The Many Uses of Forgeries: The Case of Douville's Voyage Au Congo

By Vansina, Jan | History In Africa, January 1, 2004 | Go to article overview

The Many Uses of Forgeries: The Case of Douville's Voyage Au Congo


Vansina, Jan, History In Africa


I

A forged travel account reminds me of a raffia palm in central Africa, because there is a use for every part of such a palm: the wine (sap), the nuts (edible), the raffia (for textiles), the other leaves (for roofcovering), the branches (for furniture), its pith (for making various articles), and lastly the grubs inside the pith (also edible). Nothing is wasted. In the same way a forged travel account can be deconstructed until all its parts down to the very last sentence or proper name can be used as evidence for one or another kind of history. The considerable interest fraudulent travel accounts can have for the historian of Africa is usually far underrated because once they are exposed as forgeries they tend to be summarily dismissed and henceforth to be avoided like the plague. At most, it is conceded that sometimes part of a forged account rests on the author's observations and experiences at the time and in the place where his (the known forgers seem to have been all male) narrative placed them and may therefore actually be genuine.1

The usefulness of forgeries as evidence goes well beyond this, however, and rests on two arguments. First, a narrative forgery is never totally the product of a person's imagination, if only because it strives to achieve the verisimilitude required to be passed off as genuine. A good part of any such forgery must therefore rest on valid observations made by someone, somewhere. If one can discover from where and when such elements stem, they add new evidence to the record about that where and when. Secondly, the very choice of topics and themes raised in a forgery is historical evidence in its own right, for it tells us much about the expectations of both the social milieu in which the work was written and its intended audience at the time (not always the same social aggregates). To develop and illustrate these points, there may well be no better instance than the notorious book whose unmasking raised a great geographic furor in the earlier nineteenth century-the notorious Douville forgery.

II

On 30 March 1832 the Société de Géographie de Paris awarded its prestigious golden medal to Jean-Baptiste Douville "for his travels in the Congo and in Equinoctial Africa," and the Royal Geographical Society of London made him an Honorary Member. The remarkable discoveries related in that book were made during two separate and consecutive voyages. The first of these occurred mostly, although not completely, within the ambit of the Portuguese colony, while the second, more sensational, voyage struck deep into the interior to the north and east of that colony. The reaction to Douville's fame today may well be: Who? Never heard this name at all! How is it possible for such an illustrious explorer to have become so thoroughly forgotten?

The short answer is because, barely four months after the award was made, came a painful discovery. By August 1832 Douville was being loudly denounced in London, and by November in Paris as an adventurer whose Voyage au Congo et dans l'intérieur de l'Afrique équinoxiale fait dans les années 1828, 1829, et 1830 was not a major landmark in geographical exploration but a forgery which had duped the members of the foremost learned societies in France and to a lesser degree in England. An anonymous article in the Foreign Service Quarterly first set the ball rolling.2 Later the traveler and publicist Théodore Lacordaire, writing in the prestigious Revue des deux mondes, concurred and extended the charges.3 These charges provoked a storm of controversy between the faithful and the unbelievers, in the name of the reputation and the "honor" of famous geographers and their foremost societies.4 Douville's rebuttals were unconvincing and the evidence adduced, especially in Cooley's article, was so overwhelming that the doubters soon won.5 By the spring of 1833 it was generally accepted that, while Douville had actually been in Angola, he had neither traveled outside its limits nor made the discoveries for which he had been honored. …

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