Country Focus: Gabon
Between Man and Beast: An Unlikely Explorer and the African Adventure That Took the Victorian World By Storm
By Monte Reel
Published by Doubleday, 2013.
About the author: Monte Reel, an ex-journalist for The Washington Post, also wrote The Last of the Tribe: The Epic Quest to Save a Lone Man in the Amazon. He lives in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Between Man and Beast is the story of Paul Du Chaillu, an amateur explorer who ventured deep into the jungles of Gabon in 1865 in search of the legendary gorilla. At the time, the only evidence of these fabled beasts were stories told by native tribesmen and a few skeletons carried from the country’s mysterious interior.
Du Chaillu’s expedition was a success. He arrived in New York City five years later replete with taxidermied gorillas, numerous other previously unseen species, spellbinding stories of indigenous tribespeople, and a passion for sharing his findings.
The great apes hit a nerve. Du Chaillu’s return to the West coincided with Charles Darwin’s publication of On the Origin of Species and the American Civil War. In England, the proof of the existence of gorillas – our ancestors, evolutionary theory suggested – intensified the debates over Darwin’s controversial ideas. In America, proponents of slavery crudely equated blacks with gorillas to support their twisted institution. These aftereffects of Du Chaillu’s discovery —rather than his adventures in Gabon—take center stage in Between Man and Beast.
A charismatic figure with a mysterious background, Paul Du Chaillu makes an excellent protagonist. At first feted for his exploits, the man was later smeared for not having been scientific enough in his descriptions or exact enough when figuring his locations. In 1863, he returned to Gabon with the intention of putting all doubts of his claims to rest.
Du Chaillu’s two expeditions bookend this highly entertaining piece of nonfiction. Reel did a staggering amount of research and coughed it up into a rip-roaring read. Readers keen on gorillas and scientific intrigue couldn’t ask for more. However, for a more satisfying look at Gabon, I’d have done better by reading either or both of Du Chaillu’s own books. Explorations and Adventures in Equatorial Africa, and A Journey to Ashango-Land: and Further Penetration into Equatorial Africa are considered by Gabonese and French experts to be outstanding resources on mid-19th century Gabon.
When he bade farewell to the Fang, the tribe seemed truly sad to see him go, and they presented him with gifts and promises of loyalty and affection. Paul never dropped his certainty that they were cannibals. But just as the caníbales that Columbus had described believed the Spaniards themselves were man-eating savages, it seemed that the Fang harbored their own myths concerning Europeans.
One of them confessed to Paul that his tribe had heard stories about the fiercely cannabalistic ways of white men. Paul’s first instinct was to laugh him off as a simpleminded fool. But the legend hadn’t been conjured from thin air. When Paul tried to assure him that white men didn’t eat black men, the man confronted him with a direct challenge: explain why they bought and sold Africans as if they were cattle, not human beings.
“Why do you come from nobody knows where, and carry off our men, and women, and children?” the man asked Paul. “Do you not fatten them in your far country and eat them?”