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Renaissance Gorillas

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Although Renaissance naturalists inherited a wealth of information about simians from classical and medieval sources, gorillas are oblique within these histories. The Renaissance, however, looms large within scientific histories of gorillas; two accounts specifically were cited extensively in nineteenth-century scientific treatises about the origins of the species. The first source, Hanno of Carthage’s Periplus, reports of a fifth-century BCE navigation of the Western coast of Africa and culminates in an encounter with a fearsome foe, described as gorillai (γορíλλας). The second source is Andrew Battell’s seventeenth-century account of his captivity by Portuguese slave traders and his travel through Senegambia, including descriptions of a “man-like” monster known as the pongo. Both are highly suspect as primary sources; both are narratives about attempts to colonize Africa; and both raise larger questions about how the Renaissance figures within scientific histories are connected to colonial violence. In this article, I explore why these two sources in particular allowed Wyman and Savage to construct the gorilla as both an unknowable, fearsome foe and as a killable animal and specimen of science. The sheer volume of gorilla material in natural history museums that is now unusable (because these specimens are linked to outmoded taxonomies) is overwhelming; returning to these sources and to Renaissance literary history, I argue, may provide a way to reckon with this overwhelming evidence created through violence (if we are willing to expand our definition of the Renaissance to include animals that we now term gorillas).