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“Gorilla Trails in Paradise” explores the American obsession with primates and evolution, as informed by notions of race and sexuality, as an important current in American cultural and intellectual history during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This preoccupation began with queries regarding the relationship between man and ape in light of evolutionary theories that predated the publication of Darwin’s seminal treatises. However, Darwinian evolution brought the question of that relationship into mainstream discourse. No longer confined to the musings of learned white men, the ape–human puzzle informed American popular thought and popular culture by the late nineteenth century.
This article explores how a group of middle-class Americans took up the search for the missing link by conducting a safari in Africa, and how their quest transformed and influenced American ruminations on the ape–human relationship. In this examination, the article discloses the transatlantic connections involving this pursuit of gorillas in the misty mountains of the Belgian Congo, particularly as those international links reflected and reinforced the politics of empire. Specifically, the article recounts and analyzes the Akeley African Expedition to the Belgian Congo conducted in 1921 under the auspices of the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) to create an unparalleled gorilla diorama (a museum exhibit of stuffed animals posed in a simulated habitat). It tracks how the safari morphed into (1) a mission to rehabilitate the image of the gorilla and (2) a campaign for the preservation of the gorilla. The article places special emphasis on the relationship between the Belgian government and American scientists in creating the world’s first gorilla sanctuary. Lastly, “Gorilla Trails in Paradise” discusses how the images of the gorilla as painted in the travel narratives of naturalist Carl Akeley and writer (and safari participant) Mary Hastings Bradley emerged and indeed became imbedded in cinematic culture.