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American Museum Congo Expedition, 1909-1915
American Museum of Natural History, Digital Library Project
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Reviewed by:
Benedict Carton
George Mason University
August 2003

Whether deserved or not, the “Congo” evokes wonder tinged with fear. Deep in the region’s interior, researchers spent years cataloging mysterious natural treasures. This site presents the notes, photographs, maps, and drawings of one such expedition, sponsored by the American Museum of Natural History. Herbert Lang, a mammologist, led the expedition from 1909 to 1915 with his assistant, Columbia University student James Chapin. The site also contains 2,000 scanned images of specimens and art collected by Lang and Chapin; more than a dozen publications that place their discoveries, ethnographies, and diaries in historical context; and a few links to additional resources on the Congo. Users (with Flash 5 or above) can hear a selection of seven early sound recordings from the Congo such as “tribal songs,” and watch a video clip of a traditional Mangbetu dance. The overall site design can be a bit daunting: each section is densely packed with information, but the information is well worth the investment of time.

The writings, illustrations, and photographs of Lang and Chapin portray the lush worlds enveloping the rivers of the Congo, which lured numerous 19th-century white “explorers.” In contrast to previous adventurers promoting European imperialism, Lang and Chapin went with the goal of documenting varieties of flora and fauna. Advancing their goals, however, required support from some of the men answerable for the “horror” that the Congo also evoked. To venture into central Africa, the American Museum of Natural History sought permission from oppressive Belgian officials, the self-declared administrators of the Congo.

Lang and Chapin relied on the generous donations of American patrons, among them J.P. Morgan, a friend of Belgian king Leopold II, who brutally converted equatorial areas of the “Dark Continent” into his own private concession. Mercilessly pursuing profitable raw materials, Leopold forced generations of central Africans to collect ivory and rubber. Millions died in the process. By the turn of the 20th century, human rights advocates in the West expressed outrage. Lang and Chapin planned their voyage as this campaign gained momentum, and, in 1909, they sailed from New York City to Boma, Congo, months before the death of Leopold II. They hired 200 local porters, trained local inhabitants to help gather samples, and set out for the hinterland.

The six books of transcribed diaries and almost 100 watercolor sketches by Chapin tell a compelling story of life in the Congo free of Leopold II. The young scholar described how Africans lived within the bounds of their ecosystem, hunting for quarry such as hippopotamus, which global marketers shunned as worthless meat. He also noted the vigorous activity of birds and other animals such as rare rhinos. Other entries allude to the costs of environmental degradation and social engineering wrought by Leopold’s regime of resource extraction. Chapin also scrutinized another side of Belgian conquest: the adaptation of Western ways by “modernizing” Africans; he compared living conditions to those in the United States. Chapin’s urban state of mind punctuated parts of his narrative. After floating through a barren, mosquito-infested environment, he landed at a ramshackle house that he compared to “the worst parts of New Jersey.”

Teachers and students will find a rich variety of primary materials when considering, for example, whether Western scientific expeditions in early 20th-century Africa yielded more “objective” data about the colonial experience than the recorded testimony of whites in colonial government. For example, many of the photographs are staged. Some images show a massive rhino killed by Mr. Stern, a white man with a pith helmet and high caliber rifle. Such scenes demonstrate how the singular quest of Lang and Chapin to collect impressive dead specimens shared the same goal as a trophy hunter who bagged one of the “Big Five.”

Other photos turn Africans into exotics (for example, three prints of an “Abarcambo” adolescent girl from “Poko, Congo, Belge,” who wears no clothing on her torso), and might be critically assessed for reinforcing “noble savage” stereotypes. One might also read the diary entries and field data to discern American views of racial tolerance in Africa—especially as white mobs lynched black people back home in the United States. The complex issues posed above might be easier to introduce after students explore the engrossing elements of this beautifully constructed site.

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