Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

Rocky Rapids and Sinking Hopes: River Travel, Commercial Rivalries, and Political Divides in Oskar Lenz's Gabon Voyages, 1874-77

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

Rocky Rapids and Sinking Hopes: River Travel, Commercial Rivalries, and Political Divides in Oskar Lenz's Gabon Voyages, 1874-77

Article excerpt

German traveler Oskar Lenz (1849-1925) was hardly the most renowned of European explorers of Africa. Even so, he attracted much attention in the 1880s with his visits to Morocco, the West African interior, and the Independent State of the Congo. Before these journeys, he voyaged in Gabon from 1874 to 1877. He came to Central Africa at a pivotal moment, as the Sao Tome markets that marked the final destination of many Gabonese slaves were officially closed in 1875, and as the growing demand in North American and European countries for rubber and ivory led to radical economic changes.

This essay examines the creative ways Gabonese men tried to profit from Lenz's expedition at the opening moment of French colonial expansion. Different individuals and groups struggled against one another in their encounters with the German traveler, and these tensions illustrated the multiple responses by African communities, especially those with skills dearly needed by Europeans, such as canoe work, to the radical changes at play in the initial moment of rapid colonial expansion into Central Africa. Some individuals in river communities exploited Lenz's relatively vulnerable position by demanding gifts or stealing goods. Others used him to rebuild trading alliances ruined by new African competitors. Finally, Lenz struggled with local leaders to break past their ability to regulate trade.

This work contributes to African history in several important ways. Only a handful of researchers have considered how inland river communities coped with European expansion, even though these groups were key players in the Atlantic slave trade as they brought prisoners to the coast. (1) European governments used rivers like the Ogooue as a means of expanding and maintaining their authority in Central Africa, and thus relied upon the skills and labour of river workers. Despite the obvious point that canoe workers and porters literally bore the burdens of European colonization of Africa, the history of transport workers in early colonial Africa has only begun to attract scholarly attention. (2) Furthermore, since the early twentieth century, scholarship of Gabon has been almost entirely in French, and thus neglected Lenz's writings. Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza chroniclers briefly mentioned Lenz's visit to the Ogooue, but only to note a rare moment in the decade of the Franco-Prussian debacle: energetic Frenchmen besting a struggling, ill German in a competition with imperial implications. (3) No work has seriously investigated the major role of German interests in this French colony before World War I, even though the Woermann trading company rivaled English firms and easily surpassed the pitiful record of French companies in promoting exports of timber, ivory, and rubber from Gabon. (4)

Academic investigations of German travel narratives also have barely touched on Lenz's life and work. Cornelia Essner's sociological treatment of nineteenth-century German travelers to Africa offers a brief overview, and several surveys of German colonialism mention his fame as a geographer. Unfortunately, none actually probe any of his writings. (5) Part of the problem may lie with Lenz's career, which does not fit well into the commonly-understood borders of German empire. He became an Austrian citizen, traveled in territories claimed by the French and Leopold II rather than participating in German colonial ventures, and failed to publish much about his final mission in the Independent State of the Congo. (6)

Admittedly, Lenz's narratives pose challenges for interpretation. In many ways, his expedition exemplifies those discussed in Suzanne Zantrop's study of mid-nineteenth-century German travel narratives. Zantrop has contended that German geographers and natural scientists claimed to be serving pure knowledge rather than financial and political concerns. At the same time, though, their efforts helped the viability of possible colonial ventures, and often demeaned Africans as racially and culturally inferior. …

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