Thursday, September 10, 2015

Ota Benga, part 1

I am happy to report that the “The Most Defiant Devil:” William Temple Hornaday and his Controversial Crusade to Save American Wildlife  has received some positive reviews in such scholarly publications as The Journal of American History, Annals of Iowa, Environmental History, Western Historical Quarterly, AAG, and CHOICE. In addition, a very favorable review by the Associated Press in late August 2013 was carried in papers nationwide, including my hometown Denver Post. Most reviewers commented that I presented a balanced view of William Temple Hornaday and did not shy from flaws, including his insidious racism. However, there was one rather negative review in the New York History that claims I should have devoted more space to the decision in 1906 to place African Ota Benga on display with the monkeys in the New York Zoological Park.
My decision to contain the story of this deplorable incident to two pages was motivated largely by considerations of page count as well as my intent to keep the focus on Hornaday the conservationist, hence the subtitle my biography. I will come back to one more reason in a moment.
In my brief coverage of the Ota Benga “incident” I wanted to call attention to two facts. First, Hornaday’s employers, Henry Fairfield Osborn and Madison Grant deserve as much, if not more, blame for the decision of placing Ota Benga on display in the Monkey House. Both men were themselves notorious racists who were just as eager as their director to boost gate receipts. Second, the idea of living “scientific specimens” was not unique to the New York Zoological Park in September 1906. Ota Benga had been on “display” previously at the St. Louis Exposition in 1904. He was not the only African on “display” in St. Louis, nor were Africans the only people so exhibited at the exposition. At a time when the foremost men of science, like Henry Fairfield Osborn, used Darwin’s Theory of Evolution to promote racial hierarchy, including the concept that different peoples on the earth were in various stages of evolution, it not surprising that human beings were used as living object lessons at expositions and museums in the early decades of the 20th century. It was the provocative placement of Ota Benga in the Monkey House at the Bronx Zoo that makes September 1906 stand out as a particularly deplorable event. Surely, Hornaday was a racist, but his motivation was largely to boost attendance. A deeper discussion of scientific racism and humans on display was well outside the scope of The Most Defiant Devil, especially since Hornaday never adhered to the theory of scientific racism.
Finally, readers would be disappointed if they think that New Yorkers in 1906 condemned the zoo. In fact, this sensationalist stunt succeeded in drawing tens of thousands of paying New Yorkers to the zoo. Men of science defended the decision and powerful political leaders led by Mayor George B. McClellan backed the New York Zoological Society. In other words, the uncomfortable fact is that it was not as widely protested or condemned at the time as we in the 21st Century would like to believe. While posterity might remember Hornaday as the zoo director who displayed an human being in the Monkey House of his zoo, his reputation as the leading zoologist of his generation, foremost spokesperson on wildlife conservation, and undisputed expert in all fields relating to animals was undamaged among his contemporaries because of the events of September 1906. It was not a defining moment for Hornaday, it was a ripple in an otherwise long life.

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