THE KING OF THE WORLD IN THE LAND OF THE PYGMIES – Joan Mark

From 1933 to 1953 Patrick Putnam was the eccentric overlord of Camp Putnam – part guesthouse, part medical clinic – deep in the Belgian Congo’s Ituri Forest. If you wanted pygmies or okapis in your African adventure, Putnam was your man. He still is, at least on paper.

An American expat from a wealthy Boston family, Putnam remade himself in a remote corner of colonial Africa. When his sanity lapsed towards the end, Camp Putnam devolved from jungle Eden into Heart of Darkness weirdness.

Some regret that Putnam forsook a promising career in academic anthropology but he was much more than a dude-ranch dilettante, as he once described himself. His sincere, lifelong and utterly reciprocated friendship with several pygmy/Mbuti clans was the critical enabler of Western study of their culture.

I first encountered Putnam in On Safari, the autobiography of pioneer wildlife documentary maker Armand Denis. Putnam’s second wife, the painter Anne Eisner Putnam, wrote a bestseller in the 1950s, Eight Years With Congo Pigmies, which, for all its strengths, glosses over intriguing irregularities (such as separate huts) in their relationship. Joan Mark’s book fills in these gaps (which is quite a jungle soap opera) while exploring Putnam’s unusual position amid the ambiguities of colonialism. It’s all relentlessly interesting.

One unshakeably memorable anecdote tells how Putnam dealt with his beloved pet chimpanzee Mr Fataki, who went vicious in his dotage and put several house servants in hospital. Options were limited and Putnam did not quail from the responsibility. After a last supper with his favourite chimp he drew a revolver and shot Mr Fataki dead at the dinner table.

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