Friday, May 8, 2009

Ota Benga

Ota Benga was a pygmy that lived in a zoo for a time. I couldn't make this up. He appeared at the World's Fair in Saint Louis in 1904 after being captured from the Congo. He was put on display in the anthropology exhibit at the Fair, his alternative being a life of dodging the mercenaries of King Leopold and various Belgian traders.
Roger Casement, an Irishman, visited the Congo and wrote a report about the atrocities he saw in Africa. This subsequently led to worldwide indictments of Leopold's colonial exploits. Ota Benga's family was among those killed in the years of genocide. He thought the white men from the US came from the land of the dead to take him back with them, so he went.
These are the major characters, both orphans, of my next Folk Opera, to be performed by The May Day Orchestra and the adjunct Ota Benga Family Band. Some of the other historical figures that enter the story are William Henry Sheppard, Henry Morton Stanley and Joseph Conrad.
Ultimately, in 1916, both protagonists died. Roger Casement, involved in the World War as well as the Irish independence movement, was executed for treason at the hands of the British. Ota Benga committed suicide after living twelve years in his strange new home.

More on this later.