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

In: 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 RodneyA history of the Upper Guinea Coast 1545-1800 (Oxford: Clarendon Press1970); How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (Baltimore MD: Black Classic Press 2011 [1972]).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 2)

    Nicolas Metegue N’NahHistoire du Gabon: Des origines à l’aube du XXIe siècle (Paris: L’Harmattan2006) pp. 73 81-82.

  • 8)

    M’BokoloNoirs 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.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 13)

    Metegue N’nahHistoire du Gabon p. 79.

  • 14)

    K. David PattersonThe Northern Gabon Coast to 1875 (New York: Oxford University Press1975) p. 87.

  • 15)

    T. Edward BowdichMission 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 Murray1819) p. 428.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 16)

    PattersonThe Northern Gabon Coast p. 58.

  • 17)

    PattersonThe 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.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 21)

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

  • 22)

    PattersonThe Northern Gabon Coast pp. 88 111-12.

  • 23)

    Jeremy RichA Workman Is Worthy of His Meat: Food and Colonialism in the Gabon Estuary (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press2007) p. 35.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 24)

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

  • 25)

    RichA Workman is Worthy pp. 11 35.

  • 26)

    PattersonThe 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.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 27)

    PattersonThe Northern Gabon Coast pp. 76 131 142-43.

  • 28)

    GaulmeLe Gabon et son Ombre p. 99.

  • 29)

    RichA 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.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 33)

    David Brion DavisInhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World (Oxford: Oxford University Press2006) 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).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 39)

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

  • 41)

    DuboseMemoirs 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.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 42)

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

  • 45)

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

  • 47)

    WilsonWestern Africa pp. 271-72.

  • 49)

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

  • 50)

    WilsonWestern 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.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 52)

    WilsonWestern Africa pp. 155 419.

  • 53)

    WilsonWestern Africa pp. 430-51.

  • 54)

    WilsonWestern Africa pp. 438 442.

  • 55)

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

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 57)

    DuboseMemoirs of John Leighton Wilson pp. 245 247.

  • 58)

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

  • 60)

    Wilson Western Africa p. 448.

  • 61)

    DuboseMemoirs of John Leighton Wilson pp. 257-277.

  • 62)

    DuboseMemoirs of John Leighton Wilson pp. 291 317.

  • 63)

    DuboseMemoirs 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 NassauCorisco Days: the First Thirty Years of the West Africa Mission (Philadelphia: Allen, Lane & Scott1910) p. 61.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 67)

    NassauCorisco Days p. 126.

  • 68)

    Robert Hamill NassauMy Ogowe: Being a Narrative of Daily Incidents During Sixteen Years in Equatorial West Africa (New York: Neale Publishing Company1914) p. 13.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 69)

    NassauMy Ogowe p. 14.

  • 70)

    NassauMy Ogowe p. 19.

  • 71)

    NassauMy Ogowe p. 19.

  • 72)

    NassauMy Ogowe pp. 153 126.

  • 73)

    NassauMy 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).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 74)

    NassauMy Ogowe p. 90.

  • 75)

    NassauMy Ogowe p. 269.

  • 76)

    NassauMy Ogowe p. 275.

  • 77)

    NassauMy Ogowe p. 384.

  • 78)

    NassauMy Ogowe p. 58.

  • 79)

    NassauMy Ogowe p. 26.

  • 80)

    NassauMy Ogowe p. 114.

  • 81)

    NassauMy Ogowe p. 416.

  • 84)

    NassauMy Ogowe pp. 76 234 371.

  • 85)

    NassauMawedo pp. 39-40.

  • 86)

    NassauMawedo pp. 90-91.

  • 88)

    NassauMawedo 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.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 89)

    NassauMawedo pp. 115-17; see also My Ogowe p. 19.

  • 90)

    NassauMawedo pp. 120-23.

  • 91)

    NassauMawedo pp. 130-137.

  • 92)

    NassauMawedo pp. 146-57.

  • 93)

    NassauMawedo 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.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 94)

    NassauMawedo pp. 186-206.

  • 95)

    NassauTales 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.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 96)

    NassauTales 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.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 97)

    NassauTales Out of School pp. 70 72.

  • 99)

    NassauTales Out of School pp. 71-72.

  • 100)

    RichA Workman Is Worthy of His Meat p. 7.

  • 101)

    NassauTales Out of School pp. 74-76.

  • 102)

    NassauTales Out of School pp. 76-77.

  • 103)

    NassauTales Out of School pp. 77-78.

  • 104)

    RichA Workman Is Worthy of His Meat p. 36.

  • 105)

    NassauTales Out of School pp. 73-4.

  • 106)

     See Manisha SinhaThe Counterrevolution of Slavery: Politics and Ideology in Antebellum South Carolina (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press2000).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 108)

    RichA 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: http://www.africa.ufl.edu/asg/v6/v6i3al.htm.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 110)

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

Content Metrics

All Time Past Year Past 30 Days
Abstract Views 84 75 3
Full Text Views 66 64 1
PDF Downloads 3 3 0