Dragon Hunter, Roy Chapman Andrews and the Central Asiatic Expeditions by Charles Gallenkamp. New York, NY: Viking, 2001. $29.95 cloth, $15.00 paper; 344 pp; 70 glossy black & white photographs and a few drawings; selected bibliography and index.
Dragon Hunter is a biography of one of the 20th century’s most notable and flamboyant explorers - Roy Chapman Andrews. Many felt certain that Indiana Jones of movie fame had been inspired by the life of Andrews even though the producers have repeatedly denied such a connection. Although the title would indicate that Dragon Hunter is about the Central Asiatic Expeditions it is truly a biography of Andrews’ entire life.
Gallenkamp spends only a little time with Andrews’ youth in the first chapter preferring to move quickly to his association with the American Museum of Natural History. Armed with an introduction, which he wrangled out of the American Museum’s geology curator then on a speaking tour, Andrews gained an interview with the Museum’s director, Herman Bumpus. Not one to be discouraged easily by tales of no job openings, Andrews, willing to sweep floors if that was all that was available, convinced Bumpus to hire him. His first position was as an assistant in taxidermy for $40 a month. This experience illustrated Andrews’ outstanding ability to sell himself and his ideas - a skill that would be of value many times throughout his career. That was 1905 and only the beginning for a man who would end up as director of this museum in his later years.
Some of Andrews’ early work involved dissecting whales and studying their anatomy. Much of what he did would be disgusting to most of us. On one of these adventures, Andrews and a co-worker had to de-flesh a right whale that had washed up on the shore on Long Island. Local fisherman helped them until the February temperatures reached 20̊ below zero. In the midst of their work, a storm hit that covered the partially finished skeleton with sand thus making finishing the job even more difficult. On another dissection of a pregnant whale, Andrews sampled whale milk and found it not to his liking.
During this time Andrews worked directly with the whalers both in the United States and in Japan. This latter experience gave Andrews his first taste of the Orient - a taste that made him long to return.
While on an early expedition to the Philippines, Andrews had a Robinson Crusoe adventure. Having been “dropped off” at an uninhabited island to collect rare birds for the American Museum, the ship that was to pick his crew up failed to return on time, leaving the men to survive without supplies. For Andrews this was a challenge not to be missed. He was able to provide food by netting birds after his shotgun shell supply ran out. The castaways survived quite nicely until the ship returned two weeks late.
In 1908, Henry Fairfield Osborn became the President of the American Museum of Natural History. He is most responsible for the Museum’s over twenty-year span of global exploration and collecting activities. Andrews and Osborn were both big thinkers with bountiful ambition and egos. Their association was profitable for them both.
Andrews’ ambition continued to drive him back to the Orient. He was able to use Osborn’s theories to convince him to sponsor large expeditions in China and Mongolia. Osborn contended that central Asia had been the locus for the evolution and radiation of mammals including modern man. Others at the time felt that Africa was more likely but Osborn has been well documented as a racist and any thought of black Africa as the origin of modern man was anathema to him. Osborn was also a believer in eugenics - a popular movement in some circles in the early 20th century that advocated, among other things, sterilization of “lesser” individuals to help breed out inferior peoples for the betterment of the world.
With Osborn’s beliefs in mind, Andrews conceived of what became the famous Central Asiatic Expeditions to China and Mongolia. Osborn agreed to partial funding from the Museum and made Andrews responsible to raise the additional funds. This is where Andrews’ salesmanship and self confidence really paid off. Having inserted himself into New York society, he gained audiences with some of the most powerful people in America. Not only did he meet them, he got committed funding from the likes of J. P. Morgan, Sidney Colgate, Cleveland Dodge, J. D. Rockefeller, and many others. Once he had money from the most important people, the society hanger’s-on followed suit “not to be left out.”
While the Central Asiatic Expeditions were intended to focus on zoology, botany, archeology, ancient climate, geology and paleontology, the press homed in on the search for fossil man. In this regard, historically, the expeditions failed. The overall success of Andrews’ efforts was amazing. The various expeditions discovered new dinosaur and mammal fossils including the most famous nests of dinosaur eggs. Unfortunately, the dinosaur eggs were to become a problem for later expeditions. Andrews inadvisably auctioned one of the eggs as part of a fund raising scheme for another expedition. This turned into a political disaster in that the Chinese began protesting that the expeditions were commercial ventures and not truly scientific. There was already significant mistrust just because Andrews’ financial backers had oil and mining interests. Ultimately, Chinese, Mongolian and Russian politics closed the area to American expeditions until the end of the 20th century.
During the time Andrews was involved in the Orient, he maintained a residence in a section of Peiking near the Forbidden City. Apparently this was a section of town for foreigners - society people to be exact. Andrews and his neighbors, so to speak, engaged in polo games and parties just as if they lived in New York, Paris or London. His wife and sons lived in this compound even when he was fund raising in the U.S. or on expedition. All of the time away from family took its toll and the marriage ended in divorce. Andrews married again later in life to another young woman. By this time, the major expeditions had ended and the marriage endured.
Gallenkamp includes fascinating material surrounding the expeditions. Certainly in the early 20th century, China and Mongolia were very Third-World. Nothing could be accomplished without paying bribes either to politicians or to businessmen. In he wilderness areas bandits ran amok - Andrews and his associates were attacked by bandits and in at least one case they had to shoot the highwaymen in order to save their own lives. The expeditions were always heavily armed for this reason. Gallenkamp describes a prison in Mongolia early in Dragon Hunter. The cells were wooden boxes 2 feet by 2 feet by 4 feet long stacked outside on top of each other. Prisoners could not fully straighten out or sit up in these boxes. The prisoners did not leave the box/cell until their sentence was up - not for exercise nor for bathroom relief - food was given through gaps in the boards of the box. Needless to say, once released the inmate was a virtual cripple.
Since the Central Asiatic Expeditions were multipurpose, many wild animals had to be killed either for food or for museum collections. Every one of the Central Asiatic Expeditions included an on-site taxidermist to prepare specimens for the Museum.
Between rival warlords in China and conquest of Mongolia by Stalin, Andrews had to deal with no end of danger and politics. His skills of negotiation and forceful no-nonsense nature got him out of trouble many times. Gallenkamp includes historically important events throughout Dragon Hunter as much was pertinent to the eventual stoppage of future expeditions. Andrews was on good terms with certain political powers in China but not others so when power shifted difficulties followed. Some of the events occurring in the ‘20's and ‘30's included Chiang Kai-shek’s rise to power, Stalin’s takeover of Mongolia, and the Japanese invasion of China. Gallenkamp describes some of the brutality during these political upheavals.
Gallenkamp has written a well researched and fascinating story of perhaps the last great American adventurer of the old tradition. I was very pleased with the presentation and style and found Dragon Hunter hard to put down. You can read the story of the Central Asiatic Expeditions in Andrews’ own words in On the Trail of Ancient Man, Garden City Publishing, 1926, or his other adventures in the many other books he wrote about his expeditions. Gallenkamp points out that Andrews repeated some stories from one book to another with differing recollections of details and with additional embellishment for sensationalism.
Readability - High school and up.
On the Upside - Hard to put down excitement.
On the Downside - The reality of exploration and collecting of living species in the early 20th century may offend hypersensitive New-Agers.
Overall Rating - Excellent. True adventure with political intrigue, corruption, military spying, big game hunting, bandit attacks, deadly storms, all along with new scientific discoveries.