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Off to the Congo


The Congo was almost as little-known as any part of the world in 1908. Although even the earliest maps of the region (the 1638 Mercator atlas) show the Congo River emptying into the Atlantic Ocean, as recently as 1844, cartographers had no idea where the river came from or how far it went. Maps show wild conjecture as to the route of the river; some maps even hypothesize the Congo as the source of the Nile. Pre-1909 maps of the Congo show vast empty spaces in the middle of equatorial Africa. The only authoritative maps of the country were put out by the Etat Independant du Congo - The Congo Free State. Though these particular maps are large and beautiful, and very descriptive about the physical features of the country - rivers, mountains, forest, swamp, rapids - they are not as forthcoming on the subject of natural resources or transportation routes.

The Petit atlas du Congo belge (Lang's copy is now in the AMNH Library), published in 1907, would have provided to Chapin the following useful information: Congo is about a quarter of the size of the U.S. but has only 22 miles of coastline; the country spans the equator; is defined by the arcing and paradoxical Congo River, which flows both north and south; and the country is climatically diverse, with environments ranging from savannah to rain forest. The river becomes impassable less than 100 miles from the coast due to fierce rapids that ascend more than 1000 feet in just over 200 miles, and the country is more than 77% dense rain forest.

Upon viewing these maps, James Chapin might have come to the conclusion, shared by many travelers, geographers and historians, that the Congo is both isolated and impenetrable.