Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Ota Benga story

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was quite common in North America and Europe to display recently “discovered” tribal groups at fairs as scientific and anthropological curiosities, and have them beat drums or perform traditional dances. The people chosen for such purposes were typically Native Americans from North America (Geronimo of the Apaches was a famous draw) and - even more exotic and different-looking - people of certain groups from the African interior.

In 1906, the tradition appears to have reached its zenith, when Ota Benga (in picture), a pygmy from the Belgian Congo, found himself sharing a cage with an orangutan at the Bronx Zoo as part of a tableaux intended to illustrate the stages of evolution. Ota Benga’s filed teeth – a tradition of cosmetic dentistry followed by his people – were mistaken as a sign of cannibalism. To further this false impression, zookeepers scattered bones in the cage. On some days, nearly 40,000 visitors are estimated to have visited the zoo to see Benga.

And the New York Times published a poem on Benga, which went like this:

From his native land of darkness
To the country of the free,

In the interest of science
And of broad humanity.

The outrage we feel today about this scarcely believable story from just over a century ago is an indication of just how much sensibilities have changed. But to me the key issue is not what happened to Ota Benga; rather, it is this: What is it that most of us do not condemn today and are complicit with that will in 2107 seem utterly outrageous?

Update: See Amit Varma's excellent response to the question in his weekly Mint column here.

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On a related note, James T Campbell, author of Middle Passages: African-American Journeys to Africa – a work of narrative non-fiction and also the book where I first read about Ota Benga – has this to say about how early scientific thinking actually accentuated ideas of race. The end of the 18th century, Campbell writes, coincided with
the birth of race, the idea still prevalent today, that the human species is divided by nature into a small number of distinct groups or races, each identifiable through phenotypic signatures (chiefly skin color and hair texture) and each endowed with distinct capacities and traits. The roots of this perdurable (and deeply misleading) notion are not easily disentangled. Clearly, they reach far back in time, to the earliest European encounters with sub-Saharan Africans in the middle of the fifteenth century. Yet they also reflect a series of specifically eighteenth century intellectual and cultural developments, most notably the rise of natural science, which was fast displacing religion as the primary idiom for describing human nature and variety. In an era in which all the world’s flora and fauna was being sorted into an elaborate classificatory scheme, it was perhaps inevitable that human beings too would be sorted and classified. Whatever the precise sources, the end result was a recognizably modern conception of biological race, complete with an insistence of the innate, ineradicable inferiority of people of African descent. In the nineteenth century, this belief would become the standard justification for slavery, and it remains the institution’s most enduring legacy.

4 comments:

Sanjeev said...

> early scientific thinking actually > accentuated ideas of race.

This was not just towards the end of the 18th century.. but also in the late 19th and early 20th century. Some of the roots of Aryan supremacy/Naziism can be traced to the same ideas of race supremacy. There were believe who honestly believed that different races had different origins. Asians came from orangutans, Africans from gorillas, and Caucasians from the smart chimpanzee!! How they twisted some of Darwin's (r)evolutionary ideas to suit their ends.

Also, the temptations of eugenics, anyone? read, for example:
http://harvardmagazine.com/2000/03/the-eugenic-temptation.html
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eugenics#Ethical_re-assessment

D said...

your blog has been quoted in the Mint newspaper recently in India.
you are famous!

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