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Off to the Congo
In 1908, eighteen-year-old Columbia University freshman James
Paul Chapin was working part-time as a preparator at the American
Museum of Natural History (AMNH). His job was to stuff and mount
birds and small mammals for study and display. He was also a fine
draftsman who made sketches and watercolor paintings of animals.
Herbert Lang, who
had come to the U.S. from Germany in 1903, was a scientist in the
Mammalogy Department. The Museum administration had for some time
been interested in making an expedition to the Congo Free State.
Such an expedition had first been suggested by Morris K. Jesup,
President of the Museum from 1881 to 1908, and negotiations with
the Congo Free State commenced in 1907. These negotiations are described
in some detail by Henry Fairfield Osborn in his essay "The
Congo Expedition of the American Museum of Natural History."
Lang, only thirty years old but with some collecting experience
in Africa, was tapped to lead the expedition. He chose Chapin to
be his assistant.
They planned a two-year expedition, though the two men ended up
being away from New York for six years - from 1909 to 1915.
I have attempted to reconstruct the research journey that Chapin
might have undertaken when he found himself on the verge of this
epic trip. I have surveyed Congo material published between 1895
and 1909 in the collections of the New York Public Library, the
AMNH Library, and the Columbia University library, and broken the
list of sources down into subject categories: Maps, History, Description
and Travel, Politics, Science… and Joseph Conrad.