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Race, Sex & The Trials of a Young Explorer

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 14, 2011

Here’s the latest column in my series for The New York Times, based on my book The Species Seekers:  Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth:

In 1859, Paul Du Chaillu, a young explorer of French origin and adopted American nationality, wandered out of the jungle after a four-year expedition in Gabon.  He brought with him complete specimens of 20 gorillas, an animal almost unknown outside West Africa.  The gorilla’s resemblance to humans astonished many people, especially after Darwin published On the Origin of Species later that year.  The politician Edwin M. Stanton was soon calling Abraham Lincoln “the original gorilla” and joking that Du Chaillu was a fool to have gone to Africa for what he could as easily have found in Springfield, Ill.

But the more common way to deal with our resemblance to monkeys and apes then was to fob it off onto other ethnic groups — typically black people, or sometimes the Irish.  A few white scientists even purported to find physiological evidence, in the configuration of the skull, for classifying other races as separate species, not quite as far removed as Caucasians from our primate cousins.  This undercurrent of scientific racism would play out to devastating effect in Du Chaillu’s own life.

When Du Chaillu arrived in London for the 1861 publication of his book, “Explorations and Adventures in Equatorial Africa,” he became the most celebrated figure of the season, and then, overnight, the most notorious.  He was, by all accounts, a charismatic presence, about 30 years old, with a thick moustache, a prominent brow, and bright, flashing eyes.  He also had a gift for colorful lectures about hunting fierce animals and befriending cannibals.

But scientists were soon ripping him to bits in the British press, saying that he exaggerated his own adventures and gave too little credit to other explorers, including some he plagiarized.  Many of these complaints seem to have been valid.  In particular, Du Chaillu’s depiction of the gorilla as a ferocious monster — “some hellish dream creature” — grossly distorted the image of these generally placid animals.  (His stories were still around decades later serving as raw material for the Hollywood legend of King Kong.)

The ferocity of the attack on Du Chaillu that spring and summer of 1861 went well beyond ordinary academic bickering. Each week for more than a month, John E. Gray, keeper of zoology at the British Museum, sent a lengthy letter to The Athenaeum magazine denouncing Du Chaillu.  Other critics eagerly piled on. Newly professional scientists may simply have wanted to distance themselves from the taint of amateurism.  That seems to have been one reason Gray made a minor career out of disparaging field naturalists.  Darwin, who rarely spoke ill of anyone, would later call him an “old malignant fool” for it.  The attack on Du Chaillu was also a way for Gray to undercut his rival (and boss) at the British Museum, the anatomist Richard Owen, one of Du Chaillu’s sponsors in London.

But as I was researching my book The Species Seekers, I kept coming across hints of an uglier motive for the attack on Du Chaillu, based on race. A merchant in Gabon made the cryptic assertion that he possessed “from reliable sources, information the most exact as to [Du Chaillu’s] antecedents.”  Others whispered, as The New York Times reported, that “the suspicion of negro sympathies hangs around him in many ways.”  Du Chaillu presented himself as a white man, born in Louisiana, and an almost compulsive awareness of race runs through his book:  “’You are the first white man that settled among us, and we love you,’” a village chieftain declares at one point.  “To which all the people answered, ‘Yes, we love him! He is our white man, and we have no other white man.’ ”

But the truth seems to be that his mother was a woman of mixed race, possibly a slave, on the Indian Ocean island of Réunion, where his father had been a merchant and slaveholder.  Concealing this background, the historian Henry H. Bucher Jr. has written, was “an understandable choice during the heyday of scientific racism.” In fact, Du Chaillu’s expedition to Gabon had been sponsored by the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, then the center of scientific racism. (Samuel G. Morton kept a vast collection of skulls there, “the American Golgotha,” for the purpose of racial comparisons.) The “mysterious and rapid” end to Du Chaillu’s close association with the Academy in 1860 may have resulted, says Bucher, from “a committee member’s discovery of his maternal ancestry.”

A letter sent to an English friend in the thick of the Du Chaillu controversy supports this theory.  George Ord, an officer of the academy, wrote that some of his learned colleagues had taken note when Du Chaillu was in Philadelphia of “the conformation of his head, and his features” and detected “evidence of a spurious origin.”  Ord added:  “If it be a fact that he is a mongrel, or a mustee, as the mixed races are termed in the West Indies, then we may account for his wondrous narratives; for I have observed that it is a characteristic of the negro race, and their admixtures, to be affected to habits of romance.”

In England, the mathematician Augustus de Morgan echoed these feelings.  He found the running battle over Du Chaillu so entertaining that he sent a congratulatory note to his friend William Hepworth Dixon, editor of The Athenaeum, calling “this Gorilla matter … a godsend” for a journal that had begun to seem stodgy.  Then, without stating the racial gossip outright, he drove the point home with a joke based on the old urban legend of a brewer who serves up an unusually good batch of beer, only to find a dead body at the bottom of the vat. But in this case, the body belonged to a black man. That’s the secret for lively reading, De Morgan concluded: “A negro in the vat every time!”

Though it’s only conjecture, sex may also have played a role in the savaging Du Chaillu endured in England.  He was an enthusiastic socializer, whose address books in later life were full of notes about “calls to make” “notes to send,” and new acquaintances, both male (“lawyer good fellow”) and female (“of medium height with dark chestnut hair … an exquisite figure … graceful”).  A friend later passed the word “sub rosa” to an acquaintance that Du Chaillu was “rather too fond of women.”

Curiously, the same issues of The Athenaeum in which the attack on Du Chaillu was playing out also featured a running plagiarism fight about a stage melodrama called “The Octoroon.”  It told the story of a dazzling New Orleans beauty “educated in every refinement and luxury” who was “almost a perfect white, her mother being a quadroon.”  In all three contesting versions of this tale, an “underhanded Yankee overseer” seeks to possess the heroine on the slave market.  And in each case, a dashing sea captain foils the nefarious plot and carries the beauty off to freedom.  Audiences apparently felt comfortable taking the heroine’s side because she was seven-eighths white.  But what if the sexes had been reversed, with a white woman falling for a mixed-race man — a man like Du Chaillu, say?

Readers needed only to turn the pages of The Athenaeum to find out.

Du Chaillu did not collapse in the face of this attack.  Instead, he returned to Gabon to defend his work.  The new expedition was a nightmare, but he brought back one particular set of specimens that pleased him.  On his previous trip, he had tentatively proposed a new genus of giant river otter, Potamogale, based on the tattered skin of an animal he had shot.  Gray had sneeringly classified it as a rodent instead, with the derisive name Mythomys.  But it turned out that the field naturalist, not the museum curator, had come closer to the truth.  After much throat-clearing on Gray’s behalf, a professor at Edinburgh University concluded, “Mr. Du Chaillu’s name of Potamogale stands: it has thus precedence over Gray’s name of Mythomys; and the laws of natural-history nomenclature compel us to accept it.”

For a flawed explorer vilified at least partly on account of another classification  — his race — it was a vindication.

2 Responses to “Race, Sex & The Trials of a Young Explorer”

  1. Potamogale, however, is a unique animal related to tenrecs of Madagascar, not to otters.

  2. Yes, Potamogale are now classified as part of the very odd Super-order Afrotheria. This group, first proposed in 1998, includes species from aardvarks and tenrecs on up to elephants:

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