He was thought to be aged around 25.

Source: Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga

In 1916, following Ota Benga’s death, a New York Times article dismissed as urban legend tales of his exhibition.

“It was this employment that gave rise to the unfounded report that he was being held in the park as one of the exhibits in the monkey cage,” the article said.

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Missouri Historical Society

Image caption

Ota Benga (R) pictured at the World’s Fair in 1904 where he and others were exhibited as “pygmies”

The account, of course, contradicted the numerous articles that a decade earlier had appeared in newspapers across the country and in Europe.

The New York Times alone had published a dozen articles on the affair, the first under the 9 September 1906 headline: “Bushman Shares A Cage With Bronx Park Apes“.

Then, in 1974, William Bridges, the zoo’s curator emeritus claimed that what actually occurred could not be known.

In his book The Gathering of Animals, he rhetorically asked: “Was Ota Benga ‘exhibited’ – like some strange, rare animal?” a question that he, as the man who presided over the zoo archives, would know best how to answer.

“That he was locked behind bars in a bare cage to be stared at during certain hours seems unlikely,” he continued, patently ignoring mountains of evidence in the zoological society archives that reveal just that.

An article about the exhibition, written by the zoo director, had in fact appeared in the zoological society’s own publication.

Nonetheless, Bridges wrote: “At this distance in time that is about all that can be said for sure, except that it was all done with the best of intentions, for Ota Benga was interesting to the New York public.”

‘Friendship between captor and captive’

Compounding these deceptive narratives was a book published in 1992 and co-authored by the grandson of Samuel Verner, the man who went to Congo heavily armed to capture Ota Benga and others to exhibit at the 1904 St Louis World’s Fair.

The book was absurdly characterised as the story of friendship between Verner and Ota Benga.

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In at least one newspaper account since the book’s publication, the younger Verner also claimed that Ota Benga – who had vigorously resisted his captivity – had enjoyed performing for New Yorkers.

So for more than a century, the very institution and men who had so ruthlessly exploited Ota Benga, and their descendants, contaminated the historical record with untrue narratives that circulated around the world.

Even now, Mr Samper has apologised for exhibiting Ota Benga for “several days”, and not for the three weeks he was held captive in the monkey house.

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Getty Images

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The Wildlife Conservation Society, which runs Bronx Zoo, said it condemned certain dishonourable chapters in its history

The zoo has now posted online digitised documents it holds of the episode, among them letters that detail the daily activities of Ota Benga and the men who caged him.

Many of those letters are already cited in my book, Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga, published in 2015.

In the five years since its publication, zoo officials had inexplicably refused to express regret or even respond to media inquiries.

And while I had the opportunity to visit the primate house where Ota Benga was exhibited and housed, the building has since been shuttered to the public.

‘Best room in the monkey house’

Now, Mr Samper says: “We deeply regret that many people and generations have been hurt by these actions or by our failure previously to publicly condemn and denounce them.”

He also denounced founding members Madison Grant and Henry Fairfield Osborn, both ardent eugenicists who played a direct role in Ota Benga’s exhibition.

Grant went on to write The Passing of a Great Race, a book steeped in racist pseudo-science that was praised by Osborn and hailed by Adolf Hitler.

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Missouri Historical Society

Image caption

A return to Congo would have been prohibitively expensive for Ota Benga

Osborn went on to lead for 25 years the American Museum of Natural History where in 1921 he hosted the second International Eugenics Congress.

Curiously, Mr Samper did not mention William Hornaday, the zoo’s founding director who was also the nation’s foremost zoologist and founding director of the National Zoo in Washington, DC.

Hornaday had littered the cage housing Ota Benga with bones to suggest cannibalism and had brazenly boasted that Ota Benga had “the best room in the monkey house”.

Some feel the conservation society now needs to follow its incomplete apology with rigorous truth-telling befitting a leading educational institution.

The episode offers the zoological society the opportunity to educate the public about the history of the conservation movement and its ties to eugenics.

The Bronx Zoo’s founding principles were among the most influential disseminators of specious racial inferiority theories that resonate still.

One suggestion has been that the society might also consider naming its education centre for Ota Benga, whose tragic life and legacy is inextricably bound to the Bronx Zoo’s.

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China is world’s ‘biggest jailer of journalists’, says RSF | Freedom of the Press News




China continues to take internet censorship, surveillance and propaganda to “unprecedented levels”, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has said, making it one of the world’s worst countries for journalists.

In its annual press freedom index, published on Tuesday, the global watchdog also highlighted an increase in repression and attacks on journalists worldwide during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The index evaluates the press freedom situation in 180 countries and territories, and RSF said its data showed that journalism is “totally blocked or seriously impeded” in nearly three-quarters of the countries evaluated, making it even harder for people to access proper information at a time of a health emergency.

Aside from China, the four countries at the bottom of the ranking are Djibouti, Turkmenistan, North Korea and Eritrea.

Norway, Finland, Sweden, Denmark and Costa Rica were ranked highest for press freedom.

“Journalism is the best vaccine against disinformation,” RSF Secretary-General Christophe Deloire said in a statement accompanying the report.

“In response to the virality of disinformation across borders, on digital platforms and via social media, journalism provides the most effective means of ensuring that public debate is based on a diverse range of established facts.”

Deloire, however, said that the production and distribution of information “are too often blocked by political, economic, technological and, sometimes, even cultural factors”.

‘Biggest jailer’

In 2021, China continued to be the world’s “biggest jailer of press freedom defenders”, RSF said, with more than 120 currently detained in the country, “often in life-threatening conditions”.

Since the emergence of COVID-19, Chinese authorities have tightened their grip on news and information, with seven journalists still being held for their coverage of the pandemic. Lawyer-turned-journalist Zhang Zhan is among those in prison.

She was found guilty in December of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” for her reporting on the pandemic in Wuhan, where the novel virus was first detected.

Additionally, more than 450 social media users in China were briefly arrested for sharing “false rumours” of the virus, RSF said.

Chinese authorities also intensified harassment of foreign correspondents, RSF said, citing a March report by the Foreign Correspondents Club of China. The report said at least 18 foreign correspondents were expelled in the first half of 2020, while the broadcast of BBC was banned.

Internet censorship in China also reached “unprecedented levels” in recent years, RSF said, with “an army of censors” deployed under President Xi Jinping to target the country’s almost 989 million internet users.

The censors shut down websites, block access to IP addresses, filter web pages and even block keywords on social media. In an earlier report from March, RSF said that the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) shut down nearly 130,000 social media accounts and more than 12,000 websites between January to September 2020.

RSF went on to criticise China for imposing a national security law in semi-autonomous Hong Kong, saying the legislation “seriously threatens journalists”. It noted that Jimmy Lai, the founder of the pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily, has been arrested and charged under the security law and is now facing a possible life sentence.

Sharpest drop in ranking

The country that fell the furthest in the RSF ranking was Malaysia, which dropped 18 spots to 119. Part of the reason was the government’s introduction in March of an “anti-fake news” emergency decree, which authorities said was necessary to fight misinformation during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Under the decree, issued under emergency powers, those found guilty of publishing “fake news” face a fine of as much as 100,000 Malaysian ringgits ($24,000) and/or a three-year prison term.

But human rights groups say the decree does not establish standards for determining what is false, raising the risk it could be used to silence criticism or other speech that the government does not like.

RSF, in a statement at the time of the decree’s issuance, said “the ordinance makes the dissemination of information directly subject to the goodwill of authorities – police or judicial”. It noted that Malaysian authorities had refused last year to renew work visas for two Australians who worked for Al Jazeera, Drew Ambrose and Jenni Henderson, because they had worked on a documentary about a wave of arrests of migrant workers during the pandemic.

Across the world, RSF said, the index data reflected “a dramatic deterioration in people’s access to information and an increase in obstacles to news coverage”.

The country that fell the furthest in 2021 was Malaysia, dropping 18 spots to 119, following the recent “anti-fake news” decree issued by the government under its emergency powers [Stringer/Reuters]

“The coronavirus pandemic has been used as grounds to block journalists’ access to information sources and reporting in the field. Will this access be restored when the pandemic is over?” it asked.

The watchdog also expressed concern over falling trust in the press, noting that the 2021 Edelman Trust barometer revealed “a disturbing level of public mistrust of journalists”. The survey found that 59 percent of respondents in 28 countries said that journalists deliberately try to mislead the public by reporting information they know to be false.

But, “in reality, journalistic pluralism and rigorous reporting serve to combat disinformation and ‘infodemics’, including false and misleading information,” said RSF.

Overall, the watchdog said, the level of global press freedom has deteriorated by 12 percent since the ranking was created in 2013.

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Chad's president Idriss Déby dies 'in clashes with rebels'




Idriss Déby dies just hours after provisional election results set him on course for a sixth term.

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Just in: Chad President Edriss Deby Killed By Rebels While Visiting Soldiers on Front-line




Chad President Idriss Déby has been killed, the national army confirmed Tuesday afternoon.

According to a confirmation from the national army of Chad read on national radio, the newly re-elected President Idriss Déby has died of wounds he received while commanding his army in battles against rebels in the north.

In a swift change of fate, after news had come in that Chad’s veteran president, Idriss Déby had won a sixth term in the latest provisional results in on Monday by 79.3%, an announcement broadcast  on national radio today has announced his death.

According to the army spokesperson, Général Azem Bemrandoua Agouna, the military had been pushed back by a column of insurgents who were advancing on the capital, N’Djamena.

Déby, was expected to give a victory speech after receiving the provisional results, but opted instead to visit Chadian solidears on the front lines, said his campaign director Mahamat Zen Bada.


The post Just in: Chad President Edriss Deby Killed By Rebels While Visiting Soldiers on Front-line first appeared on ChimpReports.

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