Through the Dark Continent by Henry M. Stanley

A Natural Curiosity :: Through the Dark Continent by Henry M. Stanley

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Through the Dark Continent is a book I wish I’d had a chance to read before I reviewed Tim Butcher’s Blood River. Butcher’s book recounts his adventures crossing the Congo in the footsteps of Stanley, and although I’d read Stanley’s How I Found Livingstone, I hadn’t read his book on the Congo.

Through the Dark Continent is a substantial work: 800 pages long in the two-volume Dover edition. Like other Dover books, this one is a photoreproduction of a 19th century original, and the antique type and engravings add to the pleasure of the text. Having set type by hand in the past, I noticed the increase in typographical errors in the second volume as the typesetters grew weary (and perhaps, according to stereotype, drunk).

The first volume is devoted to Stanley’s explorations around the Great Lakes region of eastern Africa, including a visit to the emperor of Uganda. It is not until the second volume that he sets out on the Congo River, which he refers to throughout as the Livingstone — a name that didn’t stick.

Several times during his journey, Stanley found villages decorated with skulls that he was puzzled to identify. Some he believed were human, left over from cannibal feasts, but others he was told belonged to an ape called the “soko.” Sometimes he thought he heard this creature: “The grey parrots with crimson tails here also first began to abound, and the hoarse growl of the fierce and shy ‘soko’ (gorilla?) was first heard” (p. 60).

In a village called Kampunzu (p. 111) he found “two rows of skulls, ten feet apart, running along the entire length of the village, imbedded about two inches deep in the ground, the ‘cerebral hemispheres’ uppermost, bleached, and glistening white from weather.” The skulls looked human to him, though with “unusually low and retreating” frontal bones. He asked the villagers what they were.

“They replied, ‘sokos’ — chimpanzees (?).”

By now Stanley had apparently decided that chimpanzees were what the locals meant by sokos — but if these skulls were large enough to be mistaken for human, then they were probably not those of chimpanzees. He pressed for a description.

“It is about the size of this boy,” pointing to Mabruki, my gun-bearer, who was 4 feet 10 inches in height. “He walks like a man, and goes about with a stick, with which he beats the trees in the forest, and makes hideous noises. The Nyama eat our bananas, and we hunt them, kill them, and eat them.”

The description would seem to fit a large chimp or a small gorilla — but when Stanley took two soko skulls to England and showed them to Professor Huxley (presumably Thomas Henry Huxley, the Darwinian) he was told they were human.

Perhaps Huxley was right, or perhaps he was not familiar enough with gorillas to tell the difference. It was only about twenty years before that Paul du Chaillu, author of the neglected Explorations and Adventures in Equatorial Africa, was apparently the first Western to see gorillas in the wild.

Posted by geoff on 12/09 at 05:48 PM

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