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American Museum Congo Expedition (1909-1915)



  • Existence: 1909 - 1915



The American Museum Congo Expedition (1909-1915) was sponsored by the American Museum of Natural History and made possible through the support of the Belgian government. The expedition party consisted of just two men. Herbert Lang, a German-born taxidermist and mammalogist was Expedition leader and photographer; James Paul Chapin, a student and ornithologist who worked at the Museum was selected to be his Assistant. The main goal was to expand the Museum’s collection of African zoological specimens, but Lang was also tasked with acquiring ethnographic material. The Museum was particularly eager to obtain specimens of the recently discovered (1901) okapi and the square-lipped, or white, rhinoceros. Lang and Chapin successfully traveled throughout the Congo region in central Africa (Modern day Democratic Republic of the Congo) to ultimately collect a massive fifty-four tons of material and over 9000 photographs for the Museum. (1)

AMNH President Jesup desires to send an expedition to the Congo Free State, plans begin;  King Leopold II receives plans for multi-room Congo Exhibit at Museum and gifts Museum with over 3000 objects.
Communications between Museum and Belgian officials regarding Congo Expedition.
The Congo Free State is annexed by the Belgian government and becomes the Belgian Congo.
Funds are collected to sponsor the Expedition through Trustees and friends of the Museum.
Herbert Lang is asked to lead the Expedition; requests James Chapin as his assistant.
Formal letters of permission to proceed with Expedition are received from Belgian government
Expedition leaves New York City for Antwerp
Expedition arrives in Boma, Africa and begins.
Bafwaboli, expedition site
Bafwasende, expedition site
Established initial base at Avakubi, beginning the process of training assistants and collecting
Bulk of active collecting with base camps at Faradje and Medje. At this point the team would sometimes split up for expedition trips.
Isiro, expedition site
Left Faradje to begin large scale transport back to Stanleyville. On the trek back the team continued to add specimens to the collection.
1913-07-25 to 1913-08-01
Babeyru, expedition site
Left the Ituri district.
Penge, expedition site; Chapin was alone at Penge while traveling with the collection.
Bomili, expedition site
Panga, expedition site
1914-09-22 to 1914-09-25
Banalia, expedition site
Bengamisa, expedition site
Chapin leaves Stanleyville with first group of collection.
Chapin arrives in New York with first group of collection.
Remaining group of the collection is sent to New York by Lang.
Lang returns to New York.

Biographical Note

Museum President Morris K. Jesup first thought of the idea of sending an expedition to the Congo region of Africa and was a personal friend of Pierre Mali, the Belgian Consul in NY. As early as February of 1907 (2) Jesup and Mali began discussing the possibilities of a Congo exhibit at the Museum with Secretary General of the Congo Free State Charles Liebrechts and Consul General of the Congo Free State James Gustavus Whiteley. In the spring (3) of that year, Museum Director Hermon Carey Bumpus was sent to Brussels to further the Museum’s cause; King Leopold was very supportive of the idea and gifted the Museum with 3000 anthropological objects to be showcased in a new exhibit for the African Hall, which would open in 1910.

Political and humanitarian interest in central Africa had increased during the turn of the century. The Museum became somewhat embroiled in the controversy through their relationship with Leopold. (4) In 1908 King Leopold’s privately owned Congo Free State had been annexed by the Belgian Government and was now the Belgian Congo, a colony of Belgium. (5) When President Jesup died in 1908, President Osborne actively took up the project. The Special Committee on the Congo Expeditions was formed by Osborne, and its members were John Trevor, Bumpus, Whiteley, Robert W. Goelet, Herbert L. Bridgman and Frank M. Chapman. Much necessary correspondence and meetings occurred between these American delegates, Museum representatives and the Belgian government officers in preparation for the expedition. The funds needed for the Expedition were acquired through gifts of Trustees, a gift of 6800 francs from the Belgian government, and the Morris Jesup endowment. (6).

Word of official permission for the Expedition was received from Moncheur and Whiteley on April 2, 1909; in May Lang and Chapin sailed from New York City to Antwerp. With letters of introduction to government officials, they obtained requisite permissions, and made other arrangements necessary for travel throughout the Congo region. They arrived in Boma on the west coast of the continent in June of 1909 and from there traveled up the Congo river to Leopoldville, where they engaged three Congolese men as assistants. After journeying to Stanleyville they hired and trained another eighteen men (three later left, leaving them eighteen in total) to act as invaluable assistants for collecting, tracking, preparing, and hunting during the course of the Expedition. Thousands of short-term porters were hired locally to man the caravans from site to site.

Communication and travel were very slow and it quickly became clear to the team that more time and money would be necessary, which were granted from the Museum (7). During their tenure in the Congo, Lang and Chapin set up a number of base camps at Avakubi, Medje, and Faradje, from which they would go out on collecting trips. There were European officers stationed at each of the Congo outposts who assisted them by providing shelter, and helping them to barter goods and hire porters. Their collecting was assisted by many individuals that they encountered who would provide specimens they had acquired through hunting and through introducing them to local hunters and trackers. The pair was introduced to members of local tribes such as the Mangbetu and Azande, including tribal chief kings and queens. These relationships provided the ability to have additional context for the growing anthropological collection as well as Lang’s portrait photographs. He did his developing on site at night, and prior to the expedition had arranged with the Museum to maintain intellectual ownership of the images during his lifetime. Both Lang and Chapin took copious detailed notes for their specimens, with Chapin completing multiple drawings and watercolors. Chapin admired and noted Lang’s tireless work ethic and came to be known as mtoto na Langi (Lang’s son) by many of the Congolese (8).

They finished their bulk field work in late 1912. As they slowly made the return journey to the west coast of Africa they would continue to collect items for the Museum, but their primary focus was now on the issue of transportation for the materials. Chapin took the primary role in organizing this. Among the many concessions that had been bargained before the expedition, the team had been granted free storage for all their specimens in each Province magazine. However, the packing and shipping of material was problematic due to the volume of material and lack of packing supplies.World War I broke out, creating sea route issues and transportation difficulties for Lang, a German. In December of 1914 Chapin sailed for America with the first batch of the collection, and Lang followed in late 1915.

The Expedition ultimately provided the museum with fifty-four tons of material and photographs which were consequently studied by a team of scientists in America and Great Britain. Not only did they successfully bring back the okapi and white rhinosceros, but the collection also contributed 5800 mammals, 6241 birds, 4800 reptiles and batrachians, 5400 fishes, 110,000 invertebrates, 3800 ethnographic objects, and 9500 photographs in 40 albums to the Museum's African collection. (9) Preliminary scientific findings were released throuhgout the decade, and studies continued on throughout the 1920s-1930s.

SOURCES (1) Enid Schildkrout, and Curtis A. Keim, African Reflections: Art from Northeastern Zaire (Seattle: University of Washington Press, New York; American Museum of Natural History, 1990), 59 (2) AMNH Central Administrative Archives 592: Folder: 1907 January –April (3) Henry Fairfield Osborn, "The Congo Expedition of the American Museum of Natural History," Bulletin of the AMNH 39, (1919): xvii (4) Schildkrout and Keim, 52. (5) Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s. v. "Belgian Congo," accessed October 23, 2013, (6) Osborn, xx. (7) Osborn, xxi. (8) Lyle Rexer and Rachel Klein, American Museum of Natural History: 125 Years of Expedition and Discovery (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, in association with the American Museum of Natural History, 1995), 105. (9) American Museum of Natural History. Forty-eighth Annual Report of the American Museum of Natural History For the Year 1916, New York: American Museum of Natural History, (1917), 27.


Found in 6 Collections and/or Records:

Africa: Exploration and Expedition exhibition photographic slides

Identifier: PSC 613F
Scope and Contents

Views of the temporary exhibition, Africa: Exploration and Expedition, held at the American Museum of Natural History, 1998, Library Gallery. Includes rare books, artifacts, portraits, and maps as well as items from the Chapin Lang Congo Expedition 1909-1915. Curated by Roscoe Thompson, then Assistant Director of Library Services.

Dates: 1998

American Museum Congo expedition photographs

Identifier: PPC .A47
Scope and Contents

Field photographs of Congo Expeditions from 1909-1915.

Dates: 1909-1915

Congo Expedition records : [microform]

Identifier: Archives Microfilm #43

James P. Chapin collection

Identifier: Archives Orn221
Scope and Contents James Chapin's personal and professional correspondence, expedition records including field notes and catalogs, photographs, negatives and personal diaries (1918-1964). Includes collected newsclippings, "Birds of the Belgian Congo" Ph.D. thesis and published works, reel to reel tape recordings with transcriptions, address books, date books, lists of Congo birds, original manuscripts, published reviews, articles, talks, papers, notes. Also includes Biographical information, photographs and...
Dates: 1908-1964