Using extensive historical research, Reel brings alive this expedition and a later one and describes what happened between the two journeys. In New York and London, Du Chaillu thrilled audiences with his exotic tales, became enmeshed in the uproar over Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and suffered from scathing attacks by his rivals, who accused him of faking many of his scientific claims.
Du Chaillu did, in fact, experience close-up encounters with gorillas. That first gorilla was butchered, roasted and consumed on the spot by the hunters (though Du Chaillu did not take part). In short order, “his traveling chests started to fill with gorilla skins. Dozens of them,” Reel writes. By 1857, his hunters began to capture live gorilla infants. Two babies’ mothers were slaughtered, and, once in captivity, the babies soon died, too.
Given modern-day sensibilities about the gorilla, an endangered ape that lives in tight-knit family groups and is one of our closest living relatives, the first part of the book makes for tough reading. Reel reminds us that Du Chaillu’s actions were the norm for his day and were considered neither brutal nor cruel. “Today science has uncoupled itself from hunting,” Reel writes, “but the two realms were indivisible for most of the nineteenth century.” It’s nonetheless a relief to move beyond these killing fields to Reel’s reconstruction of the Victorian culture of England, to which Du Chaillu repaired after a stint in the United States.
At the invitation of Richard Owen, a famed anatomist, Du Chaillu arrived in London in 1861. The two men bonded over Du Chaillu’s 21 gorilla specimens, which Reel calls “the cargo of Owen’s dreams.” Through Owen, Du Chaillu was introduced to the elite of London’s scientific society, and from there his gorilla tales rippled out to the masses. “More than any animal before or since,” Reel notes with a touch of hyperbole, “the gorilla had become an instant cultural phenomenon, dominating every level of public discourse.”
Du Chaillu published his book “Explorations and Adventures in Equatorial Africa” first in England to great success and afterward in America, where it was, by some calculations, the best-selling book of 1861. But he had taken no scientific instruments with him to Gabon, and, when rivals accused him of making errors in zoology or geography, he lacked data to defend himself. Despite Owen’s protests, his credibility was damaged, even though some of the accusations were absurd — one explorer erroneously insisted that gorillas were entirely arboreal, like the South American monkeys he had observed.
Reel tries to build a case that the nascent war over evolution played into the charges of charlatanism against Du Chaillu. But here the narrative becomes choppy as Reel offers mini-biographies of scores of supporting characters — male explorers, scientists and theologians — and struggles to pinpoint Du Chaillu’s role in the controversy.
A second problem is more troubling. Reel’s lack of analytical distance from the 19th-century perspective is sometimes costly. Du Chaillu’s story is also one of race, racism and egregious European exploitation of African peoples. Reel does mention how “offensive” this was and offers a brief scientific refutation of the belief at the time that dark-skinned peoples were biologically closer to apes than were light-skinned peoples. But the litany of racist events and commentaries is never forcefully deconstructed. It’s jarring to see the N-word used without commentary when reporting a derogatory nickname for the white explorer Burton.
Reel’s resurrection of the discredited term “missing link” is unfortunate for scientific reasons, as is his statement that fossils provide evidence of “transitional forms between men and apes.” Evolution is not linear, as these phrases imply.
Still, a sense of urgency compels the reader onward to find out what happened once Du Chaillu mounted his second expedition, to vindicate his claims and resurrect his integrity. Before setting out, he mastered aspects of astronomy, cartography and photography and shipped numerous scientific instruments to Gabon. Once there, he traveled 400 miles into the country’s interior, farther than any white man before.
The ensuing events make for arresting and, at times, horrifying reading. Accidents, plague and brutal encounters between explorers, African inhabitants and animals all figure in. Reel’s rescue of Du Chaillu from relative obscurity again brings to the fore troubling questions about the European exploration of Africa.
Barbara J. King
teaches anthropology at the College of William & Mary. Her book “How Animals Grieve” will be published in April.