REVIEW OF “COLONIAL ANTHROPOLOGIES AND PRIMORDIAL IMAGINATION IN EQUATORIAL AFRICA”

Cinnamon, John M. (2007). “Colonial anthropologies and the primordial imagination in equatorial Africa.” In Helen Tilley and Robert J. Gordon (Eds.), Ordering Africa: Anthropology, European Imperialism, and the Politics of Knowledge (pp. 225 – 251). New York, New York: Manchester University Press.

In his chapter Colonial anthropologies and the primordial imagination in equatorial Africa, John Cinnamon, anthropologist and scholar of religion, politics, ethnicity and nationalism in Africa,  discusses the “Fang exceptionalism” with which the Fang people were characterized by European enthnographers. They were seen as a strong, healthy, militarily powerful,  technologically advanced, monotheistic and thereby somewhat civilized people in many European texts the Fang are studied in. Cinnamon’s objectives in this chapters are revealed when he says: “The goal is to illustrate how, in specific ways, colonial anthropology has both inherited and constructed its object over time” (226).

First, he points first to the existence of a “tribal paradigm” created by 19th and 20th century explorers, missionaries, and anthropologists. This paradigm was initially born of a “civilizing” colonial project which saw the colonial powers raising the “Dark Continent” into the light via religion, science and rationalism. However, as we will see many of these tribal paradigms were then reworked by Africans themselves.

Second, the interest of said explorers, missionaries, and anthropologists in the origins, history and migration of specific tribes “preoccupied both academic historians and anthropologists, and Africans themselves” (228). To this end, he follows the ethnographic work of four authors who wrote extensively about the peoples of equatorial Africa: Paul Belloni Du Chaillu, Henri Trilles, Georges Balandier, and James Fernandez

Paul Belloni Du Chaillu

Du Chaillu was a French-American zoologist and anthropologist who first arrived in Africa in 1855 and traveled extensively in the northern and southern Gabonese interior.

His Explorations and Adventures in Equatorial Africa published at first in 1861 set the tone for future ethnographic accounts of the region and his accounts of Fang cannibalism made his work both popular and controversial.

Du Chaillu’s Fang were “profoundly other” and sat firmly in the tribal paradigm which saw them as being in need of Christian civilizing so that they may become contented farmers complicit in the colonial project.

Henri Trilles

Trilles was  a French Spiritan missionary who continued Du Chaillu’s work in the late 18oos, making 3 prolonged visits to Gabon between 1893 and 1907.

Although Trilles had a reputation for plagiarism and embellishment and was an unpopular figure amongst many of his peers, his writing on Fang origins, migration patterns and exceptionalism proved to be the aspects of his work which endured most forcefully, as these narratives seemed to have had traction with the Fang themselves, who re-appropriated and transformed them as they saw fit.

The passage on 233-234 outlining what Trilles saw as “predatory expansion via ingestion” is interesting both in that it is a example of Trilles’ Fang exceptionalism and for the parallels which can be made with colonialism in general, expanding and consolidating power by consuming bodies.

Georges Balandier and James Fernandez

It was two anthropologists, Georges Balandier who came to Gabon in 1949 and James Fernandez  who arrived in 1958 right before Gabonese independence who tried to make sense of Du Challiau and Trilles’ work. The anthropology being practiced in the mid twentieth century was decidedly different from that practiced by Trilles and Du Chaillu which made things challenging, but as pointed to on page 236  by the 1950’s, the enthnographies of Trille and Du Chaillu had been steeped Fang identity for the better part of a century and many of the ideas put forth by these two had become internalized to certain degrees by the Fang themselves.

Balandier’s research was focused on history, power relations, and conflict but still required a place to start from. Disentangling the history of Fang identity proved a challenge and as such Balandier was forced to use the idea of a “previous social cohesion” as a jump off point.

Fernandez, taking his cues more from symbolic anthropology, was more concerned with Gabonese religious movements but still perpetuated the concept of Fang exceptionalism by referring to them as “the terror of the autochthnous peoples” (241).

It is also worth noting that Balandier and Fernandez both attempted to be cautious in employing the aforementioned tribal paradigm but at the same time had no choice but to draw from sources which were very much influenced by it.

Mvet Epic

Lastly, Cinnamon points to the Mvet epic as an example of the ethnographic narratives of anthropologists being used to create auto-ethnographies which spoke against the horrors of colonialism and for the independence from said colonialism. The Mvet itself is written of as being somewhat complicated and open to different readings and thus competing narratives. However, Fang exceptionalism and the concept of Egyptian origin espoused by Trilles were were appealing to Fang and Beti wishing to construct post colonial identities, particularly during the “clan reunification” movement of the 1940s and 1950s. So it was that exceptionalism and origin narratives were further solidified by many of these auto-ethnographies, many of which were also deeply entangled with biblical narratives.

Concluding Thoughts

To conclude, Cinnamon argues that the trajectory of Fang studies was largely defined by the works of characters like Trilles and Du Challiu who were operating in Africa a good century before the discipline was formalized. Moreover, some of the ideas put forth by Du Challiu and Trilles resonated with the people themselves and thus were used for decidedly different ends than originally intended, helping Fang and Beti intellectuals to “create their own expressions of Fang exceptionalism” (245).

However, one of the arguments which underpins this chapter is that the content or veracity of these accounts of exceptionalism is not relevant, only how they constitute “exceptionalism [as] an ‘empirical phenomenon’, observable when it motivates public opinion, policy, behavior, or in this case, ethnographic representations” (226).  This might strike one as being a somewhat reductive approach to exceptionalism which, real or imagined, still has roots in material inequality and in the case of a comparison between the Fang and the “costal tribes”, varying degrees of “contact” with colonial powers. Even more curious is that such a position can be read as an attempt to sidestep some of the very content of the chapter such as Balandier’s approach to colonialism as a “total social phenomenon” in constant flux through “ongoing dynamic[s] of conflict, adaptation and crisis” (237). In such an analysis couched in examinations of power relations and subject positions it would seem that the content and veracity of exceptionalism ought to be taking center stage.

Nevertheless, the chapter is certainly valuable in the sense that it serves as an interesting example of how cultural identities can be constructed over time and that this dynamic and ongoing process often flows from frictions with actors external to the society in question. Moreover, this chapter raises some important questions. At what point was it that the narrative of Fangness reopened to the interpretation of Fang orators and intellectuals? Perhaps more importantly, how open is it?

In so far as these questions are raised, the article would have done well to have provided more tangible and concrete examples of what exact forms these reworkings and reinterpretations took.

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