By Jan Lundius
STOCKHOLM / ROME, Jun 3 2019 – There are several means to make profitable use of other human beings, an endeavour that tends to turn others into tools by depriving them of their roots and self-respect. This happened in concentration – and work camps, where individuals were reduced to mere numbers.
Another form of objectification of fellow human beings has been to gain money by exhibiting them to paying audiences. The fate of Ota Benga is an example of this. He was a Mbuti man who in 1904, together with other “primitive people”, was exhibited at the Lousiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis and later in the Monkey House at Bronx´s Zoo in New York. Ota Benga had by the missionary Samuel Phillips Verner been purchased from slave-traders in the Belgian Congo, while Verner was searching for “exotic Africans” to be exhibited in St. Louis.
After newspapers had exposed the mistreatment of Mr. Benga, he was after six years released from the zoo. A supervisor of the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum in Brooklyn arranged to have Benga´s filed teeth capped while providing him with basic education and ”decent” clothes. Benga planned to return to his Congolese home, though when the outbreak of World War I ended cross-Atlantic passenger traffic, Benga did at the age of 32 build a ceremonial fire, chipped off the caps on his teeth and shot himself in the heart with a stolen pistol.1 By the beginning of the last century, Benga´s tragic fate was far from unique, people like him were brought from other continents to be exhibited at museums, circuses, and fairs. During the last decades, several books and movies have paid attention to some of these unfortunate individuals.
One example is the French film Black Venus from 2010. Directed by Abdellatif Kechiche it tells the true story of Sara Baartman, a Khoikhoi woman from South Africa who in the early 19th century was exhibited in several European countries. At that time, as well as after her death when her skeleton and a painted plaster model of her naked body until 1974 were exhibited at Musée de l´Homme in Paris, Ms. Baartman has figured in novels, poems, and artworks. She suffered from steatopygia, abnormally big buttocks, as well as protruding genitals. When she was exposed naked, both alive and as a plaster model, Sara was presented as a representative of the ”abnormality” and ”hypersexuality” of the ”black race”, an outcome of its ”unique physique”. Ms. Baartman died from ”inflammation” at the age of 25. 2
Another representative of abused indigenous people is Minik, who seven years old together with his father Qisuk and four other Inghuits, in 1897 by the US explorer Robert Peary were brought from the village of Uummannaq in northern Greenland to New York, to be exhibited at shows and at the American Museum of Natural History. However, all of them soon died of tuberculosis, except for one man who succeeded to return to Greenland and Minik who was forced to remain in New York.
Minik suffered from his father´s death and pleaded for a proper Inghuit burial. For the benefit of Minik, the museum staff staged a fake burial. Unknown to Minik the coffin had been filled with stones, while his father´s corpse was de-fleshed, his skeleton mounted and publicly displayed together with painted, plaster models. Through his classmates, Minik found out that his father´s skeleton was exposed together with casts of his and his father´s naked bodies. The press got hold of the story and after almost ten years in New York, Minik was brought back to Uummannaq. He had by then forgotten his mother language and much of Inghuit culture and skills. In spite of being welcomed by his people, reintegrated in their culture and becoming a skilled hunter, Minik never felt at home. In 1916 he returned to New York, where he after a few months died of pneumonia.3
Minik had been kept in New York under the pretext of acculturation, a process of social, psychological and cultural change through which a dominant society incorporates individuals from a differing culture. Forced assimilation remains a common violation of minority rights.
A Danish movie, premiering the same year as Black Venus – The Experiment by Lousie Friedberg – deals with the perils of acculturation. In 1951, with the intention of transforming them into “small Danes” by adapting them to “modern” society, Danish colonial authorities removed twenty-two, six to eight years old Inuit children from their parents. The children were “relocated” to Denmark and the movie follows their fate as they lose their original language and culture, while suffering the trauma of being separated from their families. More than half of them died before reaching adulthood.
There are several examples of such tragedies, disguised as benevolent efforts to secure a bright future for “native” children, one was the Canadian Indian residential school system, a network of boarding schools administered by Christain churches. During its hundred years of existence (1869 to mid-1960s) 30 percent of Canada´s indigenous children, around 150,000 individuals, were separated from their parents and placed in residential schools. Due to incomplete historical records, the number of school-related deaths remains unknown, though estimates range from 3,200 upwards of 6,000. 4
Acculturation has occurred in the other direction as well. Children and youngsters captured during raids by Native American warriors quite often received the name of a deceased member of their captor´s tribe, receiving his/her social status while becoming a member of the deceased person´s family. White settlers became astonished to find that “rescued” captives often preferred to return to their captors. In 1753, Benjamin Franklin observed:
- … when white persons of either sex have been taken prisoners young by the Indians, and lived a while among them, though ransomed by their Friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them, to stay among the English, yet in a Short time they become disgusted with our manner of life, and the care and pains that are necessary to support it, and take the first good Opportunity of escaping again into the Woods, from whence there is no reclaiming them. 5
Captivity Narratives soon became a sub-genre of American biographies, novels and movies. The phenomenon of settlers preferring to remain with their captors is as old as the first encounters between Westerners and Indigenous people.6 In his magnificent eye-witness account of Hernán Cortés´s conquest of México, the Spanish soldier Bernal Díaz del Castillo described a meeting between the priest Jerónimo de Aguilar and the former sailor Gonzalo Guerrero.
Eight years before the arrival of Western warriors these two men had been shipwrecked on the Mayan coast of México. Other members of their crew were almost immediately ritually sacrificed, while de Aguilar and Guerrero escaped. After being re-captured, they were instead of being sacrificed turned into slaves. de Aguilar kept his faith and remained a slave, while Guerrero became a ”war leader” in the service of Nachan Can, Lord of Chactemal and married his daughter, Zazil. When Cortés heard about the two Spaniards he paid ransom for them. His Mayan owner freed de Aguilar, who joined the Spanish troops, becoming their translator. When he arrived among the Spaniards, de Aguilar told Cortés that he had failed to persuade Guerrero to join him. Guerreo, who was not a slave, had answered his friend:
- Brother Aguilar, I am married and have three children, and they look on me as a Cacique [lord] here, and a captain in time of war. Go, and God´s blessing be with you. But my face is tattooed and my ears are pierced. What would the Spaniards say about me if they saw me like this? And look how handsome these children of mine are. 7
Cortés soon learned that Guerrero led Mayan warriors in attacks on Spanish troops and he eventually died fighting his former compatriots. Guerrero´s story is proof of the fact that you are at home where you feel you belong and that no one can force such a feeling upon you.
1 Newkirk, Pamela (2015). Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga. New York: Amistad.
2 Crais, Clifton and Pamela Scully (2009) Sara Baartman and the Hottentot Venus. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press. It was common that indigenous individuals, brought from isolated areas to big cites in the US and Europe, died from contagious diseaes.
3 Cruchaudet, Chloé (2008). Groënland Manhattan. Paris: Delcourt.
4 Réaume, Denise G. and Patrick Macklem (1994) Education for Subordination: Redressing the Adverse Effects of Residential Schooling. Toronto: University of Toronto.
5 Isaacson, Walter (2005) A Benjamin Franklin Reader. New York: Simon & Schuster. p. 157.
6 Turner III, Frederick W. (1977) The Portable North American Indian Reader. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, pp. 310-311.
7 Díaz, Bernal (1965) The Conquest of New Spain. Harmondsworth; Penguin Classics. p. 65
Jan Lundius holds a PhD. on History of Religion from Lund University and has served as a development expert, researcher and advisor at SIDA, UNESCO, FAO and other international organisations.