In 1607, after being held captive by the Portuguese in West Africa’s Congo Basin for nearly 18 years, the English sailor Andrew Battell returned home with lurid tales of “ape monsters”. The larger of the two creatures Battell described, according to the edited volume later published by travel writer Samuel Purchas, Purchas His Pilgrimes, “is in all proportion like a man”, but “more like a giant in stature…and has a man’s face, hollow eyed, with long haire upon his browes”. These marauding beasts “goe many together, and kill many [villagers]…they are so strong, that ten men cannot hold one of them”. Battell’s narrative, much of which was received second hand and sure to be highly imaginative, was nevertheless one of Western society’s earliest introductions to our evolutionary cousins, the great apes.
Simia quam similis turpissima bestia nobis (“How similar the ape, this ugliest of beasts, is to ourselves”). What the Roman poet Ennius presented in the 2nd century BC was a refrain that could be heard repeatedly during the subsequent two millennia whenever Europeans encountered this being that so threatened the line separating human and animal. The common depiction of non-human primates in the West as representations of sin and the Devil, wickedness, frivolity, impulsivity and violence would ultimately say more about our own discomfort at being reminded of similar qualities in ourselves than their nature.
But it is the depiction of the ape as monster that is even more revealing. When Bishop John Bramhall challenged Thomas Hobbes’ position on free will in 1645 by insisting that “Nature never intends the generation of a monster,” he wasn’t referring to apes but to what today we would call a mutant; something fundamentally unnatural and far removed from ourselves. For Battell, and those who came after him, to use this term repeatedly for describing great apes suggests that the experience was so profoundly disturbing that the only recourse was to relegate them to some narrow island of the mind where any similarities with humans could be ignored. The ape, to adopt lines from Shakespeare written at the time, was “a perfidious…howling…abominable monster”, little more than “a born devil, on whose nature nurture can never stick”.
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