American Presbyterian Missionaries, Enslavement, and Anti-Slavery in Nineteenth-Century Gabon

Social Sciences and Missions

When American Presbyterian and Congregationalist missionaries arrived in the Gabon Estuary in the 1840s, they entered a world marked by vibrant commerce; violence and inequality; widespread slavery and slave-trading; British, French, and U.S. Anti-Slavery Patrols; and incipient French colonialism. This article draws on the published accounts by two U.S. missionaries, John Leighton Wilson, who served in Gabon from 1842 to 1851, and Robert Hamill Nassau, who worked on Corisco Island, the Gabon Estuary and Ogowe River, and the southern Cameroon coast from 1861 to 1906. Together, their writings provide insights into early colonialism and especially the long decline of enslavement and slave trading. While Wilson witnessed the establishment of Libreville in the 1840s, Nassau encountered slave trading first on Corisco and later on the Ogowe during the period of French colonial exploration. Both men, shaped by their African experiences as well as their respective social locations in the United States, held strong views on African domestic slavery and the slave trade. Wilson, from the South, was an ambivalent abolitionist who railed against the Atlantic Slave trade while hesitating to denounce slavery and racial inequality in his native South Carolina. Nassau, from New Jersey and educated at conservative Princeton University, was prompted above all by the missionary impulse. He sought to convert and “uplift” formerly enslaved Africans while nevertheless underlining their “servile” characters and benefitting from their labor as docile, socially vulnerable mission workers.

  • 1)

    Walther Rodney, A history of the Upper Guinea Coast, 1545-1800 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970); How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (Baltimore, MD: Black Classic Press, 2011 [1972]).

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  • 2)

    Nicolas Metegue N’Nah, Histoire du Gabon: Des origines à l’aube du XXIe siècle (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2006), pp. 73, 81-82.

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  • 8)

    M’Bokolo, Noirs et Blancs en Afrique Equatoriale. pp. 27-28.

  • 10)

    John M. Cinnamon, “Missionary Expertise, Social Science, and the Uses of Ethnographic Knowledge in Colonial Gabon,” History in Africa 33 (2006), pp. 4 I 3-32; and “Robert Hamill Nassau: Missionary Ethnography and the Colonial Encounter in Gabon,” Le Fait Missionaire 19 (2006), pp. 37-64.

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  • 13)

    Metegue N’nah, Histoire du Gabon, p. 79.

  • 14)

    K. David Patterson, The Northern Gabon Coast to 1875 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975), p. 87.

  • 15)

    T. Edward Bowdich, Mission from Cape Coast Castle to Ashantee, with a Statistical Account of that Kingdom, and Geographical Notices of Other Parts of the Interior of Africa (London: John Murray, 1819), p. 428.

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  • 16)

    Patterson, The Northern Gabon Coast, p. 58.

  • 17)

    Patterson, The Northern Gabon Coast, p. 49.

  • 20)

    Bucher, “The Mpongwe of the Gabon Estuary,” p. 87. Bucher concludes: “The year 1840 marked the beginning of the end of the monopoly over trade of powerful clan heads (aga) and their chief traders, all of whom had labored for years to attain the slaves, canoes, and backing from the wide circle of kinship that was necessary, under customary conditions, to attain their wealth and prestige”; pp. 354-55.

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  • 21)

    Bucher, “The Mpongwe of the Gabon Estuary,” pp. 133, 135.

  • 22)

    Patterson, The Northern Gabon Coast, pp. 88, 111-12.

  • 23)

    Jeremy Rich, A Workman Is Worthy of His Meat: Food and Colonialism in the Gabon Estuary (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2007), p. 35.

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  • 24)

    Bucher, “The Mpongwe of the Gabon Estuary,” pp. 190-91.

  • 25)

    Rich, A Workman is Worthy, pp. 11, 35.

  • 26)

    Patterson, The Northern Gabon Coast, pp. 73, 76, 74, 134. See also Joseph Ambouroué-Avaro, Un peuple gabonais à l’aube de la colonisation, le Bas Ogooué au XIXesiècle (Paris: Karthala, 1981); Gray and Ngolet, “Lambarene, Okoume and Transformation,” p. 90.

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  • 27)

    Patterson, The Northern Gabon Coast, pp. 76, 131, 142-43.

  • 28)

    Gaulme, Le Gabon et son Ombre, p. 99.

  • 29)

    Rich, A Workman Is Worthy, pp. 12-13; Rich concludes, “Unfortunately the precise nature of the decline of slavery and its causes are hard to analyze given the scant documentation on this transition, especially between the late 1890s and 1918.” Leopard man murders refer to ritual killings perpetrated by individuals who wore leopard skins and sought to conceal their crimes as attacks by “real” leopards. According to Rich, these attacks were linked to power struggles between big men, slaves, and others during a period of turbulent social and economic transformation that accompanied the early colonial period; see Jeremy Rich, “‘Leopard Men,’ Slaves, and Social Conflict in Libreville (Gabon), c. 1860-1879,” International Journal of African Historical Studies 34:3, pp. 619-20. Christopher J. Gray discusses parallel “leopard man” violence in southern Gabon as a partial response to the upheavals of colonialism and the decline of men’s initiation societies during the 1910s and the 1920s; see Colonial Rule and Crisis in Equatorial Africa; Southern Gabon ca. 1850-1940 (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2002), pp. 196-203.

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  • 33)

    David Brion Davis, Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 256-57. The colonization movement, which led to the foundation of Liberia in 1822 has been controversial since its inception – among northern abolitionists, southern slave owners, and Black leaders. Some scholars have argued colonization weakened slavery while others maintain that it protected slavery by expelling free black Americans; see Eric Burin, Slavery and the Peculiar Solution: A History of the American Colonization Society (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2005).

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  • 39)

    Bucher, “John Leighton Wilson and the Mpongwe,” pp. 301-02.

  • 41)

    Dubose, Memoirs of John Leighton Wilson, p. 124; Henry H. Bucher, Jr., John Leighton Wilson and the Mpongwe: The ‘Spirit of 1776’ in Mid-Nineteenth Century Western Africa, Journal of Presbyterian History 54:3 (1976), p. 294.

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  • 42)

    Bucher, “The Mpongwe of the Gabon Estuary,” p. 244.

  • 45)

    Bucher, “John Leighton Wilson and the Mpongwe,” p. 300.

  • 47)

    Wilson, Western Africa, pp. 271-72.

  • 49)

    Bucher, “John Leighton Wilson and the Mpongwe,” p. 293.

  • 50)

    Wilson, Western Africa, pp. 155, 431, 526, 423.

  • 51)

    Bucher, “John Leighton Wilson and the Mpongwe,” p. 293. Wilson lays out his critique of Portuguese missionaries in Western Africa, pp. 43-44, 332-36, 344. In addition to the Kingdom of the Kongo and Gaboon, Wilson also describes the impact of the slave trade in a number of West and West Central African regions, including Liberia, Sierra Leone, the Gold Coast, Ashanti, and Angola. With regard to Angola, for example, he writes, “Perhaps the great bane of Angola has been her participation in the foreign slave-trade,” p. 349. John K. Thornton also notes Italian Capuchins owned of small numbers of domestic slaves and played a direct role in the enslavement and transport of “rebels and disloyal people” and “hardened ndokis” (“witches”) in early eighteenth-century Kongo. They also allowed sale of enslaved people to Dutch and English “heretics” as long as these were transported to Catholic destinations; The Kongolese Saint Anthony: Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita and the Antonian Movement, 1684-1706 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp. 66, 90, 103.

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  • 52)

    Wilson, Western Africa, pp. 155, 419.

  • 53)

    Wilson, Western Africa, pp. 430-51.

  • 54)

    Wilson, Western Africa, pp. 438, 442.

  • 55)

    Wilson, Western Africa, pp. 523-24, 526. Here Wilson prefigures Metegue N’Nah’s discussion of the cultural affliction of slavery.

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  • 57)

    Dubose, Memoirs of John Leighton Wilson, pp. 245, 247.

  • 58)

    Bucher, “John Leighton Wilson and the Mpongwe,” p. 301.

  • 60)

    Wilson, Western Africa, p. 448.

  • 61)

    Dubose, Memoirs of John Leighton Wilson, pp. 257-277.

  • 62)

    Dubose, Memoirs of John Leighton Wilson, pp. 291, 317.

  • 63)

    Dubose, Memoirs of John Leighton Wilson, pp. 297, 302.

  • 64)

    Cited in Teeuwissen, “Robert Hamill Nassau,” p. 120.

  • 65)

    Teeuwissen, “Robert Hamill Nassau,” pp. 12, 120.

  • 66)

    Robert Hamill Nassau, Corisco Days: the First Thirty Years of the West Africa Mission (Philadelphia: Allen, Lane & Scott, 1910), p. 61.

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  • 67)

    Nassau, Corisco Days, p. 126.

  • 68)

    Robert Hamill Nassau, My Ogowe: Being a Narrative of Daily Incidents During Sixteen Years in Equatorial West Africa (New York: Neale Publishing Company, 1914), p. 13.

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  • 69)

    Nassau, My Ogowe, p. 14.

  • 70)

    Nassau, My Ogowe, p. 19.

  • 71)

    Nassau, My Ogowe, p. 19.

  • 72)

    Nassau, My Ogowe, pp. 153, 126.

  • 73)

    Nassau, My Ogowe, pp. 124-25. In 1874, Ra-Noki (or Rénoqué) had accompanied the French explorers Marche and Compiègne upriver as far as Lopé, where Ra-Noki purchased slaves and ivory; see Alfred Marche, Trois voyages dans l’Afrique Occidentale: Sénégal – Gambie; Casamance – Gabon – Ogooué (Paris: Hachette, 1879).

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  • 74)

    Nassau, My Ogowe, p. 90.

  • 75)

    Nassau, My Ogowe, p. 269.

  • 76)

    Nassau, My Ogowe, p. 275.

  • 77)

    Nassau, My Ogowe, p. 384.

  • 78)

    Nassau, My Ogowe, p. 58.

  • 79)

    Nassau, My Ogowe, p. 26.

  • 80)

    Nassau, My Ogowe, p. 114.

  • 81)

    Nassau, My Ogowe, p. 416.

  • 84)

    Nassau, My Ogowe, pp. 76, 234, 371.

  • 85)

    Nassau, Mawedo, pp. 39-40.

  • 86)

    Nassau, Mawedo, pp. 90-91.

  • 88)

    Nassau, Mawedo, pp. 105-11. Nassau also based this scene on an incident that he himself had witnessed in November 1874 at Sinclair’s Hatton and Cookson trading house at Lambaréné: “Among [a group of slaves in Orungu slave canoes] was a comely looking woman, who, attracted by his kind looks, pleaded with Mr. Sinclair to buy her, and save her from a possibly cruel native master. One of Mr. Sinclair’s Nkami [Nkomi] tribe traders was standing by with his own little slave boy. The child said that, in the tribe from which he had been stolen when very young, he had left his mother, whom that woman so resembled that he believed she was his mother! (This incident I developed, in my novelette “Mawedo,” published by the American Tract Society, 1880.)”; Nassau, My Ogowe, pp. 57-58.

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  • 89)

    Nassau, Mawedo, pp. 115-17; see also My Ogowe, p. 19.

  • 90)

    Nassau, Mawedo, pp. 120-23.

  • 91)

    Nassau, Mawedo, pp. 130-137.

  • 92)

    Nassau, Mawedo, pp. 146-57.

  • 93)

    Nassau, Mawedo, pp. 170-83. Here Nassau draws on the above-mentioned execution of a woman accused of witchcraft that he had observed from afar in 1865; Nassau, Corisco Days, p. 61.

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  • 94)

    Nassau, Mawedo, pp. 186-206.

  • 95)

    Nassau, Tales Out of School, p. 10. Of course, Nassau might have noted that such accusations provided a useful pretext for enslavement and sale. See also My Ogowe, p. 19.

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  • 96)

    Nassau, Tales Out of School, pp. 10-11. Is Nassau taking an indirect and perhaps unintended stab here at the early enslaved Africans, “the very worst specimens,” who ended up in the Americas? This also suggests, of course, that the slave trade served not only as a means of obtaining trade goods, but also of exporting social problems. John Thornton makes a similar point: “Some of the exports were slaves whom local masters wished to dispose of for one reason or another and those who had been captured locally by brigands or judicially enslaved”; Africa and Africans, p. 99.

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  • 97)

    Nassau, Tales Out of School, pp. 70, 72.

  • 99)

    Nassau, Tales Out of School, pp. 71-72.

  • 100)

    Rich, A Workman Is Worthy of His Meat, p. 7.

  • 101)

    Nassau, Tales Out of School, pp. 74-76.

  • 102)

    Nassau, Tales Out of School, pp. 76-77.

  • 103)

    Nassau, Tales Out of School, pp. 77-78.

  • 104)

    Rich, A Workman Is Worthy of His Meat, p. 36.

  • 105)

    Nassau, Tales Out of School, pp. 73-4.

  • 106)

     See Manisha Sinha, The Counterrevolution of Slavery: Politics and Ideology in Antebellum South Carolina (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000).

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  • 108)

    Rich, A Workman is Worthy, p. 8, 12; Rich, “King or Knave? Felix Adende Rapontchombo and Political Survival in the Gabon Estuary,” African Studies Quarterly 6:3 (2002), URL:

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  • 110)

    Berlin, “Coming to Terms with Slavery,” p. 8.


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