American Museum of Natural History Logo link: Congo Expedition Main Page

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The mission, in the minds of the explorers and the Museum's administrators, was to capture as broad a picture of the Congo's biota and cultures as possible. But big adventures always have public mascots, and the Congo expedition focused on a pair of animals so rare and exotic that they were almost mythical: the okapi (Okapi johnstoni), a small, short-necked relative of the giraffe that had been discovered by Western science only ten years before, and the square-mouthed rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum cottoni), also known as the white rhinoceros.

The expedition left New York Harbor on May 8, 1909, aboard the SS Zeeland. Lang and Chapin first stopped in Antwerp, where they gathered the provisions, permits, and contacts they would need in Africa. From Belgium they sailed aboard the steamship SS Leopoldville to Boma, a city on the Congo River Estuary that was then the capital of what was known as the Congo Free State. By rail and boat, they traveled a thousand miles up the Congo River to Stanleyville (now Kisangani) and, with the help of about 200 porters, walked through the dense rain forest to Avakubi, the base camp where they would store the tons of biological and anthropological collections they would accumulate in the years to come.

In early September, after spending three months training fifteen African men to collect and preserve plant and animal specimens, Lang and Chapin finally began their extended trips into the sparsely inhabited rain forests south of the Nepoko River. Big mammals were plentiful there, and the shy and elusive okapi was known to inhabit the region. Within a year, they had collected most of what they needed for an okapi exhibit for the Museum, but the expedition's second publicized mission, acquisition of a display-worthy white rhino, had not yet been accomplished. In late 1910, the Museum granted funds for the continuation of the expedition into the savanna country of the upper Uele, where Lang and Chapin worked from January 1911 through July 1913. In addition to finding good examples of the rhino (including one with a 42-inch-long horn) they found thousands of other valuable plants and animals.

At any given time, Lang and Chapin might have as many as 200 porters and more than a dozen hunters and animal preparators with them. Without the support of those Africans the expedition would have been impossible. The porters carried everything from tents and provisions to firearms, photographic equipment, and portable animal-preparation labs.

As their experience in Africa deepened, Lang and Chapin became increasingly interested in the African people they were living and working with. Over time, Lang's photography, which at first focused on documenting animals and then Africans and their cultural artifacts, became far more personal. Known for his enterprise and energy, Lang would collect specimens and take photographs all day long and then stay up half the night processing the film that was his real passion.

Lang was probably one of the best ethnographic and wildlife photographers of his day, and Chapin was a gifted illustrator. That combination of talents made for extraordinarily rich documentation the early twentieth-century Congo.

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More Expedition Readings

(click images for larger view)

thumbnail link to larger image: AMNH # 226867

River boat

thumbnail link to larger image: AMNH # 315691

Okapi diorama

thumbnail link to larger image: AMNH # 123650

Square-lipped rhinoceros diorama

thumbnail link to larger image: AMNH # 227033

Porters

thumbnail link to larger image: AMNH # 222147

Red-tailed monkey