Slave Ships’ Apes

Posted by: Loren Coleman on November 11th, 2006

Could the “North American Apes” (Napes) have come over from Africa via slave ships?

Napes is the term I coined to gather the names of Skunk Apes, Boogers, Swamp Apes, and other cryptid anthropoids from the SE USA under one umbrella moniker. I see Napes as a form of unknown ape, and not the Neo-Giant, not the classic Bigfoot.

I began talking about these ideas some four decades ago, and presented formally in various public talks even before writing about them in later books and contributed chapters. For example, I gave “The Occurrence of Wild Apes in North America,” as a slide-lecture to the Biogeography Seminar, Zoology Department, University of Illinois, Urbana, in May 1973; and at the Fortfest 73, The International Fortean Organization, Silver Springs, Maryland, in August 1973. This paper later founded the basis of a detailed referenced chapter in Vladimir Markotic’s book and then, with popularized revisions, in several other places.

The ultimate question I was trying to theorize about was “From Where Cometh the Napes?” If I considered it a possibly that a free-ranging, swimming, nocturnal great ape (not a monkey, please note) exists in many parts of the southern United States, how, I asked myself, did it get here? If we consider only the historical written records, the appearance of the ape in these locations may be significant in the context of their possible introduction from Africa, just as the slaves were introduced specifically in the southeast USA.

During the last forty years, I have entertained numerous theories as to the Napes’ origins. But I have most often returned to the under-explored slave ship concept. Did the Napes come over in the 1700s and 1800s, with ships carrying slaves and cargo from Africa? While slave-trading between Africa and the United States began in the early 1600s, it did not become routine until after the invention of the cotton gin in the 1790s.

Slave Ship

The peak time of slave ships to the Atlantic passage was between the 17th and 18th century when large plantations developed in the English colonies of North America. Over 30,000 voyages were made from America to Africa to capture slaves. They often returned with more than human cargo.

It is possible that some chimpanzees, or a subspecies, might have been brought over then, since slave ship captains did keep chimps as pets. In fact, the first chimpanzee to reach a zoo in England was brought to Bristol in the autumn of 1834 by a Captain Wood, who had picked it up on the Gambia Coast.

The first four gorillas to be brought from the wild into captivity arrived in 1855, 1883, and 1897 at Liverpool, and in 1883 at Berlin. The first gorilla in Liverpool was thought to be a chimpanzee. The first two gorillas in the United States did not arrive until 1897, at Boston, and 1911, at New York.

Since cryptozoology is so under-funded, I could afford to do only a limited amount of research on the subject of slave ships, chimpanzees, and other animal cargo. I had always hoped that by my bringing it up as a possibility, a budding cryptozoologist with a mutual interest in slavery and cryptozoology might take this research question on as a challenge, and answer some more questions about the transport of unknown apes from Africa to America.

For many reasons, particularly the Napes’ swimming behavior, it is unlikely that the source of the American apes were the known chimpanzees or gorillas brought over on slave ships. Indeed, I think it could be a new ape, an undiscovered species that hitchhiked from Africa on these ships of dishonor.

I found one rather vague case that indicated to me there is a record for just such a swimming ability among an unknown African ape. Vernon Reynolds, the British primatologist, examined that case, writing in The Apes (1967):

A report from Spanish Guinea states that four chimpanzees were observed swimming across the 60 to 65-meter-wide Benito River. They made swimming motions like dogs…I am inclined to think that the “chimpanzees” seen swimming in the above report were some other species. The general response of chimpanzees is universally agreed to be one of avoidance and even fear. I have myself on two occasions helped to pull chimpanzees out of a water-filled moat in which they were quite clearly drowning, and I am convinced they cannot swim.

Plainly, then, as understood from studies, literature, and fieldwork, while some monkeys enjoy the water, while some primates might wade in water, the known species of great apes do not swim. But from all indications, Napes do. Did these swimming African apes described by Vernon Reynolds end up in America thanks to the crew of the slave ships, and today, are known in Florida as Skunk Apes?

Loren Coleman About Loren Coleman
Loren Coleman is one of the world’s leading cryptozoologists, some say “the” leading living cryptozoologist. Certainly, he is acknowledged as the current living American researcher and writer who has most popularized cryptozoology in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Starting his fieldwork and investigations in 1960, after traveling and trekking extensively in pursuit of cryptozoological mysteries, Coleman began writing to share his experiences in 1969. An honorary member of Ivan T. Sanderson’s Society for the Investigation of the Unexplained in the 1970s, Coleman has been bestowed with similar honorary memberships of the North Idaho College Cryptozoology Club in 1983, and in subsequent years, that of the British Columbia Scientific Cryptozoology Club, CryptoSafari International, and other international organizations. He was also a Life Member and Benefactor of the International Society of Cryptozoology (now-defunct). Loren Coleman’s daily blog, as a member of the Cryptomundo Team, served as an ongoing avenue of communication for the ever-growing body of cryptozoo news from 2005 through 2013. He returned as an infrequent contributor beginning Halloween week of 2015. Coleman is the founder in 2003, and current director of the International Cryptozoology Museum in Portland, Maine.

18 Responses to “Slave Ships’ Apes”

  1. joppa responds:

    Thanks for this post. I did a research project a few years back on the “swamp booger” phenomenon and the various reports that seemed uniquely “Southern” until the last decade or so. There is a tie to slavery, as some of the legends or old tales were clearly made up to terrorize slaves to keep from running away. The first settlers in many parts of the South (and North} first tried to enslave Native Americans, with out much success. They usually easily just returned to the woods. So, the Spanish first of all turned to Africa for labor. The English, Portugese and Dutch soon followed.
    The early slaves were first kept on the land by their language barriers and the real threat of getting worse treatment by warring Indian tribes. In deed the Cherokee and Creek owned slaves as well for a brief time.
    The threat of the unknown soon evolved to threats of unknown creatures that would do grave harm if you ran off, especially in the swamps or wild areas where a runaway could easily hide. Finally, many of these stories of swamp monsters were created and acted out by the Klu Klux Klan to further terrorize and intimidate the newly freed slaves. These stories are self sustaining and later used by moonshiners, pot growers and meth cookers to create a cultural No Trespassing sign for many remote areas where they do their work.
    I believe that in our research we must first filter out the “cultural monsters” before we can seriously consider other options. That said, I don’t think that Skunkapes are per se mythical but some of the old swamp boogers are.

  2. mememe responds:

    So where are the records of Large Apes being brought to America in large enough volumes for there to be enough breeding pairs.

    And what would be the food requirements for the trip. The Apes would of had to of been stored and fed. Large Apes are not some pocket Monkey..

    How long did a Trip of slave to reach American Ports suitable to allow the Apes to escape to where they are claimed to live now.

    Because there is a volume of ships it does not mean all carried unknown swimming Apes (if any such Apes exist)

    And if such Apes existed where are the original source now in the original Native country..

    And how many releases or escapes and from what locations.

    Are we talking random escapes or theoriesed releases of breeding Pairs.. ( based on recorded facts or Maybe it could of been wish )

  3. Loren Coleman responds:

    I look forward to well-funded, volunteer, and/or passionate individuals who wish to do the tiresome but exciting library research to answer such questions.

    A hypothesis based on hints in a survey of the literature give a direction to the possible research, but such a theory is never seen as the end of the research to be done. It is merely an idea, not a finished product.

    BTW, return slave ship trips, from Africa to America, took approximately one week.

    The crew’s pets were frequently “passengers,” and they were provided for and fed better than the transported slaves.

  4. mememe responds:

    Yes Loren But What is the Weekly food requirement of a Great Ape?

    Did they carry vets to treat seasick Great Apes?

    With space on a ship being at a premium would the average Slave ship crew member have a cabin of his own ?

    A cage for a Great Ape (wood or Steel) or do we assume it was manacled somewhere on ship..

    Was the Ape Loaded on board at the last moment prior to leaving for America..

    And the records of ship pets do they say Monkeys , Chimps or Great Apes..

    What Size Ape are we talking . Six Foot , Five Foot , Four Foot or a Monkey suitable to sit on the shoulder?

    And where is the original source now , If they was being caught , sold , traded and kept then where have the Native African ones gone ..

  5. Loren Coleman responds:

    Yes, good questions. I hope you take the time to continue the research to answer them.

  6. mememe responds:

    Alas I feel I have the answer. While some may wish it was true and in the unhinderd by reality mind, we may be able to think of ifs and buts and maybes..

    I see nothing to convince me large Great Apes came across to settle America. Or that they was traded or that a unknown swimming Ape was Traded.. Money was King and unique items carry a unique high price..

    Only my opinion

    Thank you for sharing thoughts Loren

  7. joppa responds:

    My home lies at the edge of “Booger Swamp” (its real name and on all the maps) that lies on the edge of Cookeville and Algood, Tennessee ( the home of another BF afficiando – she has a feeding program for a local BF just north of town – see, he’s right next to those bushes ). Booger swamp is about two miles wide and eight miles long and meanders along highway 111. Heavy development has chopped it up so that it only has small pockets now. The local legends from the past 50 years told of a big hairy wildman that chased people who strayed too close to the swamp. However, Booger swamp’s name goes back over 100 years and with due diligence you can read old newspaper accounts how it got its name. The “Booger” was first seen by a local minister and was reported to be a headless ghost in white who terrorized the good pastor so much that he was accused of consorting with evil spirits and kicked out of the church and community. But, the ghost was seen for a while longer and Booger swamp got its name. Over time and cultural changes, the white ghost morphed into a ghostly civil war soldier, a screaming panther and finally a hairy wildman. After the 1970’s and the Patterson film and Boggy Creek, the Booger became bigfoot. Sadly, Booger swamp barely can contain a few raccons and oppossums today, and it residents seem to have moved north where he seems to be well fed and always hiding just behind that tree – no the tree on the left – and if you look hard enough you’ll see three others up on the ridge behind those other bushes.

  8. Dudlow responds:

    Sorry, folks, but I just don’t buy it. Just as the ‘Out of Africa’ theory concerning the spontaneous arising and outmigration of Homo Sapiens Sapiens has been largely exposed as nothing more than an entrenched urban myth of convenience – entirely unsupported by the fossil record – so, too, perhaps, with the notion of other bipedals landing on the North American shores in historical times.

    That’s not to say that apes might not have been among the willing (or unwilling) slave ship passengers as suggested by Mr. Coleman – apes that subsequently escaped to thrive in the wilds of south eastern North America – but it seems highly unlikely that the ancient Indian and aboriginal legends concerning wildmen would only have been conveniently conceived post contact, let alone coeval with the onslaught of slavery. It seems the indigenous legends are older than the days of North American slavery.

    It now seems more likely that multiple bipedal species, including man, have simultaneously populated the earth and North America since time out of mind. We are only now just beginning to catch up with this apparently alarming truth.

    Sometimes the easiest and simplest explanation is the truth. They’ve been here all along.

  9. joppa responds:

    I’m sorry to be so disjointed, but everytime the microwave gets used at my house, my wireless connection gets scrambled. Anyway, I agree with mememe, NAPES from African slave ships don’t seem probable. And after you eliminate the cultural “Boogers” from your cryptid reports, you are left with two or three real mysteries – large Bigfoot sightings and skunkapes which are very regional. Isolated BF reports in downtown Manhattan or Long Island or Madisonville, Tennessee make for a good story but just aren’t credible.

    So, how did skunkapes get to Florida ??? Maybe they were there all along. We forget that some areas in the eastern U.S. weren’t settled until this past century, particulaly the interior of Florida and the entire Southeast didn’t see a population boom until after we invented air conditioners. Disney World was wilderness 60 years ago, the Gulf coast was desolate; in short there has been plenty of room in the South for all sorts of critters until the last generation. Now perhaps we are running into critters that have been here all along.

  10. busterggi responds:

    Okay, slave ships or other ships may have brought a few chimps over at one time or another. I’ll buy that. But could they have brought enough to start a breeding population? And would there have been enough to be noticed to account for native legends?

    My theory is that napes, if they exist (and I argue about it with myself and can’t decide), are decended from South American monkeys. This accounts for De Loys’ ape, SA cryptid apes & maybe some hominds. They’d have crossed to NA at the same time ground sloths and phorusrachids did. Oh, I know this means they aren’t true apes but they’d look enough like them to confuse anyone who couldn’t do dna testing on one.

  11. oldbutnotstupid responds:

    Interesting throry,but it does seem that the need for food ans other needs would preclude the possiblility of abreeding population starting this way .the time involved for transport alone, makes it highly unlikely. has it occurred to any-one that not everything comes from africa.
    These creatures could be the remains of an almost extinct species which developed here.
    Similar lines of creatures in widely separated areas which are not connected ,is not unknown by any means. look where deer are found as an example.they didn’t all come from one place.

  12. mystery_man responds:

    Human encroachment on habitat would certainly explain the apparent increase in sightings of hominids these days. The slave ship theory is an interesting one. There is also merit to the idea that they were here all along. There would be no fossil record if indeed no one has found the fossils yet. Would like to hear the results of any research done on this.

  13. Shihan responds:

    I’m not too sure of the theory of transported apes from African slave trader ships, however, it is indeed possible, the food requirements for a great ape would be no more than that of a human slave and if a trader thought that there was money to be made with the trade of an animal that was then unknown in this country – I think that trader would bring as many back as possible.

  14. kaiju responds:

    It’s an interesting idea but there are an awful lot of variables. It requires that an almost extinct great ape be transported over here and released in great enough numbers to thrive in a foreign land…not impossible but…

    I’d rate it a dstant third behind the whole thing being legend or that the Napes are an indigenous species or all this is a series of mistaken identities.

    While some have mentioned the difficulty of bringing a full sized creature on board I would guess that it would be more likely that they were juveniles. Consider how much money they could have gotten from exhibiting a genuine non-human hominid. The barnum crowd would have eaten it up with a spoon. Not to mention how such a creature would have been a bombshell during the great evolution debates. So if this happened it would have to have been in the early 1800s. By the mid to late 1800s it would have been too significant to be forgotten, IMHO.

  15. Remobec responds:

    Interesting theory. If they did come to America some 300-400 years ago, I think it would be a good bet that’d they’d be their own proper subspecies by now. (Undoubtedly others would know more about this than me.)

    If the theory that Napes originated on slave ships is correct, it seems much more likely to me that they are a subspecies of known African ape than a member of an undiscovered ape species. Maybe it’s easier for chimps to survive in the swamps if they can swim. So perhaps one or two learned how. Or maybe one or two was built a little different or whatever so that it could swim. I did a quick google search for swimming chimps. Of course, the consensus agreed that they don’t swim (I’ve heard that they have a stockier build to be strong swimmers and that they don’t have enough body fat to keep afloat). The Jane Goodall site said that “In general chimpanzees do not like to swim.” Another site said “Chimpanzees avoid large bodies of water and are usually only able to swim if extremely excited.”

    This implies that they are just barely able to swim. Which seems to imply that if they had to, they could stay afloat for a short time. Which says to me, in the right environment, they could adapt to become swimming chimps–a clear case of microevolution.

  16. Shihan responds:

    Perhaps the term “wading” should be substituted for swimming. Both gorillas and chimps are not particularily fond of water, but they will wade into it and even cross small bodies of water if needed. The more the need arose (as in S. Fla everglades) the more they would wade. Chimps and gorillas actually teach their young how to behave, therefore, a couple of generations is all that would be needed to pass on the wading skill-set.

  17. MattBille responds:

    That chimps in general do not swim does not mean a particular population of them could not have taken up an unusual habit. It’s happened with monkeys, if I recall correctly. (Actually, it happened with the ri, also, as dugongs behaved in previsouly unknown ways and resulted in speculation about an unknown species.)
    As Loren says, the subject of slave ship pets has not really been investigated. There is a great deal of study still being done on the human slave trade, and pets are unlikely to be on any historian’s priority list.
    So the possibility exists of a known or unknown primate species being transported to North America. It seems unlikely in the extreme, though, that a breeding pair were brought to the same place and turned loose or escaped at the same time. Then you have the problem that, with perhaps 200 years to multiply and adapt (shades of the Florida predators in The X-Files) all the hunters combing the South for prey ranging from deer to alligators almost never saw one, and never killed one. The lack of bones does not bother me, given the climate, but the complete lack of specimens does.

  18. mystery_man responds:

    Could these skunk apes not have been some early form of human ancestor that survived into modern times? The slave traders would have probably thought them very curious. Maybe they were not captured as pets, but as additional slaves. It is true that although chimps don’t normally swim, an isolated population of them could have developed the habit if it was neccessary to survival. This is seen in other animals and even in different groups of chimps. For example, some groups of chimps will use sticks to catch ants, while another group does not, one group will use leaves to drink water and so on. Some groups eat more meat. I do not think it to be out of the question that a group that was left to its own devices for so long might develop swimming as a general survival device.

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