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Transcript for Congo Expedition Introduction

Gordy Slack

Sequence One: Departure

By the dawn of the twentieth century, the exploration of central Africa had become a Western obsession. Missionaries sought souls to convert. American reporter Henry Morton Stanley had penetrated the heart of Africa, looking for adventure and fame. 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 prize. It was brimming with scientifically unexplored forms of life. On May 8, 1909, two young scientists left New York harbor for the West Coast of Africa. They had planned to be in the Congo for two years to collect as many animals and ethnographic objects as they could, and, specifically, to bring home examples of two large mammals: the okapi, a rare, short-necked forest giraffe discovered only a few years earlier--and the endangered square-lipped rhinoceros. Their plan would be amended again and again as two years turned to three, then four, then five.

Sequence Two: Lang and Chapin

Herbert Lang was chosen to lead the expedition. He was a German taxidermist and photographer who had already assisted on an expedition to Kenya in 1906. That trip had ignited his interest in Africa, its people, and its wildlife. James Chapin, Lang's assistant, was a nineteen-year-old Columbia College student when they left for the Congo. By the time he returned to New York, he was a world authority on central African birds.

Sequence Three: The Voyage

Nine days out of New York, they docked in Belgium then sailed another 19 days to Boma, a city near the mouth of the Congo River that was then the seat of the controversial Belgian colonial government. By rail and boat, they traveled a thousand miles up the Congo to Stanleyville and, with the help of hundreds of conscripted porters, walked through the dense rainforest to Avakubi then on to their base camp in Medje. Conditions were grueling. Their search for the reclusive okapi, for instance, took them to parts of the forest so swampy, hot, and dense that Lang called them "the most dismal spots on the face of the globe." But not a day passed without discovery of something new to them; not a week without something altogether new to science.

Sequence Four: The Work

Lang and Chapin weren't the first scientists to explore the Congo's interior, but their expedition was different in key ways. For one, they spent longer there than other scientists had. And while others had concentrated on big game, Lang and Chapin collected everything from the smallest insects, rodents, and fishes, up to birds and giant mammals. They collected thousands of ants, which would become the primary material for William Morton Wheeler's definitive Ants of the American Museum Congo Expedition. The birds were Chapin's passion and he later published Birds of the Belgian Congo, a four-volume ornithological classic.

Sequence Five: The Ituri Forest

Lang and Chapin rose before the sun to hunt for specimens. Through the hottest parts of the day they prepared their collections and took detailed notes. Chapin painted and sketched and Lang took photographs, frequently working half the night developing the film he had shot during the day. Lang and Chapin's vast array of ethnographic objects, photographs, and notes constitute one of the period's largest and most comprehensive anthropological collections from the Congo. Because Lang and Chapin were alone on the expedition, they relied heavily on Africans to help them gather specimens, as well as for transportation, provisions, and every other aspect of daily life. For example, Lang and King Okondo, an important Mangbetu chief, became friends and the scientists lived for months as guest's in Okondo's village. The brutal history of European exploitation must have colored these relationships, and we will never hear Okondo's perspective, let alone those of the porters and other assistants on the expedition, but the collections themselves suggest much collaboration between the visitors and their hosts.

Sequence Six: Returning Home

By the outbreak of WW I in 1914 Lang and Chapin had obtained good specimens of the okapi, the square-lipped rhino, and thousands of pounds of other collections. They hurried home, but taking the months necessary to pack and carry their cargo more than a thousand miles to the coast of Africa and to prepare it for the voyage back across the Atlantic. While Chapin and the collections traveled by way of England, running a German blockade of the Liverpool Harbor, Lang, a German national and officially an enemy of the US after the declaration of war, had to return to New York by way of Angola and Lisbon. Almost a century after the expedition, the collection remains an essential resource for scientists studying the cultures, biodiversity, and evolutionary significance of the area. The Expedition's most important contributions may be still to come; for understanding the diversity of an area as vast, rich, and complex as this one will be key to preserving its ecological integrity.