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  • Missionary Expertise, Social Science, and the Uses of Ethnographic Knowledge in Colonial Gabon
  • John M. Cinnamon


Missionary ethnographers provided expert knowledge during the formative years of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century anthropology, but are generally relegated to the footnotes of academic anthropology.1 Colonial missionaries were, nevertheless, crucial producers of cultural practices, knowledge, and texts in the particular locations where they worked. Missionary linguists, for example, contributed to the standardization of regional variations through the production of writing systems and the teaching of reading in mission schools.2 Missionaries also interacted with literate Africans in mission stations to produce cultural descriptions that then filtered back into local practices or auto-ethnographic representations, to be discovered anew by later anthropologists. At the same time, of course, as many missionaries themselves recognized, there was inherent tension between the scientific study of African cultural practices and the evangelizing project that sought to induce radical cultural change.

To examine the often contentious relationship between missionary expertise, social science, and ethnographic knowledge in colonial Gabon, [End Page 413] I look comparatively at the fieldwork experiences and writings of the American Presbyterian, Robert Hamill Nassau (1835-1921), and the French Spiritan, Henri Trilles (1866-1949). Nassau worked in present-day Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, and Cameroon from 1861 to 1906, while Trilles spent three extended stays in Gabon between 1893 and 1907. Both men claimed expert ethnographic understanding based on long-term, first-hand daily contact with Africans, fluency in African languages, and empathetic understanding of Africans, while at the same time expressing standard missionary shock and awe at African customs, fetishism, and cannibalism. Both learned African languages, traveled in the interior of present-day Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, clashed with fellow missionaries, and wrote prolifically, especially after their definitive departures from Africa. Although each man's personality, experiences, and approaches to ethnography were unique, together they nonetheless exemplify the broader uses and challenges of missionary ethnography.

Nassau was a close friend of Princeton University professor and museum curator, William Libbey.3 Libbey helped Nassau to raise funds for his ethnographic research, provided scientific and personal advice, and in 1903 assisted Nassau in reviewing chapters of Nassau's most overtly ethnographic work, Fetichism in West Africa. Nassau, in turn, wrote two papers for Libbey and sent him ethnological samples for Princeton's Natural History Museum.4 Nassau, who wrote in English, has become an important source for Anglophone colonial historians and occasional divinity students, and is remembered as a founding missionary by pastors in the Eglise Evangélique du Gabon. He seems to have failed, however, to capture the Gabonese ethnographic imagination. [End Page 414]

Here, I argue that Nassau remains particularly useful not so much for his insights into African cultural practices, but as a participant-observer in the colonial endeavor. As an American, Nassau worked at the margins of the French colonial state, but nonetheless had considerable interaction with state agents. For example, he first met French explorer Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza on the Ogooué river in 1875, during Brazza's first expedition and a year after Nassau had founded the first Ogooué mission station. The two remained or cordial terms when Brazza was Commissaire Général in the 1890s.

Curiously, Trilles, who has been vilified for fraudulently claiming expert knowledge of "pygmies," has nonetheless remained influential in Gabon, in part because he espoused the hypothesis of Egyptian origins. In the 1920s Trilles gained the confidence and patronage of the influential German Catholic missionary ethnologist, Wilhelm Schmidt, but Trilles's predilection for invention and exaggeration led to frequent "mortifying incidents" and public contradictions during speaking engagements.5 Trilles, Nassau, and missionary ethnographers more generally have received an uneasy reception in professional anthropology. Nassau, who worked during the heyday of so-called "armchair" anthropology (which relied heavily on reports by missionaries and other "amateurs"), embraced degradation theory rather that cultural evolutionism.6 Nassau's writings on "fetishism" and Trilles on "totemism" nonetheless addressed important scientific concerns of their day.

Both Nassau and Trilles published the bulk of their writings during the first two decades of the twentieth century, just prior to the full-fledged invention of long-term ethnographic fieldwork as a professional rite...