Colonial Transactions: Imaginaries, Bodies, and Histories in Gabon.

Author:Ford, Amanda

Bernault, Florence. Colonial Transactions: Imaginaries, Bodies, and Histories in Gabon. Durham: Duke University Press, 2019. ix+332. Softcover, $27.95.

Colonial African history is inextricably intertwined with power--who has it, who loses it, and how it is wielded. Equally important is the study of change over time. Historians have spent decades analyzing the ways in which both metropole and colony were shaped by their imperial experiences. The simplified version of this story tends to focus on the introduction of "modern" ideas by Europeans, which were then adopted and adapted by Africans for their own purposes. Florence Bernault's Colonial Transactions: Imaginaries, Bodies, and Histories in Gabon seeks to expand our understanding of both power and change by using unusual subjects to broaden the definition of control. She examines what she terms conversant and congruent imaginaries to explore witchcraft, currency, and cannibalism in order to "retrieve" African history. Rather than place ideas such as fetishistic healing as solely under the purview of Africans, or the introduction of currency as a French invention, she argues that each of these topics have a pre-existing history, i.e. they were imagined, in both France and Africa before, during, and after the colonial experience. The transmission and alteration of these imaginaries constitute what Bernault terms colonial transactions, which affected power and spirituality in both Gabon and France.

Bernault examines four imaginaries--spirits, carnal fetishism, cannibalism, and fantasies of kinship in order to understand how they influenced Gabonese understandings of puissance (power). Each of these ideas worked in multiple directions throughout the period--they were used by the French to assure themselves that their civilizing mission was worthwhile, and by the Gabonese to create agency and gain puissance. The book is divided thematically, and each section focuses on the conversant and congruent imaginaries found within each topic. Bernault is especially interested the body, in part because it provides a particularly striking example of how these imaginaries worked on the ground. Pre-colonial Gabon believed in the power of the body. Frequently corpses were used to create relics and charms as the temporal body retained power even after death, particularly for those who claimed kinship ties. When the French conquered Gabon they had centuries of mythic tales of African cannibalism already...

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