King or Knave? Felix Adende Rapontchombo and Political Survival in the Gabon Estuary

by Jeremy Rich


In the late nineteenth century, the town of Libreville on the Gabon Estuary went through numerous changes as it moved from a marginal French naval base to become the capital of the rapidly expanding colony of French Congo.  European officials, through a combination of force and gifts, had managed to obtain control over the Gabon Estuary from Mpongwe clan chiefs in the 1840s. [2]  The French administration did relatively little to assert their authority before 1875. However, those clan chiefs who had enriched themselves as middlemen between African interior trade networks and Europeans purchasing slaves and ivory, lost both their monopoly over trade and control over their dependents.  As increasing numbers of Africans from other regions including migrating Fang clans from Northern Gabon settled in the area, the small collection of Mpongwe clans found themselves at odds with new rivals and an increasingly forceful colonial regime by the 1870s.

Flix Adende Rapontchombo (1844-1911), the leading clan chief of the coastal Mpongwe people, left a lasting impression on American and French visitors during this period, as the greatest advocate of Mpongwe urban interests.  Adende descended from the Asiga clan leader Rapontchombo, who had become a major figure through careful negotiations with French naval officers and European slave traders in the early nineteenth century.  But Adende struggled to retain a place in formal politics during and after the dramatic growth of French power in Gabon in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.  Adende faced a dilemma that many African political leaders confronted in this period. How to maintain their autonomy amidst the imposition of an enlarged colonial bureaucracy, one that slowly superceded older ad hoc arrangements between indigenous polities and foreign authorities.  Emmanuel Akyeampong’s assessment of the last independent Asante ruler Agyeman Prempeh applies equally to Adende:  “For Prempeh the challenge was to situate himself in the discourse of modernity and appropriate the empowering aspects of modernity while appearing demure and non-threatening.” [3]   Adende drew from multiple, often conflicting ideas of “civilization” drawn from Catholic priests, American missionaries, and French republican ideology to justify his continued importance while defending his own interests.

Adende’s story is part of a much larger series of developments that posed challenges for African political leaders and urban communities in West and Central Africa.  Early efforts to classify African political leaders in terms of either collaboration or resistance during the initial moments of European occupation have now given way to less simplistic approaches.  Scholars have repeatedly criticized the paradigm of resistance/ collaboration favored by nationalist and Marxist scholars of the 1960s and 1970s. This model paid scant attention to the lived worlds, multiple identities, and internal conflicts in colonized communities. [4]  In the last decade, African historians have reconsidered relationships between urban coastal leaders who acquiesced to European occupation and the multi-faceted apparatus of foreign authorities.  For example, wealthy and mission educated notables in colonial Lagos claimed a role for themselves as cultural brokers, turning to diverse local and European intellectual traditions to demand a role in shaping colonial policies. [5]  Mtis and Muslim families in the French enclave of coastal Senegal employed divisions in republican ideology as well as a shifting set of identities that confounded colonial social boundaries to spread their cultural and economic influence. [6]  Older legal and political institutions in Accra continued to survive with limited interference decades after the formal occupation of the city by British forces in the 1870s. [7]  Adende, though less successful than some of his West African counterparts, also manipulated colonial hierarchies and reshaped older notions of political authority.

One of Adende’s most remarkable achievements was his recognition of multiple sites of power and disparate attitudes on educated Africans among European figures in Gabon.  His long campaign to prove his worth to the French colonial administration reveals a complex series of debates among Europeans over the role of educated urban Africans were to have colonial rule.  Like many of his fellow Mpongwe, Adende’s ability to maneuver between local, missionary, and secular idioms of power unnerved officials trying to keep a sharp distinction between European and African cultures. [8]  His experiences underline those recent studies which question generalizations regarding French colonial policy of “assimilating” Africans through European education. [9]  Adende’s case, while underlining these differences, also exposes the importance of individual French officials in determining the limits of African political authority.  Fluctuations in his position often resulted more from the arrival and departure of commandants rather than from shifting intellectual currents in high colonial circles.

Adende’s struggles also demonstrate how Western-educated Africans detected the contradictions of colonial law as early as the late nineteenth century.  Mahmood Mamdani has argued that the colonial state was a Janus-faced entity that treated colonized Africans as a racially defined citizenry bound by law and as subjects governed by a regime of administratively driven justice. [10]   Republican values and arbitrary forms of coercion/control coexisted in French colonial regimes in Africa.  Adende, recognizing the divergence between the rhetoric of assimilation and the authoritarian nature of French administration in Gabon, pitted the notion of citizenship against the oppressive, ill-defined power practiced by colonial administrators.  While efforts such as Adende’s became commonplace in French colonies by the 1920s, his activities predate those of other West African political pioneers (such as Blaise Daigne in Senegal) by over thirty years.

Despite his importance to this period, Adende’s career has received little attention from scholars.  Gabonese historian Anges Franois Ratanga-Atoz, author of the most comprehensive description of the chief’s career, has presented him as an articulate victim of French colonial officials. [11]   Ratanga-Atoz builds his review of the Asiga leader’s life as an example of resistance to colonial authority.  While Ratanga-Atoz accurately depicts Adende’s battle with the French colonial administration between 1876 and 1900, he tends to downplay the Mpongwe clan chief’s determination to preserve control over domestic slaves and his own autonomy.  Events after 1900 (left out of Ratanga-Atoz’s account) highlight the incoherency of policies undertaken by individual local administrators.  American Protestant and French Catholic missionary material unavailable to Ratanga-Atoz also sheds further light on Adende’s negotiations with colonial authority.

This essay explores Adande’s attempts to place himself within the French colonial order from his ascension to power in 1876 until his death.  Rather than simply dissenting against French authority, Adende presented himself as a loyal partner to missionaries and government interests without denying his African cultural background.  He carefully crafted identities from a patriotic Catholic king to the Asiga clan leader, to bargain with rival missions and government administrators in Libreville.  The clan leader’s strategies reveal a diverse and complex intellectual background that transcended colonial categories of difference. Nevertheless, the chief’s versatility posed a threat to officials determined to place African chiefs in a fixed hierarchical system.  Adende’s attempts to use republican arguments proved less valuable than his personal relationships with local administrators. Instead of heeding the chief’s desires for opening alternative notions of modernity that allowed for African influences, authoritarian French policymakers in Gabon allowed no place for autonomous African participants in the colonial state.

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Jeremy Rich is a Visiting Instructor at the Department of History at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. He is presently finishing his dissertation, “Eating Disorders: A Social History of Food Supply and Food Consumption of Libreville and the Gabon Estuary 1842-1960.”