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The First Comprehensive Survey of Northeastern Congo

by Gordy Slack

Until the late nineteenth century, the million-square-mile inland portion of Central Africa's Congo Basin was inaccessible to those who did not live there. To the north stretched the scorching Sahara Desert, to the east were high mountain ranges, and to the south impenetrable jungles and swamps. One hundred miles of fierce rapids divided the upper reaches of the Congo River itself from the short lower portion that opened to the Atlantic Ocean. Until the Congo River was followed to its source in 1877, its headlands were completely unknown to mapmakers.

Once the river was mapped, Belgium's King Leopold II established a colony in the Congo and began extracting a fortune in rubber and ivory. He built a railroad to bypass the Congo River's rapids, allowing transport of goods by river and rail thousands of miles from Central Africa to the sea. By the turn of the twentieth century, "exploration" of Africa's heart had become a Western industry. Adventurers such as Sir Henry Morton Stanley penetrated it, seeking adventure and fame. Hunters such as Theodore Roosevelt launched expeditions into it, emerging with big-game trophies and incredible tales. Robber barons gutted parts of it, taking millions of African lives as they went.

But to the natural science community, the Congo represented a different kind of challenge and opportunity. It was brimming with uncatalogued and scientifically unexplored forms of life. Tantalizingly incomplete reports were many, but few systematic studies of the extraordinary and abundant plants, animals, and cultures of the Congo had been attempted, and, because of the difficulties of working in so remote a region, none had been completed.

When the President and Director of the American Museum of Natural History approached the colonial administrators of the Congo in 1907, they sought to begin cataloging one of the most extraordinary but least understood biological regions on Earth. A deal was completed a year later. Belgium offered to provide access and some funding, and requested that the American Museum expedition give duplicate specimens to the Musée royal du Congo (now the Musée royal de l'Afrique centrale) in Tervuren, near Brussels. Money for the project was raised among some of New York's most influential philanthropists, including William K. Vanderbilt, A. D. Julliard, Robert W. Goelet, William Rockefeller, and J.P. Morgan, who was a personal friend of King Leopold II.

Mammalogist and photographer Herbert Lang was chosen to lead the expedition. He had worked at the American Museum as a taxidermist since 1903, and in 1904 he had represented the museum on a successful mammal gathering expedition in Kenya. Lang chose as his assistant James P. Chapin, a 19-year-old Columbia University student and museum volunteer. The expedition was originally funded for two years. It took six. In 1909, Chapin left New York a university sophomore with barely a hair on his chin. When he returned in 1915, he was a seasoned field biologist and a world expert on the fauna of Africa, particularly its birds.

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More Expedition Readings

(click images for larger view)

thumbnail link to larger image: Expedition Map

Expedition map

thumbnail link to larger image: AMNH # 111783

Bangba man

thumbnail link to larger image: AMNH 222246

Pangolin

thumbnail link to larger image: AMNH # 368

American Museum