Wilson’s more than five-hundred pages making up Western Africa describes the region in detail by providing history, accounts of colonization (both by nations and for relocating freed slaves), a catalog of natural resources, descriptions of the indigenous peoples, observations of the fauna and flora, and of course, an account of his ministry bringing the light of the Gospel to the Africans. It may be surprising that Wilson would be interested in sciences such as botany and zoology, however science was the up-and-coming discipline in the antebellum nineteenth century, so educated individuals including ministers, found scientific books and discoveries interesting.
John Leighton Wilson (1809-1886) was born, raised, and schooled in Sumter County, South Carolina, then completed his formal education at Union College, Schenectady, before studying for the ministry in the first graduating class of Columbia Theological Seminary. He was ordained by Harmony Presbytery to be a missionary to Africa with the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM). He worked first at Cape Palmas then the Gaboon region for a total of nineteen years before returning to the United States. He was Secretary of the Board of Foreign Missions for the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, Old School, 1853-1860, and then he held the corresponding position for the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS), 1861-1885. He was a respected missionary, minister, scholar, author, and linguist. His most significant work for readers of English is likely Western Africa: Its History, Condition, & Prospects, 1856; New York: Harper Brothers, 1856, London 1856.
Wilson’s more than five-hundred pages making up Western Africa describes the region in detail by providing history, accounts of colonization (both by nations and for relocating freed slaves), a catalog of natural resources, descriptions of the indigenous peoples, observations of the fauna and flora, and of course, an account of his ministry bringing the light of the Gospel to the Africans. It may be surprising that Wilson would be interested in sciences such as botany and zoology, however science was the up-and-coming discipline in the antebellum nineteenth century, so educated individuals including ministers, found scientific books and discoveries interesting. Wilson’s observations published in Western Africa were beneficial not only for orienting new missionaries about their fields of service but also because they provide information for other readers curious about the Dark Continent. David Livingstone’s first book about Africa would not be published until a year after Wilson’s.
One item of scientific importance Wilson talks about in Western Africa, 366-67, concerns his discovery of some skulls. He says—
“But the most formidable of all animals in the woods of Africa is the famous, but recently discovered, Troglodytes Gorilla, called, in the language of the Gaboon, Njena. The writer was the first to call the attention of naturalists to this animal. Toward the close of 1846 he accidentally came across the skull of one, which he knew at once, from its peculiar shape and outline, to belong to an undescribed species. After some searching a second skull was procured, but of smaller size. No other portion of the skeleton could be procured for some time afterward. The natives, however, seemed to be perfectly familiar with the habits and character of the animal, gave minute accounts of its size, its ferocity, and the kind of woods which it frequented; they also gave confident assurances that in due time a perfect skeleton should be produced. In the meantime, impressions were taken in this country where the two heads were procured, and all the information that could be obtained from the natives was published, and served to awaken the liveliest interest among naturalists. Since then perfect skeletons have been taken to England and France, and brought to this country, so that scientific men have sufficient knowledge of the subject to assign this animal its proper place in natural history. It belongs to the orang-outang, or chimpanzee family, but is larger and much more powerful than any other known species. The writer has seen one of these animals after it was killed. It is almost impossible to give a correct idea, either of the hideousness of its looks, or the amazing muscular power which it possesses. Its intensely black face not only reveals features greatly exaggerated, but the whole countenance is but one expression of savage ferocity. Large eyeballs, a crest of long hair, which falls over the forehead when it is angry, a mouth of immense capacity, revealing a set of terrible teeth, and large protruding ears, altogether make it one of the most frightful animals in the world. It is not surprising that the natives are afraid to encounter them even when armed. The skeleton of one, presented by the writer to the Natural History Society of Boston, is supposed to be five feet and a half high, and with its flesh, thick skin, and the long, shaggy hair with which it is covered, it must have been nearly four feet across the shoulders. The natives say it is ferocious, and invariably gives battle whenever it meets a single person. I have seen a man the calf of whose leg was nearly torn off in an encounter with one of these monsters, and he would probably have been torn to pieces in a very short time if his companions had not come to his rescue. It is said they will wrest a musket from the hands of a man and crush the barrel between their jaws, and there is nothing, judging from the muscles of the jaws, or the size of their teeth, that renders such a thing improbable” (pp. 177-78)