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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.