Darkest Victoriana


This last month we added a new book on the history of Anglo explorations of Africa in the middle of the 19th century, Monte Reel’s Between Man and Beast : an unlikely explorer, the evolution debates, and the African adventure that took the Victorian world by storm.  Reel documents the considerable explorations of Paul Belloni Du Chaillu through the jungles, plains and deserts of Africa, and his clashes with the intrenched scientific ideas and mores of the Victorian era.  He was the first European explorer to document the existence of gorillas, and Du Chaillu soon ran afoul of the high politics of the Darwinian debate as he theorized about the relationships of primates to humans.  Detractors and competitors called him a fraud and a fabricator as he expounded on his observations and adventures in early colonial Africa.

It happens that one of the Community Library’s founders, Clara Spiegel, collected many volumes of Du Chaillu’s early accounts of his explorations, aimed at young people and the popular market.  The volumes were donated many years ago to the Library, and are now included in our Departure Lounge travel section near Monte Reel’s account of Du Chaillu’s work.  They were publish between 1868 and 1871, bound in leather with gilt stamping, and are in quite remarkably good shape for being nearly 150 years old.  The pages are filled with melodramatic accounts of encounters with various tribes, slavers, animals, insects and locales, from giant spiders to venomous snakes, orang-outangs to water buffalo.

du chaillu gorilla2

The original publications, including Stories of Gorilla Country, My Apingi Kingdom, Lost in the Jungle and others, are unexpurgated Victoriana–they are deeply colored by the intolerant Anglo culture of the mid-19th century.  Native peoples are thoughtlessly insulted and exploited, and prejudices are voiced with total abandon–which makes the books all the more valuable as a lens into the past today.  Du Chaillu embodies the role of the Great White Hunter, and has a lamentable tendency to shoot just about anything that moves, on principle.  Some of the excellent woodcuts are quite raw, some egregious, some fascinating, some surprisingly tender.

Edgar Rice Burroughs steeped himself in Du Chaillu’s work–some of the illustrations could be lifted from early editions of Tarzan.  It is clear Du Chaillu’s accounts (some quite fictionalized) have influenced popular culture and fueled a centuries worth or more of myths and misconceptions about Africa, even while he did produce some surprising scientific observations.  They also represent a thought-provoking primary resource for this era of conflict and discovery on the African continent.


For a fresh look at modern Africa, check out this article on book artist Keri Muller who has lived in South Africa and Mozambique, and creates fascinating images with leaves of books saved from pulping.  Keri Muller’s own blog, Simple Intrigue, has many more images and some very interesting discussions on the intersection of art, design, business, travel and Africa.

Global Voices has produced an ebook about current events in sub-Saharan Africa called African Voices for Hope and Change, which can be downloaded free to your own devices via ePub, Mobi or .pdf formats.  The book is available in English and Italian translations.  Other books recently added to the Community Library collection exploring modern Africa include Creating Room to Read : a story of hope in the battle for global literacy by Microsoft executive John Wood, Crisis in the Horn of Africa : politics, piracy and the threat of terror by Peter Woodward, and Food & cooking of Africa, by Rosamund Grant with Josephine Bacon, an exploration of Africa’s cuisine and culinary history, with beautiful step-by-step photos of ingredient preparation and finished recipes.

African Voices cover_

If the opportunity presented, where would you like to travel on the African continent?  Check out the travel section @TheCommunityLibrary, and go farther….


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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Monte Reel’s book is energetic and fascinating. Having Du Chaillu’s books in the travel section of the Library is a brilliant way to absorb more of Africa’s early exploration – one of my favorite subjects! Thanks, Cathy!

    • Thank you, Colleen! Our travel readers might also like to peruse the Elias Burton Holmes Travelogues in the Departure Lounge (Dewey 910 HOL). Burton Holmes was born in Chicago, and brings a turn-of-the-century American perspective descriptions of Morocco, Egypt, the Far East, Europe and even closer to home in Yellowstone. Written about 60 years after the Du Chaillu books, Holmes wandered and wrote about many of the same territories, taking fabulous photographs, some beautifully hand-colored in the volumes on our exploration shelf.

  2. Cathy,
    Thanks for your great writing in this most intriguing review of books – an inviting array of choices! (And Africa isn’t even my area of greatest interest)
    Ann T

    • Thank you, Ann! And I am always happy to take topic or book suggestions and run with them–I find some of the best untapped veins of gold in the library collection that way!

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