Between Man and Beast: An Unlikely Explorer and the African Adventure the Victorian World by Storm by Monte Reel
- 352 pages (272 pages in the Kindle version includes the worthy epilogue)
- Read this window into the club of Victorian gentlemen of science and the politics of race and privilege with someone you can dissect (sorry, couldn’t resist) it with later.
The middle1800s were turbulent years in the U.S. and in Europe politically, economically and scientifically. The most active minds in those fields each had an opinion about where various races of humanity fit into the natural order of the universe. Britain had abolished slavery in 1848, but the United States of the 1860s was about to tear itself apart over the institution. African explorer Paul Du Chaillu’s stories about a tailless ape further inflamed the rhetoric about the question of where humans—particularly white versus black humans—belonged in the tree of life. Du Chaillu distanced himself from the charged racial ideas of the day, preferring to talk about his gorillas for their own sake and to use them as a means to earn his laurels from the Victorian-era scientific community.
Science in Victorian England was very much a white man’s pastime. Richard Owen (the anatomist who gave us the term “dinosaur”) was about as white and privileged as scientist could be. Not only was he a wealthy Englishman, he was the personal friend of Queen Victoria and lived in a house she had given him in the poshest part of London. Sir Roderick Murchison is another familiar name in this book, a titled founder of the Royal Geographical Society. Both of these distinguished scientific figures appear prominiently in this book. Darwin also pops up, too, along with T.H. Huxley. Huxley in particular had a public disagreement with Owen and disliked the man generally, and that was the sort of thing that was common knowledge in the scientific community.
Who respected whom wasn’t just gossip, it was eyewitnessed because the scientific community of the day was not only privileged, it was small. People knew one another personally, and it could be tough to break into the group without a sponsor and the right kind of background. Onto this aristocratic stage burst young Paul Du Chaillu, the explorer who brought tales of the gorilla back from the mysterious and largely unexplored (by Europeans) interior of West Africa. The young man had no credentials to speak of and couldn’t buy his way into the status of gentleman naturalist. Plus, the animated manner of this short man with the curious accent contrasted sharply with the stereotypically formal scientific community and its gentleman scholars.
Du Chaillu was also deliberately vague about his background and nationality. He allowed people to assume that he was from Paris or New Orleans because his real background would have been scandalous for the times. He knew he would have been called a “quadroon” because one of his grandparents had been African while the other three had been white Europeans. His would-be scientific peers could have used this hereditary state of affairs to undermine any professional opinions he might render as necessarily incorrect products of an inferior mind. It was possible to earn respect within the scientific community without coming from money (William Whewell was an example of one such person), and even women could be a novelty act of sorts; however, non-European heredity was outside possibility.
Providing contrast to the scientific club, plenty of people who weren’t scientists at all show up in this story when Du Chaillu, needing to pay the bills, accepted engagements speaking and displaying his stuffed gorilla collection. P.T. Barnum resented the business Du Chaillu siphons from him when gorilla skins went on display in New York City. Charles Waterton, an Englishman wealthy enough to be called “eccentric’ instead of “crazy”, took a dislike to Du Chaillu because he had been the great explorer of Africa before du Chaillu showed up with gorillas. Plus, the American founder of what was arguably the first megachurch didn’t like the whole “evolution” idea that this gorilla business conjures up, but he didn’t mind hosting a lecture about it to the waiting masses who show up at his Manhattan “temple”.
This book feels a bit all over the place at times. Chapters are short and not fully chronological. The setting changes, too: West Africa, Manhattan, London. Thematically, science and exploration abut showmanship and exploitation. Personally, I find it forgivable because the author structures the book to capture the frenetic energy and shifting moods of the times—no one in Europe or North America knew what to do with reports of the disconcertingly human “gorilla” when they appeared in the middle 1800s. Besides, Monte Reel gives us a Paul Du Chaillu who begins his quest for scientific recognition seeming to the people he would have as peers as having hold of more scientific controversy than he can really handle with the gorillas. He gets some shabby treatment from men who expect to get away with it (and largely do). Reel lets us watch him mature as a man and as a researcher, not just a kid who knows his way around an African river system.
I’ve been late posting this review because I’ve been wrestling with whether or not to include a comparison to another book. This book, Laura J. Snyder’s The Philosophical Breakfast Club, is going to make the 2014 Reject Pile, which is why I debated mentioning it. My apologies go to Dr. Snyder, who is an able writer and researcher, but the reason I couldn’t finish her book wasn’t an inadequacy, but rather too much poor behavior on the part of her subjects. I had a low tolerance for cliquishness and cattiness in high school, and reading page after page of it among respected and famous(!) men of science got to be a bit much for me. Still, I think her book makes an interesting complement to Reel’s Man Versus Beast, although I can’t in good conscience pretend that I read more than 85% of the former.
Image: Kabir, 2005. Lowland gorilla at Cincinnati Zoo.