A number of years ago, I was talking with Gary Richmond (zookeeper, pastor, author, great guy) about where one would go if one could go any place, anywhere in history. Gary said he would want to be one of the first European explorers to search Africa for the legendary gorilla.
Monte Reel takes us on that adventure with a most unlikely explorer, Paul Du Chaillu. Du Chaillu’s story is a true Horatio Alger tale of a man who started with nothing, but found in Africa intellectual treasure that would him bring fame and wealth, leading a long life that ended in poverty (rather like Alger himself.)
Du Chaillu’s clouded parentage him afforded him little advantage in his young life, except a familiarity with Africa. It was in the 19th century truly seen as the Dark Continent, feared for its savage people and creatures, impenetrable geography and plentiful diseases. But Du Chaillu explored the land, being one of the first white men to encounter cannibals and pygmies (whom he called ‘ongobongos’) and most famously gorillas.
The gorilla became a focal point of two of most debated topics of the time, evolution and race (which continue on as subjects of contention.) There were some early believers in evolution that argued the black man was closer to the gorilla than the white man. As the Civil War approached in the United States, blacks were often compared to gorillas (as was Abraham Lincoln.)
There are heart rending accounts of the slave trade, which Du Chaillu eventually takes on in this life as a quite personal cause. We see how Du Chaillu grows as a scientist along with the science of the time. When Du Chaillu begins his career, zoologists are one in the same with hunters. How else was one to bring back samples of fauna? (Even John Audubon shot many more birds than he painted early in his career.)
Du Chaillu’s story spans three continents (Europe and North America as well as Africa), and brings in an amazing cast of historical characters. As one would expect, Charles Darwin plays a role, as do African explorers such as David Livingston and Richard Burton. But we also have appearances from the world of politics (William Gladstone and Edwin Stanton), show business (P.T. Barnum and King Kong) and literature (J.M. Barrie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.)
But the cameo I found most interesting in the book was the preacher Charles Spurgeon who sees in Du Chaillu a model of God’s light entering darkness. The account of the explorer’s appearance in the preacher’s mammoth sanctuary is comical and touching. (Spurgeon charged for the event, as he did for Sunday services, but the money went to a Temperance organization; even though Du Chaillu credited alcohol for sustaining his health in the jungle.)
Reel’s book satisfies as a story of adventure and biography, but also provides insight about class and culture, science and sociology. I’m glad to have a chance to have met Paul Du Chaillu, even though many gorillas wouldn’t share the sentiment.