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An Unlikely Explorer Stumbles Into Controversy

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
March 31, 2013

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.” [Copyright 2013 NPR]

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