Human Thighs and Susceptible Apes: Self-Implicating Category Confusion in Victorian Discourse on West Africa

By Bivona, Dan | Nineteenth-Century Prose, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

Human Thighs and Susceptible Apes: Self-Implicating Category Confusion in Victorian Discourse on West Africa


Bivona, Dan, Nineteenth-Century Prose


Adapting the insights of Mary Douglas, this article examines moments of self-implicating category confusion engendered by the anomalous but linked figures of the gorilla and the cannibal, which appear in a number of important Victorian exploration narratives about West Africa. The writers under examination include Du Chaillu, Stanley, Reade, Burton, and Kingsley. The article explores how certain moments in these explorers' narratives are ultimately self-implicating, revealing an implicit, if unacknowledged, anxiety about the explorer's dual place: both within a taxonomic schema and also outside and above it, holding the schema itself in conscious awareness. The article traces a change over time, from the urgently sensationalistic representations of apes and cannibals in Paul Du Chaillu's travelogue the 1850s, reflecting his anxious desire to establish credentials as taxonomist, explorer, ethnographer, and big-game hunter in a part of the world which Europe had not yet decided to incorporate into its empires, to the self-confident zoological and ethnographic project of Mary Kingsley in the 1890s, which brought her much acclaim for her critique of European ethnocentrism, a critique to some extent enabled by the assumption of European mastery of Africa in the wake of the Congress of Berlin. By breaking the mirror relationship of primate gazing on primate, cannibal on cannibal, that was the sensationalistic underpinning of the narratives of earlier male explorers, Kingsley places herself outside of the masculinist adventure tradition embodied by Stanley in order to secure her place within the more sophisticated game of worldwide empire--as an ideologist of its emerging governing philosophy of indirect rule.

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They would have been even more impressive, those heads on the stakes, if their faces had not been turned to the house. Only one, the first I had made out, was facing my way. I was not so shocked as you may think. The start back I had given was really nothing but a movement of surprise. I had expected to see a knob of wood there, you know. I returned deliberately to the first I had seen--and there it was, black, dried, sunken, with closed eyelids--a head that seemed to sleep at the top of that pole, and, with the shrunken dry lips showing a narrow white line of the teeth, was smiling, too, smiling continuously at some endless and jocose dream of that eternal slumber.--Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

Arriving at the pygmy village of Kampunzu along the Congo River in 1876, the explorer Henry M. Stanley notes that the village's "most singular feature" is two rows of skulls "running the entire length of the village" (Stanley 111). When he asks the locals if the skulls are human, he is told that they are soko (chimpanzee) skulls. When Stanley poses the same question to the chief, he receives a somewhat different reply: they are the skulls of Nyama (meat), he is told. (2) What are Nyama?

Stanley asks. The chief replies:

"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." (Stanley 112)

When the chief makes him a present of one of the skulls, Stanley, unsure how to classify it, carefully crates it to ship to Thomas Huxley in London in order to settle finally the question of whether it is a chimp skull or a human skull. "Darwin's bulldog" had already embroiled himself in an earlier and very acrimonious dispute with Sir Richard Owen, the Superintendent of the British Museum, over the evolutionary relationship between man and the apes (Mandelstam 228). Huxley's study of the first Neanderthal skulls, discovered near Dusseldorf in 1856, and his authorship of the well-known essay "Man's Place in Nature" (1863) reinforced his position as one of the foremost scientific experts on the physiognomy of the great apes and thus an expert qualified to answer Stanley's question. …

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