Cameroon's Tycoon: Max Esser's Expedition and Its Consequences. (Book Reviews: Anthropology & History)

By Argenti, Nicolas | Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, March 2003 | Go to article overview

Cameroon's Tycoon: Max Esser's Expedition and Its Consequences. (Book Reviews: Anthropology & History)


Argenti, Nicolas, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute


CHILVER, E.M. & UTE ROSCHENTHALER. Cameroon's tycoon: Max Esser's expedition and its consequences. xx, 204 pp., maps, illus., bibliogr. Oxford, New York: Berghahn Books, 2001. [pounds sterling]17.00 (paper) (Book Reviews: Anthropology & History)

Colonial history, biography, social geography, travel writing, historical ethnography, family album, anthropology of cross-cultural encounters: this book leaves no genre unexplored in its drive to reassess the nature of the relationship that bound one man -- and through him a hesitant empire -- to the Cameroon Grassfields. While anthropological orthodoxies have tended to cast colonial administrations in the same hackneyed role over recent decades, Chilver and Roschenthaler's inspired examination of the personal, economic, and cultural factors that led a well-to-do German Jewish cavalry officer and entrepreneur on an exploratory mission to investigate the potential of setting up plantations on Cameroon's coast offers us a multifaceted and nuanced insight into the early years of African agronomy.

By means of painstaking research in colonial archives in Cameroon and Germany, the editors reveal that Max Esser's view that the continent's natural resources were limited, that the goodwill of the suppliers that Western dealers depended upon was not to be taken for granted, and that the introduction of intensive methods of cultivation would in the long term repay the heavy initial investment required -- both to European investors and local workers alike -- stands out as a bold and prescient position in the context of prevailing nineteenth-century Western opinion. According to this view, Africa was nothing more than a superabundant wilderness, the inexhaustible fruits of which were to be effortlessly harvested without second thoughts.

But this book is no simplistic eulogy of Second Reich exploration, and still less can it be dismissed as a revisionist apology for the nefarious consequences of German imperialism. As the book's subtitle implies, it is not only Esser's background and his intentions that are examined, but also the manner in which his single-minded determination to see large-scale plantations set up on the coast of Germany's new Cameroonian territory necessitated a steady and dependable supply of labour.

The ten chapters of the book's second part are devoted to an edited translation of the book that Esser himself published in 1898 from the diaries that he kept while on his journey into the 'hinterland' of Cameroon to try to secure such a labour supply. The very helpfully annotated translation of An der Westkuste Afrikas details the expedition Esser undertook in 1896, retracing the steps of Dr Eugene Zintgraff (with Zintgraff again joining the expedition) to the Grassfields kingdom of Bali Nyonga. …

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