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3:08 pm
Sun March 31, 2013

An Unlikely Explorer Stumbles Into Controversy

Originally published on Mon December 2, 2013 11:03 am

The mostly forgotten explorer Paul du Chaillu introduced the world to gorillas. His methods were attacked and his work discredited during his lifetime, but he also experienced fame and redemption.

Author Monte Reel illuminates the little-known tale of the 19th century explorer in his new book Between Man and Beast: An Unlikely Explorer, the Evolution Debates, and the African Adventure That Took the Victorian World by Storm.

Reel tells Laura Sullivan, host of weekends on All Things Considered, that du Chaillu surprised the world with his reports from Gabon. Although he had no scientific background, the young adventurer was hoping to tell the world what he had seen there: gorillas.

He returned to London amid the heated debate over Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species. Du Chaillu's findings didn't go unquestioned, however. His reports were marred by inaccuracies and exaggerations. Before he knew it, the attacks got personal, and critics revealed one fact he'd tried to hide: that his mother was African.


Interview Highlights

On what the public knew about gorillas:

"As a species, it just kind of was known to science starting in 1847. A gorilla skull was found by a missionary in Gabon, on the west coast of Africa. And that's when scientists classified this animal and called it the gorilla. But even after that, no one had really seen one in the wild. And so there were all sorts of ... legends that had sprouted up around the gorilla. What kind of animal it was. And it was considered to be just this, essentially a, monster."

On du Chaillu hiding the fact his mother was African

"When people would ask him about his parents, he would say that his father was a French trader, which was true. But he never really spoke of his mother. He didn't feel like he could remain among the circles that he was traveling in, in London particularly. The Royal Geographical society for example. There were no minorities at that time allowed there."

On du Chaillu's attempt to clear his name by returning to Gabon

"He goes there, and it's an absolute disaster. First, he loses a lot of his equipment. And when he finally gets into the interior, some of the members of his traveling party, unbeknownst to him, are infected with smallpox. So what he's doing essentially is spreading a smallpox epidemic. As you can imagine, somebody spreading this just horrific disease is not welcome. And eventually he's forced to flee — literally under the hail of arrows."

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Transcript

LAURA SULLIVAN, HOST:

This next story is about a little-known explorer who first introduced the world to gorillas. His name was Paul du Chaillu. In his lifetime, his methods were attacked, and his work was discredited. But he also found fame, and finally, redemption. Monte Reel tells us the story in his new book, "Between Men and Beasts: An Unlikely Explorer, the Evolution Debates, and the African Adventure That Took the Victorian World by Storm." Reel says that in du Chaillu's time, gorillas were almost considered mythical creatures.

MONTE REEL: In 1847, a gorilla skull was found by a missionary in Gabon, on the west coast of Africa. But even after that, no one had really seen one in the wild, and it was considered to be just this - essentially a monster.

SULLIVAN: Paul du Chaillu walks into the scene. He's this little-known explorer. He burst onto the scene. Who is this guy?

REEL: He had gone to the west coast of Africa in 1848 to join his father who was a French trader. The American missionary named John Leighton Wilson had found this skull. And du Chaillu met Wilson, and he actually kind of moved in with him - Wilson adopted du Chaillu as his son, essentially. So du Chaillu was coming of age. He was only 17 at that point.

A few years later, when he was in his 20s, he decided to go into Africa to try to be the first person to encounter gorillas in the wild and describe them. So he spent about three years on an expedition in the interior of Gabon. And when he emerged in 1859, he came out with more than 20 stuffed gorillas, gorillas that he had killed and that he stuffed, and he brought those to the United States and to London.

SULLIVAN: So here is du Chaillu in London. He's being feted across town. He's being wined and dined because of his gorillas, and then London really turns on him. What happened?

REEL: They turned on him for a couple of different reasons. But the first attacks were basically leveled against his scientific credibility. When he had gone into the forest to confront gorillas, he had had no scientific training at all. He was just a young kid, essentially on his own, doing this seat-of-the-pants expedition.

So he came to London, presented his findings. He had no real idea how to make maps, for example, so his maps were flawed. And people attacked those as being inaccurate. But then the attack against him really got personal.

SULLIVAN: Yeah. Let's talk about that for a moment. So du Chaillu was half African, and you've been able to determine that he was born on what is now the island of Reunion. His mother was from Africa. You write that his father was a white African trader. Why did he feel like he had to hide that for most of his life?

REEL: When people would ask him about his parents, he would say that his father was a French trader, which was true, but he never really spoke of his mother. Among the circles that he was traveling in - in London, particularly, the Royal Geographical Society, for example - there were no minorities at that time allowed there. But there were rumors that were always kind of circulating about this. And actually, those rumors kind of came to the fore just as his fame was reaching its highest level in 1861.

SULLIVAN: He must have been devastated by this because here he is having done something that no explorer had ever done before, and now, he's being undermined in this horrible way.

REEL: In London, there was a trader from Africa that he had been acquainted with in Gabon who started to write to papers in London, sort of like letters to the editor, insinuating that du Chaillu wasn't who he said he was, that he was hiding his parentage. And when du Chaillu started to see these and feel these attacks, he actually challenged his critics to go with him back to Africa, back into the forest, and he said he would prove everything that he saw.

SULLIVAN: So he heads back to Africa to find redemption in a lot of ways. Does he find it?

REEL: He goes there, and it's an absolute disaster. First, he loses a lot of his equipment. And when he finally gets into the interior, some of the members of his traveling party, unbeknownst to him, are infected with smallpox. So what he's doing, essentially, is spreading a smallpox epidemic. You know, as you can imagine, somebody spreading this just horrific disease is not welcome. And eventually, he's forced to flee - literally under the hail of arrows.

But the one thing that he's able to carry out are his notes, and he just kind of noted down everything he saw very meticulously, and those notes saved him. So he was, to a certain extent, at that point, embraced by a lot of the critics that had disparaged him before.

SULLIVAN: Where was he traveling at that time?

REEL: This is in Gabon, right, sort of, near the equator, inland towards a region called the Crystal Mountains. And during that second expedition, in describing it, he wrote that his aim wasn't to slaughter gorillas this time. Enough specimens had already been collected, and he just kind of wanted to, he said, lay the scientific record straight.

SULLIVAN: And he did. In the end - at the end of the day, it's his information that led to 100 years of more information about the gorillas.

REEL: Yeah. He wasn't appreciated at all in his time. And his name, after that, became a little bit of a slur in some quarters because he was seen as this, you know, kind of imperial explorer who went in and shot all of these gorillas and didn't really understand them. But that reputation has undergone quite a re-evaluation in recent years.

And people who study gorillas and people who study African history, for example, look at his work now as a really kind of important foundation. This is where it all started.

SULLIVAN: That's Monte Reel, author of "Between Men and Beasts: An Unlikely Explorer, the Evolution Debates, and the African Adventure That Took the Victorian World by Storm." Monte, thanks so much for joining us.

REEL: Thanks very much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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