1901. The okapi is observed by Europeans for the first time; the United Kingdom and Germany agree on the frontier between German East Africa and the British colony of Nyasaland; and the British army busies itself with the killing of tens of thousands of Boer women and children through starvation and neglect.
Over 80% of Africa is under European control. The great powers are busy scrambling to occupy, divide and colonize the continent as fast as they possibly can. Each country wanting to maximize its share of the untapped markets, cheap labor, and surplus of raw materials all waiting for civilized hands to claim them. Advancements in transportation (trains, steamboats) communication (telegraphs), and medicines for tropical diseases make this expansion fairly easy.
Europeans know that Africa already has its own native population of savages starving for civilized culture. Therefore, not only is colonization justified, it is a moral imperative. The French, for example, believe they have a mission to lift the world up to French standards by spreading Christianity and French culture wherever they can. Jules Ferry, one of the leading proponents of colonialism famously declares that “the higher races have a right over the lower races, they have a duty to civilize the inferior races.” France does this by establishing colonies in Algeria, Tunisia, West Africa, Chad, Gabon, the Congo, and Madagascar.
However, despite rapid colonial expansion, there are still large swaths of the continent’s interior that remain unexplored. These wild areas hold an allure of mystery and untapped adventure which many writers are using to create fantastic adventures for their European and American readers looking to discover more of the dark continent’s hidden secrets. The Village in the Treetops (“Le Village aérien”) is one such novel by Jules Verne, among the last he writes, an African adventure in which evolution is discussed as well as what it is exactly that separates man from beast.
Jules Verne (1828-1905) is one of the fathers of the modern science fiction genre, and the second most translated author in the world since 1979, ranking between William Shakespeare and Agatha Christie. In France and most of Europe, Verne is considered to be a major literary author, while in most Anglo countries he is usually labeled as a science fiction writer or children’s author, often as a result of abridged or altered translations. Verne helped inspire the steampunk genre.
The most famous of Verne’s works is the Voyages Extraordinaires (extraordinary voyages), a widely popular series of scrupulously researched adventure novels, which included Journey to the Center of the Earth, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea and Around the World in Eighty Days. Verne had a very ambitious goal. He wanted the series to introduce all the geographical, geological, physical and astronomical knowledge available to modern science in an entertaining and picturesque format. The series includes very meticulous (and tedious) attention to detail and scientific trivia while also retaining a sense of wonder and exploration, and this helps make the series popular; reading the books is also a learning experience, which I discovered much to my pleasure in The Village in the Treetops.
The Village in the treetops tells the story of John Cort, a serious American, and Max Huber a romantic Frenchman, two travelling companions who are journeying with a caravan to Libreville, the capital of French Congo. Travelling with them are Khamiss, their guide and native Cameroonian, and Llanga, a child they rescued and adopted from the slave-trading cannibalistic natives. A stampeding herd of several hundred elephants destroys the caravan and forces the travelers to flee into an uncharted forest where they are forced to continue their journey on foot. After many adventures and discoveries, they are rescued by a tribe of advanced species of monkeys, the Waggdis, who bring them to their village. The discovery of the Waggdis opens up the debate of whether this new species, a possible missing link, can be considered a subspecies of men.
In 1901, the year the book was written, the debate on evolution was still raging strongly in the United States and Europe. Verne, raised a Roman Catholic, decided to use this book to address the topic. When discovering the village, the characters John and Max debate what it is that defines humans. Capability for speech is introduced and then rejected. By 1901, Richard Lynch Garner, an American researcher, had already managed to prove that monkeys were capable of a rudimentary form of speech. Later they wonder whether the belief in a supreme power could be a possible deciding factor, but leave this as an open question. Ultimately, they conclude that the Waggdis are linked to humans “because just like men, they have smiles and tears!”
Initially, I was not a fan of the book. Verne had never traveled to Africa, and I felt that his description of cannibalistic natives who both ate children and traded them away as slaves was a typical colonizer exaggeration which Verne fell for. I was even more skeptical of the herd of several hundred elephants that drove the adventurers into the forest. I was proven wrong on both accounts. Cannibalism was and is a problem in the Congos, and elephant herds can get to be pretty large (see video below). Once I got these reservations out of the way, I sat down and enjoyed the adventure Verne wove, and learned quite a lot in the process.
The omer today is kindness in kindness. An attribute the protagonists need to develop further and the Waggdis possess in abundance. Throughout the book, John and Max, display the typical European attitude of the time. They are superior representatives of civilization and everyone else is an inferior savage. They are doing a favor to Llanga by adopting him and letting him travel with them (they actually are), but it is also very clear that he is not their equal. The same with their attitude towards the Waggdis who showed them much kindness and generosity. John and Max are willing to debate whether the Waggdis are human or not, but they don’t feel any need to show towards them the respect a fellow human is entitled to. Sometimes advances in technology precede advances in morality. Europe today is not the same continent as it was 119 years ago, and many lessons have been learned (while many others have been forgotten). The same with the omer, day 1 is not day 49, and I look forward to seeing kindness evolve as this series progresses.