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  • "Every European Becomes a Chief":Travel Guides to Colonial Equatorial Africa, 1900-1958
  • Libbie Freed

Introduction: colonial-era guidebooks

Travel narratives written by European explorers in the late nineteenth century provided some of the earliest information about equatorial Africa to other Europeans. Paul du Chaillu, Savorgnan de Brazza, Henry Morton Stanley, and Mary Kingsley, among the most well known of these explorers, published accounts of their voyages in Equatorial Africa from the 1870s. 2 In these accounts, they described their adventures in exotic hinterlands away from civilization: equatorial Africa, at the time, constituted one of the last remaining blank spaces on European maps.

By the turn of the twentieth century, a new genre of published book began to appear: travel guidebooks to equatorial Africa written explicitly for (European) residents and visitors. This new genre did not displace travel narratives, which continued throughout the colonial period, and indeed continue to appear in various forms even today. But in content, style, audience, and tone, these new guidebooks differed significantly from the earlier travel narratives. Most noticeably, the autobiographical tone of travel narratives was replaced in travel guidebooks by tips and suggestions addressed directly to the reader, who was presumed to be planning a trip to the region. 3 The audience of the guidebooks, unlike the wider public audience of travel narratives, was a narrower twofold one, encompassing colonial officials or private businessmen and leisure travelers (tourists). Moreover, unlike the portrayal of lone explorers into the unknown (or at least remote) common to travel narratives, the guidebooks were explicitly colonial and practical, designed to make the region more accessible to European travelers.

Mass tourism did not exist in equatorial Africa during the first half of the twentieth century as it did in European nations such as England, Italy, Germany, and France, or even as it did in some colonial regions. 4 Most of sub-Saharan Africa remained far away, difficult, expensive, and until the advent of air travel, relatively time-consuming to reach for large numbers of European tourists. 5 Equatorial Africa in particular offered numerous challenges, significant dangers, and few familiar amenities to would-be European travelers. Although European powers laid claim to large tracts of equatorial Africa by the 1890s, colonial rule in the Congo Free State (Belgian Congo after 1908) and French Equatorial Africa was not stabilized in some areas until the 1930s. 6 Whereas Thomas Cook had inaugurated tours within Europe by the 1840s, most of equatorial Africa remained unexplored by Europeans until the late nineteenth century. 7

The French, for example, progressively explored and conquered what are now the nations of Republic of Congo, Gabon, Central African Republic, and Chad over the last few decades of the nineteenth century, consolidating them as French Equatorial Africa in 1910. They took part of neighboring Cameroon from the Germans during World War I and held it as a mandate territory, first through the League of Nations and then under the United Nations. Although Belgium as a nation had not joined in the late nineteenth-century European scramble for African colonies, its king at the time, Leopold II, had strong colonial ambitions and managed to acquire a vast territory in equatorial Africa, which he proceeded to rule personally. Through skillful public relations and by tightly controlling the flow of people and information out of his Congo Free State, Leopold managed for a time to convince the western world that he had purely humanitarian intentions towards his African subjects. In fact, however, he was directing his colonial agents to compel local populations to extract first ivory and then rubber through forced labor and brutal repression. By 1904, news of the true nature of his regime surfaced. Although forced labor and sometimes brutal repression were a commonplace in France's equatorial colonies as well, growing international scandal over atrocities in Leopold's Congo Free State, and the contrast between rhetoric and reality, led Leopold to bow out and Belgium to take over the renamed Belgian Congo in 1908. All the colonies discussed here—French Equatorial Africa, French Cameroon, and Belgian Congo—gained their independence in 1960.

By their locations, tropical climates, and colonial histories, French Equatorial Africa, French Cameroon, and Belgian Congo were far...

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