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Meat, cannibalism and humanity in Paul du Chaillu's explorations and adventures in Equatorial Africa; or, what does a gorilla hunter eat for breakfast?

The Victorian gorilla was the most Gothic of animals. Confined at the beginning of the nineteenth century to myth and rumour, the natural historical description of these troublingly familiar beasts in the mid century was torn between the sober language of scientific analysis and the thrilling rhetoric of popular romance. As much as gorillas appeared at the cusp of the human/animal divide, they also bestrode boundaries of textual form: a monstrous amalgam of fact and fiction. Central to the bad-tempered dispute that developed around these issues was the life and writing of Paul du Chaillu, one of the figures foremost in early gorilla zoology. This essay concerns what may seem a peripheral aspect of this tumultuous episode of cultural and natural history: the connection of gorilla hunting to food politics, or, to put it another way, the relation of anxieties around species difference to cultures of consumption. As gorillas posed a question about human ontology ('is man', as Disraeli would later ask, 'an ape or an angel?'), the same issues over-spilled into the numerous reflections on diet that punctuated du Chaillu's narrative of a gorilla hunting expedition, Explorations and Adventures in Equatorial Africa (1861). (1)

The son of a French trader, du Chaillu spent several years in West Africa as a youth before moving to America on his father's death and later returning to Africa in 1855 to collect zoological specimens. For Henry Bucher, du Chaillu was 'a young insecure man of unrecorded parentage who was determined to make a name for himself by providing what the western world wanted from the continent he knew best--intrigue, drama and exotica'. (2) His status as an outsider was not lost on his many detractors; nor, more specifically, were his racial origins. Probably born illegitimately in the French colony of Ile Bourbon off Africa's east coast to a mother of mixed race, he was condemned by the American naturalist George Ord as a 'mongrel or a mustee' notable for his 'presumption and vulgarity'. (3) His Explorations drew stinging criticism, particularly for a sensationalist tone that prompted Ord to reflect scathingly that 'it is a characteristic of the negro race, and their admixtures, to be affected to habits of romance'. (4)

What makes du Chaillu's Explorations interesting, then, is not just its spectacular subject matter, but its complex relationship to the colonial orthodoxies so apparent in the mainstream of Victorian writing about Africa. Ben Grant has drawn attention to the Explorations' 'dream logic' through which du Chaillu explores questions of kinship and difference between himself and the others, both human and animal, that he encounters. (5) In the end, Grant concludes, 'we never really know where reality begins and dream ends'. (6) Du Chaillu's gorilla quest is clearly framed as part of a Western attempt to unlock Africa's mysteries. He consistently represents himself as an emissary of colonial progress, frequently asserting the security of difference in an imperial context. But for all its ambition, the Explorations is perhaps above all a text about the confusion of categories.

Coincidentally, du Chaillu's Explorations was released in Britain in the same year that Mrs Beeton published her Book of Household Management, a practical guide to 'how to live economically, agreeably, tastefully and well'. (7) Perhaps surprisingly, there is a notable convergence between Beeton's and du Chaillu's positioning of diet as a central factor in the development from savagery to civility. Beeton explains:

   As in the fine arts, the progress of mankind from barbarism to
   civilization is marked by a gradual succession of triumphs over the
   rude materialities of nature, so in the art of cookery is the
   progress gradual from the earliest and simplest modes, to those of
   the most complicated and refined. (8)

As du Chaillu recounted the dietary extremities forced upon him in the African forests, very much, as he saw it, among 'the rude materialities of nature', he reflects frequently on the dialectic between barbarous eating and the elevated arts of cookery with which Beeton engages. How to live 'agreeably, tastefully and well' is the pre-eminent question that occupies du Chaillu during his gorilla-hunting expedition. Rather than a self-enclosed and somewhat banal preoccupation, du Chaillu's concerns about nutrition become entwined with the Gothic frisson induced by contact with gorillas. What a gorilla hunter eats becomes a motif that goes to the very heart of the evolutionary issues that du Chaillu's narrative negotiates.

Most importantly, du Chaillu is obsessed with meat: how to get it, how to eat it, what species he can consume with a clear conscience, how, indeed, to avoid being eaten himself. Meat-eating has been widely associated with questions of identity and particularly with discourses of mastery. As Nick Fiddes summarizes, 'Killing, cooking and eating other animals' flesh provides perhaps the ultimate authentication of human superiority over the rest of nature'. (9) Jacques Derrida's work on the connection of meat to normative ideas of human subjectivity has been especially influential. Derrida asks, 'who would stand any chance of becoming a chef d'Etat (a head of state), and of thereby acceding "to the head", by publicly, and therefore exemplarily, declaring him--or herself to be a vegetarian?' (10) This concatenation of meat and power is of urgent significance to du Chaillu as he endeavours to keep body and soul together while asserting his authority over and difference from the peoples he encounters.

The circumstances du Chaillu finds himself in, however, are uniquely challenging to the signification of meat as a mark of cultural superiority. With supplies running low, he is forced to confront the vexed issue of eating apes, even of eating the very gorillas he aimed to bring triumphantly to Western knowledge. The observation that a roasted monkey looks rather 'too much like roast-baby' (11) for his taste leads inevitably towards reflection on that most profound of all gastronomic interdictions, cannibalism. Ultimately, du Chaillu's Explorations represents a limit experience of carnivoracity, the point at which the dominatory logic of meat-eating starts to falter. As the cannibal becomes the spectre that haunts du Chaillu's meal times, his obsession with meat sees him collapse back into a primordial nature, rather than performing his elevation into civility. The culinary refinements he insists on early in the narrative give way to a fixation on a term he picks up from his African bearers, gouamba: 'the inordinate longing and craving of exhausted nature for meat' for which 'we, happily, have no name' (271). As du Chaillu moves into a state unnameable in English, he becomes less the bearer of civilisation, and the gorilla becomes more and more the sign of a horrifying carnality that overwhelms the distinction between human and animal. Before I turn in detail to these intricate food politics, an account of the cultural construction of the Victorian gorilla is necessary to establish the context for du Chaillu's narrative, and for the hallucinatory exploration of meat, cannibalism and humanity which it provides.

The Victorian Gorilla

In the mid nineteenth century, the gorilla was perhaps the most significant prize imaginable for an ambitious naturalist. The announcement of a 'new species of orang', Troglodytes gorilla, had been made in 1847 by the missionary Thomas S. Savage and the Harvard professor of anatomy, Jeffries Wyman. Having been detained at the house of the Senior Missionary, J. L. Wilson on the Gaboon River, Savage was shown a skull, 'represented by the natives to be that of a monkey-like animal, remarkable for its size, ferocity and habits'. (12) Savage was able to obtain several further crania and other bones which he passed on to Wyman for detailed osteological examination. The result was persuasive evidence for the existence of creatures hitherto only vaguely alluded to by 'transient visitors and voyagers' in terms characterised by 'confusion, inaccuracy and exaggeration'. (13)

For all the academic importance of this new orang, there remains more than a hint of the gorilla's mythic past in Savage and Wyman's description of this most intimate of humanity's animal relations. In his introduction, Savage resorts to somewhat unscholarly tones:

   [The gorilla's] enormous jaws are widely opened at each expiration,
   his under lip hangs over the chin, and the hairy ridge and scalp is
   contracted upon the brow, presenting an aspect of indescribable
   ferocity. The females and the young at the first cry quickly
   disappear; he then approaches the enemy in great fury, pouring out
   his horrid cries in quick succession. (14)

Such colourful reconfiguration of local hunters' accounts notably emphasises the animal's apparent monstrosity. Savage's gorilla is terrifying and hyperbolic, its 'indescribable ferocity' and 'horrid cries' accentuating its excessive physiognomy: the 'enormous jaws' and sagging under lip that reveal its mouth gaping horribly towards the reader. These Gothic tropes remained a recurrent ingredient of scholarship on gorillas as it gradually developed in subsequent years. Having acquired a full gorilla skeleton, Richard Owen, of the British Museum, published an appendix 'On the Orang, Chimpanzee, and Gorilla'. This careful work of comparative anatomy also includes some passages that might have seemed more at home in the pages of a romance, as Owen represented the gorilla's 'horrible and fiendish scowl' and 'green eyes flashing with rage'. (15)

By the time du Chaillu published his Explorations, then, the gorilla's monstrosity was a well established component of its natural historical construction. His principal claim was to be 'the first white man who has systematically hunted this beast, and who has at all penetrated to its haunts' (341). The Explorations' initial allure appears in its promised elucidation of an animal 'of which hitherto naturalists and the civilized world knew so little that the name even was not found in most natural histories' (1). Readers were to find a number of problems with du Chaillu's text, however, which unfolded into what became known as the 'great gorilla controversy'. (16) Doubts emerged, for example, about the chronology of the Explorations with 1856, 1857 and 1858 containing four Julys between them. But the main problem was the texture of du Chaillu's prose, with John Edward Gray, keeper of zoology at the British Museum, foremost among his critics in this regard. For Gray, the Explorations' narrative over-excitement suggested an alternative title:

   If Mr Du Chaillu had published his work as the 'Adventures of a
   Gorilla Slayer' I should have taken no notice of it, for the
   readers of such works like them seasoned to their palate. It is
   only as a work of a professedly scientific traveller and naturalist
   that I ventured any observations on it. (17)

Gray concluded that du Chaillu's 'book of travels is entirely wanting in those descriptive peculiarities of the localities visited which characterize the observations of an actual scientific traveller'. (18) Despite the clamour that initially surrounded him on his 1861 lecture tour of Britain, du Chaillu's reputation as a serious zoologist was quickly dismantled.

Unquestionably, du Chaillu's gorillas were sensational beasts, and perhaps rather more so than Savage's and Owen's monstrous creations, at least in that du Chaillu provides a considerably extended engagement with their diabolic nature. Nonetheless, du Chaillu's account of his first gorilla encounter reveals traces of the earlier works, reprising both Savage's image of the contracting brow and Owen's representation of the devilish face, developed into lingering evocations of this 'hellish dream creature--a being of that hideous order, half-man half-beast, which we find pictured by old artists in some representations of the infernal regions' (70). Du Chaillu's writing is more overt, however, than Savage's and Owen's in the attention it pays to the ontological anxiety evoked by an animal that 'had something terribly human in it and yet was full of brutishness' (71). The explorer finds himself notably unsettled by the gorilla's presence, dislocated from the African forest and the serious business of natural historical research into an other-worldly realm in which the distinction of human and animal appears confused (no wonder that he wrote of being the first to penetrate the gorilla's haunts). As Grant explains, the gorilla comes to operate as the figure in which 'all the other figures--man, devil, beast, centaur, satyr, hairy savage, child woman, negro--were condensed'. (19)

As important as the gorilla was, then, to understandings of anatomical relations between man and ape, the significance of this intriguing period of natural history also hinges on a question of affect. What might it feel like to meet a gorilla? The gloomy forest, the prowling creature, the dream-like ambience read like a primer in Gothic images that circulate around the ambivalent boundary of human and nonhuman, and of self and not-self. Just as Savage focused on the gorilla's 'enormous jaws [...] widely opened at each expiration', du Chaillu was drawn to its 'powerful fangs' (70), almost as if this devilish mixture of man and animal were threatening to engulf the very idea of humanity. What Julian Wolfreys describes as the 'Gothic's sense of the alterity of subjectivity, and the alterity that undoes any sense of the subject's own comprehension of coherence, presence, or meaning' is at the heart of the imagining of the Victorian gorilla. (20) The dramatic centre point of du Chaillu's Explorations is precisely this question of preserving the self's distinction from the other in the face of a creature that troubles the subject's sense of self through the apprehension of a monstrous double. While the controversy that unfolded around du Chaillu's work hinged on the imperative to differentiate between categories (natural history from fiction or the scientist from the dark-skinned outsider), the gorilla appears always already as a disruption of order.

Civilised Food

Significantly, Gray's comment that the readers of vulgar romance like them 'seasoned to their palate' emphasises the mouth as a prominent organ in the interplay of categories evoked by the gorilla controversy. While the gorilla's gaping jaws function as a metonymic embodiment of species anxiety, questions of taste and dietary discretion are the means by which du Chaillu delineates his own status as an ambassador of colonial civility in the Explorations' early chapters. Initially, du Chaillu's attention is drawn by the dietary habits of the Africans he meets at the Gaboon river. Above all, for du Chaillu, meal times indicate the success of the local missionary station in elevating the Mpongwe people into a community in which he is able to enjoy 'the comforts of civilized life and the consolation of a Christian social circle' (4). Outlining the mission's daily schedule, he notes approvingly the breakfast preparations with 'children [...] arranged about the tables in their neat dresses, and taught to eat after the manner of civilized people' (5). Such advancement along the road of progress translates, he observes, to the adoption of Western taboos concerning the appropriate species for consumption. 'Civilization has taught them', he explains, 'not to eat animals of other orders like the other natives, such as chimpanzees, crocodile, monkeys, rats and so forth' (23). The missionaries' triumph is embodied in both the form and content of Mpongwe eating, the neat dresses round the table, and the prohibition of unseemly meats.

Du Chaillu, then, makes a culturally commonplace association between diet and identity. Food appears as a prominent part of the front line in the ideologically-charged colonial battle to produce civilised subjects from the raw material of supposedly primitive peoples. This agenda is apparent not just on Mpongwe dinner plates, but also in the mission grounds 'surrounded with a noble hedge of fragrant lime-trees', and boasting a 'fine orchard, containing various fruit-trees' (4). The well-ordered missionary landscape testifies to the overarching achievement of the imperial project in fostering a reciprocal relationship between a civilised country and a civilised population. Empire emerges simultaneously as the governance of the land and the governance of the native body. Du Chaillu's reflections on indigenous nutrition, therefore, are a significant facet of a wider programme of transformation he eagerly anticipates in the Explorations' opening chapters.

As du Chaillu looks out on a river, for example, he can not 'help longing heartily [...] for the day to come, when this glorious stream will be alive with the splash of paddlewheels, and its banks lined with trading and missionary posts' (vi). Such familiar hopes for Africa's colonial transformation are supported by an entrepreneurial eye that du Chaillu consistently brings to his observations. Identifying the 'natural products of this region', he goes on to add an important caveat: 'But any tropical crop will grow in this virgin soil; and it needs only the cunning hand and brain of the white man to render this whole tract a great producing country' (vi). This prognosis adds another aspect of the politics of consumption to du Chaillu's colonial schema. When Africans begin to consume civilised food, Africa is made available for consumption by the West as a range of commodities for European markets may then, in this improved environment, be raised from the soil. These products may then in turn form part of the diet of enlightened Africans as the logic of imperial economics revolves around networks of consumption that express and formalise Africa's subordination to colonial interests.

Despite the furore that the Explorations would excite, therefore, it begins as a conservative text that dutifully rehearses imperial orthodoxy. Du Chaillu's emphasis on the reform of a primitive and unproductive Africa is most strikingly realised in attempts to educate a series of captive apes, an effort that begins, significantly, with a change in diet. The first of these experimental subjects is a young male gorilla, christened Joe, a 'morose and savage' creature (208). Du Chaillu explains his hope that the gorilla should 'become accustomed to civilized food', but reports with disappointment that 'he would touch nothing of the kind' (210). The subsequent intention to break the animal's spirit by starvation yields similarly scant rewards, and Joe dies shortly afterwards 'in some pain' (210). An opportunity to try again with a female proves equally unsatisfying: 'She persistently refused to eat any cooked food, and anything, in fact, but the nuts and berries which they eat in the forest' (261). Better results attend du Chaillu's struggle with a different species of great ape, an nshiego mbouve that, crucially, is seen to be rather more like a white man than the black gorilla. (21) Du Chaillu reports notable success with his new charge, Master Tommy: 'In three days after his capture he was quite tame. He then ate crackers out of my hand; ate boiled rice and roasted plantain; and drank the milk of a goat' (284). For a while Tommy prospers and enjoys himself wonderfully, 'quite as much as any human being', until at last he refuses his food and dies (287).

In these gruesome educational experiments, food operates in two main ways. Firstly, it reveals the animals' status: Tommy's appetite for milk and crackers tells du Chaillu that the nshiego mbouve is already further along the road to civilisation than the recalcitrant gorillas. Secondly, it offers the possibility of transforming his captives from the inside out: give the animal civilised food and it may in time edge itself away from its debased status. These animals' treatment operates as an ultimate expression of the missionary imperative du Chaillu applauds in the Explorations. From reforming the animality within the African, du Chaillu moves to the reform of the animal itself, casting the process of civilisation precisely as the overcoming of animal nature. Du Chaillu's aim is to nourish the human, and, as with Joe, to starve the animal, as he buys wholeheartedly into the hierarchical configurations of colonial discourse.

'The Appetite of a Hunter'

Evidently, the Explorations' ideological agenda relies on du Chaillu's differentiation of himself from the unreformed subjects he encounters. As his gaze on others enables him to assign them to their evolutionary designation, so he depicts their gaze on him as testimony to his elevated position. Most of the tribes he encounters, he explains:

   have never seen a white man before, and are filled with
   astonishment at my long hair, at my white skin [...] and at the
   clothes I wear. They stand about me in such crowds that often I am
   half-suffocated with the stench which their uncleanly bodies give
   out. (37)

The interplay of wonderment and repulsion du Chaillu represents as the structure of his relationship with the black population pivots on the distance he requires from their corporeality. His body and their bodies in appear organically incompatible, as he struggles for breath in their presence. As his quest for gorillas leads him away from the mission's civilised comforts and into the African forest, this antipathy is expressed in what appear initially as markedly divergent dietary needs between du Chaillu and his African companions.

The development of du Chaillu's African adventures is punctuated by a litany of culinary complaints stimulated by his dwindling supplies of Western food. As he begins an arduous climb into the mountainous gorilla country he comments disparagingly on his dinner: 'I ate a few boiled plantains, not very strengthening, but the best we could get' (53). Matters continue to deteriorate. As another day of gorilla tracking begins he reports that the party 'trudged off breakfastless' (62). Despite his dire situation, food remains what allows du Chaillu to perform his difference from his racial others. In part, it is a question of table manners. Taking for once a 'hearty supper', du Chaillu spells out the differing etiquette of himself and Africans: 'I eating off a plate and using a fork--which vestiges of civilisation I have always managed to carry along--while the black fellows took fresh leaves for plates and used the "black man's fork" as they called their five fingers' (166). But, as in his early reflections at the mission house, it is also a matter of ingredients, and particularly of the relationship to meat.

A vegetable diet for du Chaillu is unthinkable. While one 'thriftless' tribe he encounters are condemned to 'eke out a wretched subsistence from the wild roots, nuts and berries that are found in the forest', du Chaillu is simply unable to consume what they consume, stating bluntly of a palm nut that served as a staple, 'I could never eat it' (45-6). Similarly, offered nuts by his African employees, du Chaillu laments that there is 'no nourishment for my poor civilized blood in these rude things' (63). Rather he scours the bush for game, endeavouring to sustain himself in a land that suits him ill with his desire for meat leading him to some notably unpalatable meals. Although it is 'the toughest and most disagreeable meat' (85), he approaches the acquisition of fifty pounds of elephant flesh with a good deal of relief: 'I was glad to have it for meat was scarce, and I had the appetite of a hunter' (273).

Meat's significance for du Chaillu, then, rests on two related features: his 'civilized blood' and his hunter's appetite. In the first case, the need for animal protein expresses an innate disposition that comes with his evolutionary status. In the second, his role as a hunter produces the necessity of meat-eating, as if the inherent violence of his occupation can only proceed from a body nourished by flesh. In each case, the incorporation of an animal body enables a certain separation of the adventurer from animality. As the civilised man, he is elevated out of a primordial animal nature; as a hunter, he is dominant over it (although hunting's status as the most primal of tasks also evokes a certain tension with his 'civilized blood'). The meaning of du Chaillu's desire for meat, however, becomes increasingly unstable.

Among the most striking examples of du Chaillu's anxious negotiation of the exigencies of hunger against the determinations of civilisation is an extended treatment of a brush with a snake in the chapter, significantly, in which the explorer encounters his first gorilla tracks. Du Chaillu begins the scene by reiterating his own position in evolutionary hierarchies with some broad commentary on the imperial project: 'I began to think how this wilderness would look if only the light of Christian civilisation could once be fairly introduced'. Familiarly, this reflection leads him back to the subject of trade, 'of forests giving way to plantations of coffee, cotton and spices', until he is abruptly recalled from his reverie by the sight of 'an immense serpent, evidently preparing to gobble up this dreaming intruder on his domains' (57). The moment is central to the Explorations' depiction of the politics of consumption. From his identification with colonialism's reforming impetus, du Chaillu suddenly becomes the object of an animal's appetite. His civilised blood rather than being nourished by meat, appears available now for the nourishment of the lowliest of animals. If this is one shock to his civilisation, another shortly follows.

At first the scene develops conventionally. 'Taking good aim', du Chaillu shoots the snake 'through the head' to reinstate his authority over the situation. What happens next, however, reveals du Chaillu's civilisation as an increasingly imperilled notion:

   My men cut off the head of the snake, and, dividing the body into
   proper pieces, roasted it and ate it on the spot; and I--poor,
   starved, but civilized mortal!--stood by longing for a meal, but
   unable to stomach this. So much for civilization, which is a very
   good thing in its way, but has no business in an African forest
   when food is scarce. (57)

The spectacle of du Chaillu's men dining on snake gestures back to his earlier approval of reformed African subjects refraining from undesirable meats. Du Chaillu's dilemma is on one level straightforward: how to remain civilised and not go hungry. Despite his poignant reflection on the scarcity of food, he clearly sees himself emerging with dignity intact, a point which is emphasised by the immediate discovery of evidence of gorillas at the very moment when the 'only empty-stomached individual of the company' is complaining about the 'disadvantages of being bred in a Christian country'. 'I knew that these were fresh tracks of the gorilla', he reports, 'and joy filled my heart' (58). If his stomach is empty, at least something is full. The contrast here between du Chaillu and his African companions is evidently designed to be conspicuous. While they fill themselves with a body beneath the dignity of a Christian diner, du Chaillu is occupied with the lofty intentions of natural history. The gorilla, initially, functions as the source of a certain reassurance, as du Chaillu takes comfort in the gravity of his expedition.


But du Chaillu's encounter with the snake illustrates some notable changes in his attitude to consumption. Firstly, it announces an intensifying anxiety about the prospect of being eaten by one or other of Africa's savage denizens. Secondly, it represents his increasingly fraught consideration of what animals he may legitimately eat. As the narrative progresses, gorillas become involved in both these dilemmas; the natural historical specimen starts to appear as a figure of existential angst, rather than simply as a zoological entity to be known and described. The question of whether to eat apes is one that consistently serves a focal point for du Chaillu's distress. Looking fruitlessly around the bush for some kind of meat, he spells out the crux of his predicament:

   Not even the scream of a bird or the shrill cry of a monkey to
   break the dark solitude--and either would have been welcome; for,
   though I generally abominate monkey, which roasted, looks too much
   like roast baby, I was now at that point of semi-starvation when I
   should have been delighted in a tender bit even of gorilla (56).

For all its horrifying resonances, even a gorilla dinner is better than nothing. As he puts it later, 'monkey feels too much like man until you get very hungry' (153-4). Eating ape is simultaneously a source of desire and repulsion. Even hunting them is bad enough; 'I never kill one', he confesses of gorillas, 'without a sickening realization of the horrid human likeness of the beast' (277). Du Chaillu's 'sickening realization' reveals him abjecting the ape's presence from his. Just as he described himself struggling for breath in the company of African villagers, so the gorilla provokes a comparable, disgusted bodily reflex as he insists on the exteriority of man and ape. The Explorations' unfolding drama often returns to this restless negotiation of hunger and abjection as ape emerges as one of the more commonly available sources of animal protein. He is relieved at one point, for example, to escape the prospect of eating gorilla: 'Luckily one of the fellows shot a deer just as we began to camp, and on its meat I feasted while my men ate gorilla' (71). At another point, however, he determines to 'have soup made of monkey' and finds that 'as hunger stifled my disgust, I made a pretty good meal' (288). Du Chaillu is well aware of the need for making his excuses for this debased culinary turn. Reporting on his refusal to dine of an nshiego mbouve, he claims, 'Nor have I ever but once tasted the meat of any of these great apes, though necessity compelled me, after this, to dine off monkey' (288).

As he continues to fixate on meat, his adoption of the African term gouamba as the mot juste for his agonies begins to abrade the carefully reiterated insistence on his cultural superiority that underpins his squeamishness about eating monkeys. Gouamba is a condition of which du Chaillu has 'suffered often enough in these wilds to vouch that it is a real and frightful torture' (308). Despite du Chaillu's confession of his vulnerability to its effects, gouamba appears as a sign of horror, as he makes clear in a discussion of the Bakalai people:

   In their general habits it must be admitted that they are very
   filthy. The inland people hardly know what it is to wash. They oil
   themselves frequently; and when the deposit of oil on the wool gets
   stale, the smell and appearance are very disgusting and nauseating.

      They are great hunters; but, as game is scarce in this part of
   the country, gouamba is their natural state. They do anything for
   meat, and it is horrible to see the voracity with which they
   precipitate themselves on a portion of meat when any is brought
   into camp. (309)

Here du Chaillu picks up again on the theme of disgust, etymologically a repulsion or abjection from the mouth. Perhaps most significant in du Chaillu's appalled ethnography is the conflation of interior and exterior; the Bakalai's nauseating smell is of a piece with their desperate desire to internalise animal bodies. The Bakalai's 'voracity' appears as the root of du Chaillu's horror, appetite decoupled from the reason and restraint. While du Chaillu articulates a separation of himself from his food through his maintenance of the 'vestiges of civilisation' with a knife and fork, the Bakalai fall upon it precipitately as if they were pure body, animals satisfying the agonising craving for another animal's flesh.

Yet the experience of gouamba shared by du Chaillu and the Bakalai nonetheless articulates a certain identification between them, emphasised by the strangeness of a word that categorises the adventurer's experience in another language. Du Chaillu's consistent sense of his resemblance to a cannibal as he faces the prospect of roast monkey accentuates this movement into an alternative culinary realm. Not just an indelicate eater, du Chaillu becomes associated with the most abjected of all diners. Cannibalism provides, in Peggy Reeves Sanday's words, 'the screen against which social humanity defines itself in contrastive images'. (22) Importantly, the sense of himself as like a cannibal as he finds himself killing and eating apes is reflected in the attitude of the Africans he encounters later on in his journey. Where at first he appeared wonderful with his pale skin and long hair, he is now called upon to deny charges of his own anthropophagic appetites. One chief on welcoming du Chaillu into his village, 'immediately ordered a slave to be killed for [his] dinner' (143). Later, both the debased and the marvellous aspect of du Chaillu in the Africans' gaze appear together. Invited to kill a slave for his evening meal, because 'he is tender and fat, and you must be hungry', du Chaillu spits 'violently' on the ground to express his abhorrence at the prospect, before noting with compensatory self-satisfaction that 'As usual, the people are full of wonder at my appearance' (438-9). Again, du Chaillu's spitting abjects the idea of cannibalism from his presence which is then emphasised by the reiteration of the Africans' deference to his image. But the image by the latter stages of the narrative is one that is thoroughly compromised.

Significantly, this turn away from the image of the civilised colonial is strikingly manifested in his own vulnerability to predation. 'The dreadful signs of cannibalism' du Chaillu discovers among the Fan comprise one of the Explorations' more sensational ingredients (76). With a glimpse of a cannibal's mouth putting du Chaillu 'uncommonly in mind of a tomb', the peril to the unwary visitor is only too apparent (75). The connection of this threat to du Chaillu's own predatory instincts emerges forcefully. With movements accelerated by hunger, du Chaillu finds himself on the trail of a 'chattering monkey' to supplement his meat rations, only to behold 'a sight which drove the monkey out of [his] mind in an instant': a Fan warrior, himself somewhat startled, with his 'mouth stood open' and his lips 'fairly white' (65). Given du Chaillu's recurrent emphasis on his own whiteness, the pallor of the warrior's lips draws a comparison to the explorer that accentuates the doubling that emerges in their mutual surprise at this unexpected meeting. The Fan's open mouth, again, evokes the undesired destination of a cannibal's cooking pot, but hinges on a reciprocity of violence, as the Fan's appearance seems a response to du Chaillu's own quasi cannibalistic urges in pursuing the monkey. It is du Chaillu's forced abandonment of civilised dietary strictures that announces his own availability as food to the cannibal.

In this context, the gorilla, the main course after all in du Chaillu's narrative, ultimately appears as a monstrous symbol of this complex politics of consumption: a materialisation of the identity crisis that emerges from the dietary taboos and anxieties he fixates on. At the Explorations' conclusion with du Chaillu declined into ill-health, he offers 'a dim and feverish recollection' of a final encounter with a gorilla as 'with not even a little bird to eat' he plunges 'forward in a stupid apathy of hunger and pain':

   [O]n the fourth morning one of the men espied a gorilla, who came
   roaring towards us, beating his vast chest, and waddling up to the
   attack with such horrid utterances and soul-freezing aspect, eyes
   glaring and the monstrous face distorted with rage, that for once
   waking out of my dreamy stupor, and seeing this image of the devil
   coming upon us, I would have run if my feet could have borne me. I
   remember that when my gun-bearer shot the huge beast, the men
   rushed upon it, and tore rather than cut it up, to stifle with its
   loathed flesh the hunger which was gnawing at their vitals. (463)

Du Chaillu's final moment of Gothic horror appears to come as much from inside his own fraying mind as from out of the forest, and as a projection of his own urge for meat. What remains of Africa for du Chaillu is something akin to the Gothic experience summarised by Kelly Hurley as 'the prospect of an existence circumscribed within the realities of gross corporeality'. (23) At first the gorilla seems set to wreak some terrible fate on du Chaillu and his party. Although the men are able to overcome and consume the gorilla, it is almost as if they are being consumed themselves with the hunger that leads to this extremity 'gnawing at their vitals'. Incorporating into themselves the 'loathed flesh' of this 'soul-freezing beast' is evidently not a sign of their dominance over the animal world, but rather of their, and du Chaillu's, descent back into it. For all the emphasis on reforming others and retaining his own civility through ideals of consumption, du Chaillu finally discovers such nice distinctions suspended in his febrile imagination. Du Chaillu's ultimate realisation perhaps is, as Erica Fudge reprises Francis Bacon, that we are all meat. (24)


George Bernard Shaw famously described meat-eating as 'cannibalism with the heroic dish omitted'. (25) Shaw's questioning of culinary conventions is an appropriate point from which to draw together the various strands of du Chaillu's reflections on diet on a gorilla-hunting expedition. The relationship between meat as a sign of civility and anthropophagy as a sign of utter debasement appears in the Explorations as part of continuum of appetite which evokes considerable anxiety. As Fudge explains, 'Eating meat is a declaration of human dominion [...] But eating meat is also an action that can, possibly, undo that dominion [...] [H]ow do you know you are not eating a human as you tuck into a steak?' (26) Du Chaillu's gastronomic misadventures illustrate the fractures in the discourse of carnivoracity when it is pushed to its limits. Meat-eating, rather than operating as a reassuring sign of dominance, embroils du Chaillu in ontological doubt: his desire for meat undoes the very cultural superiority it was thought to express. Consequently, the Explorations is a particularly valuable text for illustrating the logical insufficiency of colonial hierarchy, notwithstanding du Chaillu's enthusiastic attempts to voice precisely the ideas his narrative destabilises. Ideals of colonial reform, of the native body and the African environment, rely on a model of Western identity, expressed by du Chaillu in his conception of 'civilized blood'. In turn, this relies on a certain relationship to meat: as Fudge summarises the dominant view of carnivoracity, 'We legitimate the myth of who we are when we consume animal flesh'. (27) Du Chaillu's consumption of meat, in contrast, demonstrates the failure of this myth of who 'we' think 'we' are. The uneasy interplay of desire and revulsion that characterises du Chaillu's hunger for meat, appears above all as the sign of a developing identity crisis.

As such, the gorilla, the Gothic animal par excellence, emerges as a monstrous figure of the collapse of boundaries, evoking what Kelly Hurley has called the 'abhuman subject'. A 'spectacle of a body metamorphic and undifferentiated', the abhuman is the 'not-quite-human subject, characterized by its morphic variability, continually in danger of becoming not-itself, becoming other'. (28) This signification of the gorilla evidently extends beyond du Chaillu's own curious book, as his intertextual debts to Savage and Owen reveal. Indeed, du Chaillu's own travails at the hands of an insular scientific establishment underline the wider ontological crisis the gorilla controversy rests on. Du Chaillu was abjected from Victorian natural history just as he attempted to abject the gorilla and the cannibal from himself. But just as the Explorations ends with the spectacle of du Chaillu, the gorilla and the cannibal collapsed into a single vision of horrific carnality, so zoology retains the trace of what appears beyond its limits. The gorilla, part fact, but mostly fiction, illustrates the infiltration of affect, ideology and anxiety into the ostensibly objective narrative mode of natural history.

John Miller

University of Shefeld

Address for correspondence

John Miller, School of English, University of Sheffield, 1 Upper Hanover Street Sheffield, S3 7RA UK. Email:


(1) Cited in H. W. Janson, Ape and Ape Lore in the Middle Ages and Renaissance (London: University of London Press, 1952), p. 13.

(2) Henry H. Bucher, 'Canonization by Repetition: Paul du Chaillu in Historiography', Revue Francaise d'Histoire d'Outre-Mer, 66 (1979) 15-32, at p. 22.

(3) Unpublished letter, George Ord to Charles Waterton, 20 October 1861, American Philosophical Society library, Philadelphia. For a discussion of the various accounts of du Chaillu's birth see Bucher, 'Canonization by Repetition', p. 16.

(4) Ord to Waterton, 20 October 1861.

(5) Ben Grant, '"Interior Explorations": Paul Belloni du Chaillu's Dream Book', Journal of European Studies, 38.4 (2008) 407-19, at p. 408.

(6) Grant, '"Interior Explorations"', p. 418.

(7) Mrs Beeton, Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000 [1861]), p. 57.

(8) Beeton, Mrs Beeton's Book, p. 57.

(9) Nick Fiddes, Meat: A Natural Symbol (London and New York: Routledge, 1991), p. 65.

(10) Jacques Derrida, "'Eating Well" or the Calculation of the Subject: An Interview with Jacques Derrida' in Connor Cadava, (ed.), Who Comes After the Subject? (New York: Routledge, 1991), pp. 96-119, at p. 114.

(11) Paul Du Chaillu, Explorations and Adventures in Equatorial Africa (London: John Murray, 1861), p. 56. Subsequent references are to this edition and are included in parenthesis in the body of the essay.

(12) Thomas S. Savage and Jeffries Wyman, 'Notice of the External Characters and Habits of Troglodytes Gorilla, A New Species of Orang from the Gaboon River, with Osteology of the Same', Boston Journal of Natural History, 5-40 (December 1847) 417-43. The article is divided into two parts--an introductory account of the acquisition of the specimens by Savage followed by a formal, and somewhat dryer, zoological analysis by Wyman.

(13) Savage and Wyman, 'Notice of the External Characters and Habits', p. 421.

(14) Savage and Wyman, 'Notice of the External Characters and Habits', p. 424.

(15) Richard Owen, 'On the Orang, Chimpanzee, and Gorilla' in On the Classification and Geographical Distribution of the Mammalia (London: John W. Parker and Son, 1859).

(16) For a full account of the 'great gorilla controversy', see John Miller, Empire and the Animal Body: Violence, Identity and Ecology in Victorian Adventure Fiction (London: Anthem, 2012).

(17) J. E. Gray, 'M. du Chaillu's African Discoveries'. The Times, 24 May 1861, p. 10.

(18) Gray, 'African Discoveries', p. 10.

(19) Grant, Postcolonialism, p. 133.

(20) Julian Wolfreys, 'Preface: "I Could a Tale Unfold", or the Promise of the Gothic', in Julian Wolfreys and Ruth Robbins, (eds), Victorian Gothic: Literary and Cultural Manifestations in the Nineteenth Century (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2000), p. xviii.

(21) The nshiego mbouve is a somewhat mysterious animal, 'discovered' by du Chaillu, but never heard of again, although it might possibly be the bonobo of modern science. The discussion on the nshiego mbouve's resemblance to the white man in contradistinction to the gorilla's supposed resemblance to the black is one of the Explorations' most striking passages on the involvement of questions of species and race, a topic very much to the fore of the gorilla controversy. See du Chaillu, Explorations, p. 284.

(22) Peggy Reeves Sanday, Divine Hunger: Cannibalism as a Cultural System (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), p. 102.

(23) Kelly Hurley, The Gothic Body: Sexuality, Materialism and Degeneration at the Fin de Siecle (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996) p. 3.

(24) Erica Fudge, 'Why It's Easy Being a Vegetarian', Textual Practice, 24, 1 (2010), 149-66, at p. 162.

(25) Kerry S. Walters and Lisa Portmess, (eds), Ethical Vegetarianism from Pythagoras to Peter Singer (Albany: SUNY Press, 1999), p. 231.

(26) Fudge, 'Why It's Easy Being a Vegetarian', p. 160.

(27) Fudge, 'Why It's Easy Being a Vegetarian', p.151.

(28) Hurley, The Gothic Body, p. 3-4.

Notes on Contributor

John Miller is a lecturer in nineteenth-century literature at the University of Sheffield having previously worked at the Universities of Glasgow, Edinburgh, East Anglia and Northern British Columbia. His first monograph Empire and the Animal Body (Anthem, 2012) explores the representation of exotic animals in Victorian and Edwardian adventure fiction. The co-authored volume Walrus (with Louise Miller) is forthcoming with Reaktion Press (2014). He is currently working on Fur: A Literary History.
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Date:May 1, 2014
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