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Off to the Congo

Scientific publications

Certainly Lang and Chapin would have reviewed the most recent scientific publications on the flora, fauna, and ethnology of the Congo basin before embarking on their trip. Although Lang was a mammalogist, like many scientists of his day, he had interests in other areas, such as photography and anthropology, and the American Museum Congo Expedition was charged with collecting specimens of all kinds from the Congo forest and savannah.

Lang had already been to Africa at least once. He may have been aware of the fieldwork that had been done by expeditions such as the Mission scientifique Congo-Nil, which studied the geology and astronomy of the Congo Free State from 1902 to 1905; the Expedition Bia-Francqui (geology, 1891-93); the Mission Emile Laurent (botany, 1903-1904); the Tanganyika Expedition (1899-1900), an all-around natural history expedition; or the climatology and epidemiology research published by Dr. Poskin in 1897. He would have almost certainly referred to the Bibliography of Congo languages compiled by Dr. Frederick Starr in 1908. Dr. Starr briefly worked in the Anthropology Dept. in the American Museum, though he was later employed as a propagandist by Leopold, writing a series of articles for the Chicago Tribune that were later published as a book entitled The truth about the Congo Free State. Also on the must-read list would have been the ethnology monographs by Cyrille van Overbergh and Edouard De Jonghe, who wrote on the Mangbetu, a group that Lang and Chapin would devote especial attention to, and those of Joseph Halkin, who worked in the north-western areas of Congo where Lang and Chapin would focus their research.

A former Force Publique officer, Charles LeMaire, wrote a "practical vocabulary" that our boys probably consulted: it listed phrases in English, French, Swahili, Kigangi-Irebu, Mongo, and Bangala. As a practical guide to traveling in the hot, damp, buggy tropics, Lang and Chapin both probably read Albert Donny's Manuel du voyageur et du résident au Congo. General Donny has recommendations on hygiene, medicine (including salves - important for footsore travelers), weather forecasting, tips on photography in the tropics, and more. On the subject of health, Chapin might have picked up Joseph Everett Dutton's 1910 study of human tick fever in eastern Congo.

The Musée du Congo Belge had begun publishing its annals as early as 1902 (which seems odd, given that the Congo wasn't Belge before 1908), and both NYPL and AMNH have many issues of these, especially with regard to the ethnology and botany of the Congo. AMNH had been given a full set of the Musée's publications by the King of the Belgians as part of a larger gift. Lang, being German, would probably have been familiar with the work of Franz Thonner, who had made trips to the Congo to study botany; Leo Frobenius, a prolific anthropologist; and Die Deutsche Expedition an der Loango-Kuste, undertaken in the 1870's.

The "most valuable source on nineteenth-century Mangbetu life" (Schildkrout and Keim, p. 32) is probably that of George Schweinfurth, who accompanied the caravan of a Coptic company to the Mangbetu in 1870-71. Schildkrout and Keim have this to say about his The Heart of Africa (1874):

Much of the information that Schweinfurth collected by direct observation is accurate, and his splendid illustrations bear witness to an eye for detail and an appreciation for indigenous productions. He along with [Carlo] Piaggia, deserves credit for being among the first Europeans to label African objects as art rather than as mere curiosities. Nevertheless, the way in which Schweinfurth reached his conclusions about the Mangbetu must be considered… [his] account relies mostly on direct observations rather than on conversations with Mangbetu, with whom he could not communicate except through serial translations (from Arabic, which Schweinfurth spoke, to Azande and Mangbetu). He communicated through the traders with whom he traveled, and the traders' rumors were probably responsible for many of Schweinfurth's opinions about the savage nature of the Mangbetu.

Schweinfurth's account greatly contributed to the myth, belied by subsequent field research, that the Mangbetu engaged in frequent cannibalism. He also described the Mangbetu kingdom, ruled by King Mbunza, as a centralized, stable, and powerful civilization, all of which is true, but not to the extent that Schweinfurth reported.

Unfortunately for James Chapin, most of the published field research noted above is in either French or German - as it still is today. None of this very early and still-viable Congo research has ever been translated into English.