I’m a huge fan of the movie King Kong (1933), and I’m constantly trying to learn more about the film and the culture which produced it. Kong was created by screenwriter Merian C. Cooper who, in a 1965 interview, stated that his earliest inspiration was the book Explorations and Adventures in Equatorial Africa (1861) by Paul Du Chaillu, a self-styled African adventurer and the first European to hunt and shoot a gorilla.
As a result I’ve always been curious about the enigmatic Du Chaillu, which is just one of the reasons why Monte Reel’s biography, Between Man and Beast: An Unlikely Explorer, The Evolution Debates, and the African Adventure that took the Victorian World by Storm (2013), is such an absolute delight. Though written and structured liked a novel, Reel’s book is entirely non-fiction, coming in at 331 pages, including endnotes, a bibliography, and an index. An insert featuring 21 black-and-white photos/illustrations is located in the center of the book.
Having long proven himself an elusive subject for scholars, Du Chaillu was a real-life international man of mystery. When he first exploded onto the London scene in 1861, having recently returned from a four-year expedition into the deepest regions of Africa ever explored by a westerner (and with 21 taxidermied gorillas in tow) no one knew where he had come from, who his parents were, what his education had been, or what country he belonged to. Even his ethnicity was a matter of speculation.
None of this was by accident. Even at the height of his celebrity, Du Chaillu worked hard to obfuscate his identity. He desired to be a self-made man, which to him meant being judged on his own merits.
And what exactly had Du Chaillu accomplished? Though the existence of the gorilla had been documented scientifically in the west since 1847 (via skulls and bones acquired from African locals), no white person had ever seen one alive, or even with its skin on. All reports indicated that the gorilla was too fierce, too dangerous, and too powerful to be hunted.
This allowed it to remain a specter of myth in the minds of many in both Europe and America, as well as a contested figure in the ongoing evolution debates roiling through the halls of academia. It was also exactly these qualities which motivated Du Chaillu to make a name for himself by being the first westerner to successfully hunt and kill the beast.
In Between Man and Beast, Reel has worked hard to pierce the veil of mystery which Du Chaillu drew around himself, having combed archives, consulted historians, and traveled to the many places around the globe – Africa, America, Britain, and Russia – that Du Chaillu called home. In the process, Reel paints a vibrant picture of a complex man and the equally complex world he lived in.
Reel unveils that in 1846, at 17-years-old, Du Chaillu was found washed up on the banks of a river in the African nation of Gabon, where he was taken in by an American missionary. He was largely self-educated, but managed to land a job teaching his native language, French, at a New York prep school. Eventually Du Chaillu returned to Africa in 1855 to hunt birds for the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences (and gorillas for himself).
However, the Academy refused to compensate Du Chaillu for the specimens he’d collected, so he left the United States for London. There he authored a book about his adventures – the one that would eventually inspire King Kong – and became a bona fide superstar.
Du Chaillu’s celebrity led him to encounter some of the biggest names in Victorian London, and he found himself the mutual friend of men who held open disdain for each other. Du Chaillu ate dinner with Darwin’s fiercest critic, Sir Richard Owen, and attended lectures given by his most ardent champion, Thomas Henry Huxley. He also had drinks with self-described hedonist Sir Richard Burton and stood on the pulpit with the fanatically conservative preacher, Reverend Charles H. Spurgeon.
Though these men did consider Du Chaillu a friend, they all saw his gorilla discovery as a pawn in their public campaigns to reshape society to their own liking. Forever the chameleon, Du Chaillu somehow managed to avoid becoming entangled in any one group’s agenda.
Ultimately, Du Chaillu’s mysteriousness would end up being used against him. Dogged by skeptics who doubted his experiences, cast aspersions on his observations of wild gorillas, and claimed he’d purchased – not killed – the animals he displayed, Du Chaillu’s lack of transparency only exacerbated such suspicions. Reel does his best to address such claims and assures readers that, in his estimation, Du Chaillu absolutely did do the things he claimed he did.
But Reel also acknowledges there are certain aspects of the explorer’s life that are simply beyond even the most dedicated researcher’s grasp. We may never know, for example, who Du Chaillu’s mother was or exactly what events led him to the shore of that Gabonese river where he was found.
More importantly, Reel writes that while Du Chaillu found those who doubted his claims infuriating, rather than digging in his heels and damning the critics, he made the decision to formally educate himself in science and return to Africa in 1863, this time methodically documenting his entire expedition and thus leaving no room for doubt.
Despite fierce criticism, Du Chaillu managed to maintain his enigmatic aura for his entire life and well after his death. Today a headstone in the Bronx marks his final resting place, but as Reel notes, nearly everything written on it about him is wrong, which is why it’s so important Between Man and Beast: An Unlikely Explorer, The Evolution Debates, and the African Adventure that took the Victorian World by Storm exists, a testament to the man who managed to make himself as much of a legend as the movie monster his exploits would eventually inspire.