- “’Tata otangani, oga njali, mbiambiè!’: Hunting and Colonialism in Southern Gabon, ca. 1890–1940”
In 1907, the American adventurer Richard Lynch Garner published an article about his hunting triumphs near the southern Gabonese coastal lagoon of Fernan Vaz. This region, occupied by Omyènè-speaking Nkomi and Gisir-speaking clans, gradually fell under French control over the course of the 1890s.1 Garner’s essay described how some Gabonese women had begged Garner to kill a buffalo that had attacked some people in their village of Mbega. This settlement was located near the modern site of the coastal Gabonese city of Port-Gentil. The American hunter killed the buffalo with his repeating rifle. Garner asserted how his courage in the face of danger made him different from Africans: “It was all over before the natives had reached the cover of the bush, and when one takes into account how fast a scared and naked negro can run, it is easy to compute the duration of the combat.”2 On his return to Mbega, villagers praised him in Omyènè, the lingua franca of early twentieth century coastal Gabon, by singing, “Tata otangani, oga njali, mbiambiè!” (“White father, king of the gun, well done”).3 Garner neglected to mention in the article an advantage he had over Gabonese people. He had a government permit for his modern rifle, which practically no Africans could hope to receive from the colonial administration. State policies thus benefited the American resident of Gabon while simultaneously restricting the hunting effectiveness of Gabonese people.
French professional hunter Georges Trial moved to the Fernan Vaz lagoon in 1928, ten years after Garner left Gabon for the last time. Trial resided in Fernan Vaz until 1936. Although Garner and Trial lived and worked with the same Nkomi and Gisir-speaking clans that occupied the Fernan Vaz region, the differences in their narratives expose how state regulations influenced Gabonese hunting practices. Like many Western scientific travelers, Garner considered himself to be an emissary of a superior culture.4 On the other hand, Trial disdained the encroachments of Western modernity, in similar fashion to the doubtful and anxious position of other European travel writers between the world wars. Despite Garner and Trial’s divergent perspectives, their accounts demonstrate how French colonial policies altered the ability of rural Gabonese to kill animals and obtain firearms between the 1890s and the 1930s.
The case of southern Gabon provides new insights on the regulation of firearms and hunting in colonial Africa, even as it confirms many of the observations made in the growing literature on these subjects. Historical studies of hunting in colonial Africa have overwhelmingly focused on British and German colonies. European hunting practices in British and German territories valorized the command of white men over African labor and landscapes.5 Gun laws and hunting regulation in French and Portuguese colonies, by contrast, have hardly been examined.6 Even in the literature on French conservation policy in Africa, Gabon appears strikingly different than French colonies elsewhere in Africa. French authorities used conservation as a rationale to restrict land use and control the labor of colonial subjects in Algeria, Guinea, and Madagascar.7 In contrast, administrators in Gabon rarely expressed concern for animals or the environment before the 1950s: ensuring that timber companies paid fees and only cut trees within their concessions was the main task.8 Low-ranking officials even ignored the very laws designed to protect animals they supposedly were charged to enforce. Instead, gun laws and economic developments permitted Europeans to hunt much more effectively than Gabonese people.
An investigation of Garner’s and Trial’s accounts offers new perspectives on Gabonese history as well. Despite the media attention Gabon has received for its environmental policies, most notably the formation of national parks in 2002 that now occupy over 10 percent of the country, the history of hunting and the environment of colonial Gabon has yet to be written. Hunting practices in post-colonial Gabon have received some scholarly attention, but focuses on contemporary problems, particularly the bush meat trade.9 Garner and Trial’s accounts furnish the most detailed sources on hunting in the colonial period, even though...