Colonial Transactions

Imaginaries, Bodies, and Histories in Gabon

Book Pages: 344 Illustrations: 35 half-toness, 4 maps Published: July 2019

African Studies, History > World History, Postcolonial and Colonial Studies

In Colonial Transactions Florence Bernault moves beyond the racial divide that dominates colonial studies of Africa. Instead, she illuminates the strange and frightening imaginaries that colonizers and colonized shared on the ground. Bernault looks at Gabon from the late nineteenth century to the present, historicizing the most vivid imaginations and modes of power in Africa today: French obsessions with cannibals, the emergence of vampires and witches in the Gabonese imaginary, and the use of human organs for fetishes. Struggling over objects, bodies, agency, and values, colonizers and colonized entered relations that are better conceptualized as "transactions." Together they also shared an awareness of how the colonial situation broke down moral orders and forced people to use the evil side of power. This foreshadowed the ways in which people exercise agency in contemporary Africa, as well as the proliferation of magical fears and witchcraft anxieties in present-day Gabon. Overturning theories of colonial and postcolonial nativism, this book is essential reading for historians and anthropologists of witchcraft, power, value, and the body.


". . .This should be a key text for African studies and certainly for any collection centered on West and Central Africa." — J. R. Kenyon, Choice

"Bernault's ability to trace . . . imaginaries throughout centuries of thought and praxis in both France and Gabon make this book a valuable addition to the historiography of west Africa." — Amanda Ford, International Social Science Review

"Bernault’s book fills a void in many ways, providing an English-speaking audience with one among the very few in-depth studies out there on a nation and its people that certainly merit more attention." — Cheryl Toman, Postcolonial Text

“A well-documented scholarly work enriched with an elegant style…. With this new book, Florence Bernault makes an invaluable contribution to African cultural anthropology by proposing an innovative approach to witchcraft that transcends the nativist paradigm and explores the intersecting third space of mutual influences (colonized/colonizers) from which arose the creolized spiritual landscape of postcolonial Gabon.” — Marc Mvé Bekale, African Studies Review

“Outlining African and European cosmological frameworks in the years preceding and following colonization, Florence Bernault does not see a rationalist Europe encountering an Africa steeped in the occult. Rather, she finds a colonial encounter in which each side mixed notions of human and superhuman power. Colonial Transactions is both an informative history of a region of Africa and a valuable reflection on widely held colonial beliefs about the peculiarity of Africans.” — Frederick Cooper, author of Citizenship, Inequality, and Difference: Historical Perspectives

“Florence Bernault develops a revolutionary view of colonial history that overhauls basic frameworks and pervasive dichotomies, showing how Gabonese and French colonizers’ imaginaries were convergent rather than oppositional, as is generally assumed. Colonial Transactions' audacious theoretical sophistication, vivid examples, and innovative analysis give it an urgency and broad relevance that will have an impact that exceeds far beyond its Gabonese focus.” — Peter Geschiere, author of Witchcraft, Intimacy, and Trust: Africa in Comparison


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Florence Bernault is Professor of African History at Sciences Po (Paris); Emerita Professor of African History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; author of Démocraties ambigües en Afrique centrale: Gabon, Congo-Brazzaville, 1940–1965; and editor of A History of Prison and Confinement in Africa.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Preface  ix
Introduction  1
1. A Siren, an Empty Shrine, and a Photograph  27
2. The Double Life of Charms  69
3. Carnal Fetishism  96
4. The Value of People  118
5. Cannibal Mirrors  138
6. Eating  168
Conclusion  194
Notes  205
Bibliography  293
Index  321
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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-1-4780-0158-4 / Cloth ISBN: 978-1-4780-0123-2
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