I had never heard of the African explorer Paul Du Chaillu. According to author Monte Reel, few people have, which was part of the appeal for him to write a book. Writing about Du Chaillu also gave Reel a vehicle for exploring the Victorian Age and its controversies and prejudices. The result of his research is Between Man and Beast: An Unlikely Explorer, the Evolution Debates, and the African Adventure That Took the Victorian World by Storm.
That Du Chaillu is called an African explorer can be interpreted a couple of ways. The obvious is that he explored Africa. He took two extended journeys into the interior from coastal Gabon in the 1856 and 1863 and is thought to be the first European to see a live gorilla. Before that only gorilla skeletons and skins had been collected and sent to the scientific societies in the capitals of Europe, where there was much skepticism of such an animal truly existing. After his first expedition, Du Chaillu took preserved gorillas to New York and London to both great acclaim and charges of fraud.
Du Chaillu's origins were obscure. His father was French and his mother was rarely mentioned. He said at different times that he was born in France, in New Orleans, and in French colonies. Many of his supporters believed him to be dark skinned from his years in the Africa sun. In fact, he was part African, born on the island of Reunion east of Madagascar. The author poses that perceptions of Du Chaillu's race factored in his failure to impress men of science with his observations, stories, and specimens. Though his books sold well initially, his fame was short-lived.
Reel's sympathetic account of Du Chaillu's brief career is filled with big names in science, including Sir Richard Burton, Richard Owen, Roderick Murchison, Charles Darwin, and Thomas Henry Huxley. They and others used Du Chaillu's accounts in their arguments over evolution. The explorer tried to stay neutral but others implied his allegiance or opposition. After two African trips, he gave up gorilla studies and devoted himself to less volatile Scandinavian topics.
Readers who enjoy history of exploration and science will appreciate Between Man and Beast. If you library does not have it, request an interlibrary loan.
Reel, Monte. Between Man and Beast: An Unlikely Explorer, the Evolution Debates, and the African Adventure That Took the Victorian World by Storm. Doubleday, 2013. 331p. ISBN 9780385534222.