Academic journal article The International Journal of African Historical Studies

"White Coronations and Magical Boycotts": Omyènè Political Strategies, Clan Leaders, and French Rule in Coastal Gabon, 1870-1920*

Academic journal article The International Journal of African Historical Studies

"White Coronations and Magical Boycotts": Omyènè Political Strategies, Clan Leaders, and French Rule in Coastal Gabon, 1870-1920*

Article excerpt

In 1873, German adventurer Wilhelm Hübbe-Schleiden entered a series of disputes that were a common part of everyday life for foreign residents of the French Central African colony of Gabon in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Upon arriving in Gabon, he decided to establish a trading house in the Glass neighborhood of Libreville. This small town of two thousand people had been the administrative and commercial center of French political and European economic interests since 1842. Hübbe-Schleiden had problems within a short time. A crowd of Mpongwe men assembled by his home and quarreled with one another. Since Hübbe-Schleiden had rented out a house from the son of an Agakaza clan chief, the young man claimed the German guest belonged to the Agakaza clan. However, a younger man named Ovendo from the Agesso clan claimed to be HübbeSchleiden' s host. "By the strict customs of the land, [the Agakaza clan] had the true claim as the [patron], but I had absolutely no idea at the time of the existence of such a right."1 Hübbe-Schleiden preferred Ovendo to the Agakaza claimants. By paying some gifts, Hübbe-Schleiden convinced his erstwhile hosts to allow Ovendo to become his patron. He described his relationship in the following way: "[the Mpongwe patron] treats a [white man] as his own house pet."2

Hübbe-Schleiden treated more seriously a protest of Mpongwe leaders against European firms. In September 1876, the local colonial administrator enforced a series of raises on duties for imported goods mandated by the French government. These high duties raised prices on foreign merchandise commonly used in trade with interior communities to purchase food, ivory, and rubber by over 50 percent.3 Local merchants responded by launching a boycott against European trading firms, including a refusal to sell any food. "Once [Mpongwe traders] saw that [the trading firms] were independent from these machinations, they gradually gave up resistance, although not before obtaining some favors from several smaller [trading] houses and thus breaking through the unanimous alliance of the [European] traders."4 Boycotts proved to be an effective means by coastal Gabonese communities of challenging French political and economic authority for the next half century.

From the 1840s until the 1920s, Omyènè-speaking clan leaders sought to regulate trade and foreigners living in their domains. Omyènè-speaking peoples occupied coastal Gabon and controlled the Ogooué River, the main trade route in nineteenth-century Gabon, from its entrance into the Altantic Ocean to Lambarènè over 100 miles from the coast. Perhaps 30,000 or so people belonged to Omyènè-speaking clans, although the lack of firm statistics makes this only a rough estimate. Each of the main Omyènè-speaking communities- Adyumba, Enenga, and Galwa clans living roughly 100 miles upriver on the Ogooué, the Mpongwe of the Gabon Estuary, the Nkomi of the southern coastal Fernán Vaz lagoon and the lower Ogooué, and the Orungu on the delta of the Ogooué Rivershared similar forms of government in the nineteenth century. Clan leaders and free men in Omyènè-speaking clans made their fortunes by acting as commercial intermediaries between Europeans and other Gabonese people. In this context, I will use the term Omyènè clans to refer generally to Adyumba, Enenga, Galwa, Mpongwe, Nkomi, and Orungu communities. As elsewhere on the Atlantic African coast, Omyènè clans treated European residents as strangers who owed local people respect and the obligation to furnish gifts and support.5 This case offers an example of how patron/client relationships between European clients and African patrons in the Atlantic slave trade era adjusted to the new realities of the early colonial period.

Jane Guyer's analysis of Atlantic African economic and political structures is pertinent for understanding how and why Omyènè clan leaders tried to control Europeans in their domains. She has asserted: 'The capacity to define, institutionalize, take advantage of, technically control, and symbolically represent conversions is at the heart of the extensive regional transactions that every autonomous [Atlantic African] polity built up" between European clients and interior trade routes. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.