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Reviewed by:
  • Colonial Rule and Crisis in Equatorial Africa: Southern Gabon, ca. 1850–1940
  • Derek R. Peterson
Colonial Rule and Crisis in Equatorial Africa: Southern Gabon, ca. 1850–1940. By Christopher Gray. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2002.

The cultural and political history of late nineteenth and early twentieth century Africa is being composed as a history of colonial encounters. Sandra Greene’s recently published Sacred Sites and the Colonial Encounter: A History of Meaning and Memory in Ghana (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002) explores how the landscaping of colonialism reworked Anlo people’s conceptions of sacred space. Sean Hawkins’ Writing and Colonialism in Northern Ghana: The Encounter between the LoDagaa and “the World on Paper” (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002) illuminates how colonial courts and British anthropology reduced the negotiable LoDagaa “world of experience” to a set of rules on paper. Christopher Gray’s study partakes of this academic discourse on the colonial encounter. In the second half of the nineteenth century, says Gray, “two very different cognitive maps confronted each other in Southern Gabon” (2). The diverse people who lived south of the Ogooué river practiced a social definition of territory: their political order rested on the control over people, not on the control over geographic space. French colonialism sought to anchor people, as members of ethnic groups, to specific tracts of land, the better to govern them. In the early twentieth century, the precolonial order was destroyed, as French colonists used censuses, maps, labor camps, and roads to rearrange people according to an administrative logic. But elements of the precolonial cognitive system survived, says Gray, making the legacies of colonial territoriality decidedly ambiguous.

The strength of Gray’s book is his sensitive analysis of precolonial social order. The standard approach is to treat pre-colonial history schematically, as a static backdrop against which the effects of colonialism can be studied. Gray, in contrast, illuminates the flexible, dynamic nature of precolonial territoriality. While patrilocal villages were the basic unit of residence, matrilineal clans drew people from disparate regions together as descendants of a common female ancestor. Political communities, therefore, were socially defined: they revolved around kinship rather than residence. Districts were the largest political units that people recognized. Organized around trading routes, rivers, or ecological zones, districts were flexible alliances of villages and clans, brought together by intermarriage and sharing a commitment to self-defense. Gray is emphatic that nothing about this precolonial social order revolved around ethnicity. Speakers of different languages lived alongside one another, intermarried, and formed kinship alliances.

In the latter half of the book, Gray documents how this social definition of territory was replaced by a territorial definition of society. Paul Du Chaillu, Savorgnan de Brazza, and other European explorers crisscrossed the region in the late nineteenth century, mapping rivers, streams, and mountains. Smallpox followed in their wake, killing tens of thousands of people. But more than demographic disaster, European exploration brought modern conceptions of territory to bear on the people of this region. Gray follows Mary Louise Pratt in noting how explorers appropriated space through their maps, emptying territory of its prior, unwritten significance. The Ogooué River, for example, was not known as a geographic feature before Europeans mapped it. Local people named rapids and pools, or categorized portions of the river as “upstream” or “downstream.” European observers, in contrast, applied concrete names to geographic features that their maps revealed. Colonial censuses similarly appropriated and transformed space. When French officials began counting people in the early twentieth century, they categorized them as members of ethnic groups, as “Eshira,” “Mitsogo,” or “Bapunu.” These ethnic categories were fabrications, products of the French imagination. But they took on real life, as administrators used invented categories to organize and govern people.

Road building played a particularly important role in the colonial reorganization of social order. When the state first began to build roads in the 1910s, work gangs were organized on an ethnic basis, giving social form to fictional identities on paper. By the 1920s and 30s, the colonial army was routing people out of their rural homes to live in artificial villages beside new roads. Bound to the land, people could be taxed, policed...

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