Peter Geschiere, in his groundbreaking ethnography of witchcraft and politics in southern Cameroon, brings up issues that directly pertain to poison in colonial Libreville. "[Witchcraft beliefs] are representations that heavily emphasize human action but that, at the same time, hide the actors and their acts from view," he noted; much, as in his work, poison in colonial Libreville served to explain a variety of seemingly "natural" events. Geschiere also asserts that witchcraft plays on a shifting balance between secrecy and public performance: its power derives from the mysteries surrounding its workings and public knowledge regarding their results. The same can be said for poison especially since Africans did not readily separate sorcery from poison, in Libreville.
This essay will examine the fluid and multifaceted nature of poison in late nineteenth-century colonial Libreville. First, the technical use of poison and its fears will be placed in the social context of the cosmopolitan colonial port. Social mobility, a diverse African community and European dependence on local people for food preparation all played an important role in poison rumors. Secondly, the essay will illustrate how European authorities could not distinguish poison from disease, just as Africans did not separate poison from sorcery. Finally, this study will explore how and why different Africans used poison concerns to their own advantage against other Africans and Europeans.
|Uneasy Stomachs: Poison accusations within African communities in colonial Libreville 1860-1920|
From the establishment of the French naval post on the Gabon Estuary in 1843, European visitors made many references to poison and witchcraft beliefs among the small Mpongwe community who inhabited the region. A year after the arrival of American missionaries in 1842, Protestant Pastor Benjamin Griswold made a comment that would be echoed repeatedly. "One article in their philosophy or religion is that who ever dies is poisoned that no man would die if left to himself and God. A man is ill for a long time some one has bewitched him or poisoned him,"[sic] he wrote. Thirty years later, the Catholic Bishop of Libreville made the same observation. He added, "Poisonings are almost always attributed to slaves, the reason being the desire of vengeance that one naturally would suppose."
The institution of domestic slavery was a fixture of Mpongwe society until c. 1900. Male Mpongwe clan heads and traders, acting as middlemen between European ships and interior trading networks, purchased large numbers of slaves for their own use on fields and for export. With the establishment of the French navy and European trading posts in Libreville in the 1840s, Mpongwe traders lost access to the Atlantic slave trade. However Father Lejeune, a French missionary, wrote in 1890:
Charged with feeding their masters, free Mpongwe believed slaves' close proximity to harm others by poison or sorcery.
In Mpongwe communities, free men and women often denounced slaves for killing their masters in this manner. Catholic missionaries lamented how commonly slaves faced punishment for supposedly poisoning masters. "Poisonings are almost always attributed to slaves," Bishop of Libreville Pierre-Marie Le Berre wrote in 1873, "for reason of the desire of vengeance that one naturally would suppose." Nearly all slaves came from Central or Southern Gabon and thus were considered to be foreigners by their masters. Dependent on their servants for slaves, free Mpongwe felt vulnerable as a result.
Slaves, according to Mpongwe informants, had powerful fetish and poisons at their disposal that could be discovered through magical means. To combat this threat, clan leaders turned to diviners for aid in detecting and punishing slaves. Poison accusations usually were the domain of the oganga wi pòga (Omyènè, diviner). They administered a drink with powdered bark from the sacred akyaza tree to those accused of poison. Generally, clan leaders would preside over the trials. Those who vomited or urinated were considered innocent. If no culpable person could be found, members of the female Njembe power association were often asked to find the guilty party. This group, associated with the families of clan leaders, would conduct secret rituals to find guilty parties.
Since death had to be attributed to someone, these investigations culminated invariably with the executions of slaves. Before 1875, the small French post only made half-hearted efforts to stop these killings regardless of the accusation. Though opposed in principle, the French had few means at their disposal and little inclination for creating controversy among the Mpongwe in Libreville. Mpongwe clan leaders until the 1870s often ordered the executions of slaves and to a lesser extent of free women accused of witchcraft or poison, with very little interference by European administrators, though they occasionally came to the rescue of the victims. For example, in 1875, a French officer accompanied by a merchant rescued three slaves condemned for sorcery in the death of a Mpongwe clan leader in the village of Louis bordering the French government outpost. After 1875, French officials prohibited public executions but long afterwards, clan chiefs continued to conduct secret trials concerning poison and sorcery .
Poison accusations among Fang communities in and around Libreville were more unilaterally focused on women as slavery did not exist among them. For the Fang immigrants who arrived in the Gabon Estuary in the 1860s, it was their wives who had to face customary justice and the suspicion of the elders. Robert Milligan, stationed at Libreville, wrote in the 1890s:
The precarious status of wives is also stressed by Father Delorme, stationed in the Fang village of Dongila near Libreville, who wrote in 1880, "If a sick man is a polygamist, he accuses one or another of his wives of having poisoned him. The unfortunate is immediately seized, put in irons, and punished in the most cruel manner." Poison accusations and punishments thus reflected gender tensions within African communities in Libreville.
Besides slaves and wives, several other groups of foreigners also were accused of using poison and fetish use. Loango men from Moyen Congo, working as domestic servants and cooks, often faced accusations from Mpongwe residents of Libreville. Mpongwe residents told English explorer Mary Kinglsey in 1895 that Loango servants were, "'Too much likely to be devils to be good too much' and are undoubtedly given to poisoning which is an unpleasant habit in a house servant." In August 1905, French authorities found a Loango cook guilty of poisoning another African Following an autopsy. Ten years later, another Loango cook was executed for attempting to poison a French official. Senegalese marabouts, arriving with Senegalese soldiers stationed in Gabon, also had a bad reputation for using poison.
Though few specific cases were recorded, it appears Africans also faced threats of poison regularly from clan leaders and other figures. Some missionaries believed that masters poisoned troublesome slaves. "When [a slave] has a long illness...he is finished off in an occult fashion, this is to say they are given some unhealthy food or drink," the Catholic mission reported in 1867. African state employees, caught between Mpongwe and Europeans, also could be intimidated through poison. Cachou, a Mpongwe clerk in charge of collecting Africans for forced labor instituted in late 1875, apparently was threatened with harm for his collaboration with his French superiors. In reporting the incident to his superiors, commandant of Gabon, Clément asserted:
In October 1884, the head of the Quaben section of the Mpongwe Agekaza clan threatened to poison another African after an accident with one of Quaben's slaves. As a result, the threatened man fled Libreville to avoid assassination. Another clan chief was rumored to have poisoned his wife in the 1880s. Thus, chiefs could also manipulate poison fears and be criticized through rumors of poison.
Poison accusations against slaves and Africans reveal many anxieties surrounding food preparation and consumption within the Libreville African communities. Slaves, free wives and foreign domestic servants prepared food for African households. They thus had easy access to use poison. Africans in the Gabon Estuary also believed fetish could be put in food to bewitch others. Women boasted to missionaries that they made European and African men fall under their power by cooking their food with magical liquids. Mpongwe claimed fetish 'swallowed' their victims. Thus, food consumption appeared again and again as a site of vulnerability from malevolent outside forces.
No clear distinction between poison and sorcery existed among the Mpongwe or other African communities on the Gabon Estuary. Very few markers separated the ostensibly "real" threat of poison from the "imaginary" danger of sorcery. The word in Omyènè, the language of the Mpongwe, for one who uses supernatural powers for evil is "one who poisons" (onemba-nemba). Sorcerers (nganga) were believed to have knowledge of both poison and sorcery. A Mpongwe man, the influential clan leader Félix, told an American missionary that he believed that "fetish" power originally derived from a knowledge of botany mixed with "superstitious" beliefs. To the present day, local traditional healers and Bwiti practitioners use many herbs and plants in magical rituals.
Although European observers tried to separate "poison" from "superstition", they were faced with the same threat as local people and recognized that local populations had many toxins at their disposal. André Raponda-Walker (1871-1968), the first African ordained as a priest, gave a list of over thirty toxic plants in his weighty ethnobotanical work Plantes Utiles du Gabon. In the 1870s, several French scientists collected samples of poison used by Fang hunters in the Gabon Estuary. Poison could be administered via food, poisoned sticks or spines, through the nose, or by skin contact. Thus, local botanical knowledge held stores of opportunities for devious uses that could not be brushed away by Europeans.
African male domestic servants and Mpongwe mistresses prepared food for European officials and traders. No Europeans openly believed sorcery could harm them. However, they considered poison to be a "real" problem and Africans, knowing that Europeans depended on Africans for food, used these fears to intimidate Europeans in disputes over trade and treatment of Africans.
|Poison, Politics and Euro-African Disputes in Colonial Libreville 1870-1921|
According to Robert Nassau, a Presbyterian missionary who spent thirty years in Gabon:
European and American doctors, despite their belief in the superiority of their knowledge to African medicines, had no ability to verify or deny poison accusations. While aware that Africans in Libreville had access to poisons, they could not determine the difference between symptoms of disease and poisoning.
With high morbidity rates for Europeans and Africans in Libreville, investigations into the "true" cause of death often furnished no convincing answers. Seeing an African immigrant wracked by spasms in 1891, Nassau mused in his diary about the cause: "Epilepsy? Poison? Worms?" Despite common fears regarding poison, before 1900 no commandant appears to have authorized autopsies to "prove" death . Mpongwe families did not allow French doctors to conduct autopsies. Many believed doctors at the French hospital poisoned their patients to obtain corpses for experiments. Thus, Europeans depended on the same rumors and hearsay that Africans used in reviewing poison cases.
In various disputes with Europeans, prominent free Mpongwe used poison threats. Even though they criticized and feared slaves and foreigners for using toxins, they saw Europeans were vulnerable to poison threats that could not be proven. Clan leaders and the Njembe female power association sought to maintain and strengthen their prestige through exploiting fears regarding food consumption. The idioms of poison and sorcery proved useful in their attempts to control West African and Fang-speaking immigrants as well as to confront colonial officials. Ralph Austen, in an overview of witchcraft beliefs, contends that "official" witchcraft, generally in the hands of socially prominent men, was tolerated and even celebrated by African communities. Peter Geschiere also has found many of his informants regarded sorcery as dangerous yet a source of strength. This ambivalent notion of supernatural power proved a very valuable tool in negotiating with Europeans.
Europeans were as vulnerable to poison as Africans. Though the French government sent supply ships to visit Libreville, these ships on some occasions arrived two or three months late. Canned goods and flour, poorly packaged for a long sea voyage to an equatorial port, often were rotten as soon as they reached Libreville. Europeans had no choice but to buy much of their food, particularly plantains and vegetables, from Africans. Food preparation also generally lay in African hands. American and French missionaries employed male African cooks. Most French administrators and traders, generally unmarried or separated from their wives, often relied on their Mpongwe mistresses for food.
Thus, European men faced the possibility of being poisoned by their cooks or concubines. Paul Barret, a French doctor stationed at Libreville in the mid-1870s, wrote:
According to American missionaries, a cook poisoned a well-known American trader in Gabon in 1862. Two German traders working for the Woermann company in Libreville learned a lesson regarding their vulnerability nearly as deadly. Around 1877, they tried to investigate the activities of Njembe women. Their "native wives" and African friends refused to provide any information. One night, they stumbled upon a Njembe meeting. After being discovered, they fled back to their trading post after the women tried to seize them.
One of the Germans, the head clerk of Woermann in Gabon, offered to pay a fine to the women through the auspices of his Mpongwe wife. As she was a Njembe member herself, he soon settled the dispute by giving a payment to the organization. However, the women had no mercy for the other clerk. As his health deteriorated, Njembe members boasted they were killing him. The head clerk, perhaps recognizing the difficulty of prosecuting Njembe in a French court, agreed to pay a very large fine for his employee. The organization, "having demonstrated its power, standing victorious before the community," allowed the man to live. Though no scientific evidence existed that Njembe members had done anything to harm the clerk, Europeans respected the potential of danger from threats of poison used by women.
Mpongwe clan leaders found poison to be an effective tool in conflicts with Europeans. Robert Nassau wrote that many Europeans in Africa died from poison "administered by a revengeful employee." In a typical example, a French trader visiting the Libreville office of Hatton and Cookson in August 1883, slapped and then shot twice a domestic servant of the store manager in a fit of drunken rage. Mr. Carlyle, the manager, barely rescued the Frenchmen from an angry mob. The Commandant of Gabon, reporting the incident to the Minister of Colonies, stated:
The Commandant sent six African guards and a white corporal to guard the store. Unable to guarantee his safety on shore, the Frenchman was placed aboard a ship docked in the Gabon Estuary. The British firm agreed to pay fines to Mpongwe in the town; European authorities thus paid heed to poison threats.
In some cases, Europeans attempted to use fears of poison to justify violence against Africans. French authorities charged British trader Andrew Ferguson with murdering his Loango cook at a trading post in the Gabon Estuary in late 1921. Ferguson, after a heavy drinking bout, shot his cook Guillaume Mafoungou and attempted to set him on fire. When Africans reported the crime to French authorities, Ferguson declared Mafoungou was a known practitioner of sorcery and had put poison in his tea twice. Several African witnesses claimed Ferguson had been told that Guillaume was a sorcerer, but none could give any evidence that the cook had actually committed any crime. The medical examiner, in turn, could not reliably determine the cause of Ferguson's illness or the use of any poison. A French official, called to the stand, declared local villagers commonly used poisons, but he could not shed any light on the case. The Ferguson case demonstrates the pervasiveness of poison fears and the inability of Africans or Europeans to conclusively determine its use. In the end, Ferguson's attempt to use the obscurity of poison to exonerate himself failed; he was jailed and exiled from Gabon.
Though poison threats are scattered through missionary sources and colonial records, it is impossible to determine numbers of cases. One of the main reasons poison was so feared was its ability to elude clear detection and verification. The mystery that surrounded poison rumors thus enhanced its power to influence Africans and Europeans alike. A consequence of the secretive and mysterious nature of poison is that historical changes of poison as discourse and as practice are difficult to trace with precision. Obviously, it is impossible to determine the validity of charges of poison use over time. With the end of World War I, however, poison accusations fade out of the colonial written record in the city. Though even today many people in Libreville believe poison is still used on a regular basis, it appears that after 1918 French officials no longer considered poison a threat to themselves .
By straddling European and African boundaries of the "real" and the "imaginary", poison accusations in Libreville were extremely versatile. The effectiveness of the poison accusation derived from its combination of secret knowledge and public attention. European medical technology proved unable to pierce its obscurity. Administrators had no way either to verify or deny poison accusations until after 1900. Their literal or figurative use was open to a wide variety of participants: slaves, masters, wives, husbands, immigrants, clan chiefs, and missionaries.
Poison expressed a multitude of positions and tensions in the city and food consumption offered the ideal location for its alleged or real use. Africans involved in food preparation, a task considered fit only for social inferiors by Africans and Europeans alike, created the possibility for harming the privileged. However, the mystery surrounding poison did not make it simply a tool of "resistance." Europeans and African residents of Libreville in their discussions of poison expressed a wide array of social tensions from above and below. Certain groups could use the threat of poison, as did the Njembe society, to intimidate Europeans. However, the ambivalence of poison beliefs also could be used to justify violence against disadvantaged groups such as slaves or married women.
In similar fashions to sorcery accusations, poison rumors point to the importance of human action without furnishing any tangible evidence or in many cases even specific individuals. However, poison accusations crossed cultural boundaries that local witchcraft concerns did not. By respecting local fears regarding poison, Europeans admitted their vulnerability and dependence on African domestic servants and female mistresses. This avowal undermined Europeans in Libreville by challenging their sense of individual autonomy from the Africans they lived with in the town. Africans and Europeans thus recognized that the town community that permitted them to eat also exposed them to possible harm.
 See David Bunn, "The Brown Serpent of the Rocks: Bushman arrow toxins in the Dutch and British imagination, 1735-1780," in Brenda Cooper and Andrew Steyn eds., Transgressing Boundaries: New Directions in the Study of Culture in Africa (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1996), pp. 58-85 and C. Janet Taylor, "The Poison Pen," in Brenda Cooper and Andrew Steyn eds. Transgressing Boundaries: New Directions in the Study of Culture in Africa (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1996), pp. 86-113.
 Peter Geschiere, The Modernity of Witchcraft (Charlottesville: University of Wisconsin Press, 1997), p. 22.
 Ibid., p. 212.
 Though practically ignored by scholars after 1875, the early history of Libreville and the French occupation of the Gabon Estuary is well-documented. See Hubert Deschamps, Quinze Ans du Gabon (Paris: G. P. Maisonneuve et Larose, 1965); K. David Patterson, The Northern Gabon Coast to 1875 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973); Patterson, "The Vanishing Mpongwe: European contact and demographic decline in the Gabon river," Journal of African History vol. 16 (1975), pp.217-238; Henry Bucher, "The Mpongwe of the Gabon Estuary: A History. to 1860," Unpublished dissertation, Department of History, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1977; Elikia M'Bokolo, Noirs et Blancs en Afrique equatoriale : les societes cotieres et la penetration française, vers 1820-1874 (Paris: Mouton, 1981).
 American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions [ABCFM] Papers, ABC 15.1., Western Africa, Vol. 2, West Africa 1838-1844, Harvard University Microfilm Reel 150, Benjamin Griswold to Dr. Greene, 26 December 1843.
 Pierre-Marie Le Berre. "De l'Esclavage au Gabon." Bulletin de la Congrégation des Pères du Saint-Esprit , vol. 9 (1872-1874), p. 759.
 R.P. Lejeune, "L'Esclavage au Gabon," Annales de la Propagation de la Foi , Vol. 63 (1891), p. 333.
 Many missionaries, tourists and other residents of Libreville made passing references to poison and witchcraft accusations towards slaves in the mid-nineteenth century. For a sample, see ABCFM Papers, ABC 15.4, Southern and Western Africa, Vol. 4, West Africa 1844-1846, Harvard University Microfilm Reel 175, Albert Bushnell to Rufus Anderson, 7 February 1845; Archives de la Congregation du Saint-Esprit [Archives CSSP], Chevilly Larue, Boîte 4J1.2b, Correspondance 1853-1869, Père Marchandeau to Très Reverend Père Schwindenhammer, 8 janvier 1859; Lestrille, "Note Sur Le Comptoir du Gabon," Revue Coloniale , vol. XVI (1856), p. 445; Marquis de Compiègne, L'Afrique Equatoriale: Gabonais, Pahouin, Gallois (Paris: E. Plon, 1878), p. 188.
 R.P. Delorme, extract of letter 27 août 1872, in Bulletin de la Congregation des Pères du Saint-Esprit , vol. IX (1872-1874), p. 192; Lejeune, "L'esclavage," pp. 331-333.
 Pierre-Rémi Le Berre, "De l'esclavage au Gabon," Bulletin de la Congregation des Pères du Saint-Esprit , vol. IX (1873), p. 759.
 Robert Nassau, Fetishism in West Africa (London: Duckworth and Co., 1904), pp. 244-245; Saint-Blancat, "Coutume Mpongwe," unpushlised mimeograph, Libreville, 6 février 1939; Sillans and Raponda-Walker, Rites et Croyances des Peuples du Gabon (Paris: Présence Africaine, 1962), p. 87.
 Robert Milligan, Fetish Folk of West Africa (New York: Fleming Revell, 1912), pp. 38-39.
 Very little is known regarding the specific practices of Ndjembe. As will be demonstrated below, they were and are quite determined to keep their knowledge secret. See Nassau, Fetishism , pp. 249-263; Sillans and Raponda-Walker, Rites , pp. 239-253; Saint-Blancat, "Coutume."
 Archives Nationales Section Outre-Mer, Aix-en-Provence [ANSOM] Série 2B2 Commandant du Gabon to Contre-Amiral, Commandant de la Division Navale de l"Atlantique Sud, 26 mars 1865; Fleurot de Langle, "Croisieres à la Côte d'Afrique," Tour du Monde , vol. 31 (1876), pp. 264-265.
 ANSOM 2B28 Commandant du Gabon to Ministre des Colonies, 4 août 1875.
 Milligan, Fetish Folk , pp. 38-39.
 Milligan, Fetish Folk , p. 52.
 R.P. Delorme, "Lettre du 16 Janvier 1880," Annales de la Propagation de la Foi , vol. 52 (1880), pp. 279-280.
 Mary Kinglsey, Travels in West Africa: Congo Francais, Corisco, Cameroons (London: Macmillian and Co., 1895), p. 655.
 Archives CSSP, Microfilm T2 B2 Gabon, Journal de la Paroisse de Saint-Pierre de Libreville 1884-1914, 19, 21 and 22 Août 1905 entries.
 Archives CSSP Microfilm T2 B9 Gabon, Journal de la Paroisse de Sainte-Marie de Libreville 1908-1939, 31 Mai 1915 entry.
 "Communauté de Saint-Pierre de Liberville," Bulletin de la Congregation des Pères du Saint-Esprit , vol. XXIII (1903-1906), p.23.
 "Mission du Gabon," Bulletin de la Congregation des Pères du Saint-Esprit , vol. VI (1867-1868), pp. 240-1.
 ANSOM 2B13 Commandant du Gabon to Ministre des Colonies, 12 decembre 1884.
 Archives CSSP Boîte 2I1.3b Dossier Personnel Monseigneur Le Berre, Journaux de Libreville 1861-1891, Journal 1883, 28 Mars 1883 entry; William Walker Papers [WWP], State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Box 3, William Walker Diary, 12 April 1883 entry.
 Nassau, Fetishism , pp. 184-185.
 WWP, Box 1, Correspondence 1864-1870, William Walker to Commandant du Gabon, 26 June 1869.
 Bucher, "Mpongwe," p. 61.
 Paul Barret, L'Afrique Occidentale: la Nature et l'Homme Noir . vol. 2 (Paris: Challamel, 1888), p. 183.
 Robert Nassau, Fetishism in West Africa (London: Duckworth and Co., 1904), pp. 108-109.
 André Raponda-Walker and Roger Sillans, Les Plantes Utiles du Gabon (Paris: Lechevailier, 1961).
 Polaillon and Carville, Étude Physiologique sur les Effets Toxique de l'Inée Poison des Pahouins du Gabon , (Paris: G. Masson, 1873), passim.
 Sillans and Raponda-Walker, Rites , pp. 44-45; Marquis de Compiègne, L'Afrique Equatoriale: Gabonais, Pahouins, Gallois (Paris: E. Plon, 1876), p. 188; Fleuriot de Langle, "Croisières," pp. 264-265.
 Robert Nassau, Fetishism , p. 263.
 Robert Nassau Diary, Archives Nationales du Gabon, February 20, 1891 entry.
 Robert Nassau, "Autobiography," Unpublished manuscript , Archives Nationales du Gabon, pp. 1443-1444; Robert Milligan, Fetish Folk , p. 39.
 Ralph Austen, "The Moral Economy of Witchcraft: An Essay in Comparative History," in Jean and John Comaroff, eds. Modernity and Its Malcontents (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), p. 91.
 ANSOM 2B8 Commandant du Gabon to Ministre des Colonies, 23 janvier 1880; ANSOM 2B15 Lt. Governeur du Gabon Ballay to Ministre des Colonies, 7 décembre 1886.
 Barret, Homme Noir , vol. 2, p. 131.
 Extract of letter from Rev. William Walker, 2 January 1862, reprinted in Missionary Herald vol. 59 (1862), p. 141.
 This account is a summary of the one given in Robert Nassau, Fetishism , pp. 261-262.
 Ibid., p. 262.
 Ibid., p. 262.
 Nassau, Fetichism , p. 263.
 ANSOM 2B11 Commandant du Gabon to Ministre des Colonies, 17 août 1883.
 Anges Ratanga-Atoz, Les Résistances Gabonaises à l'Imperialisme 1870-1914, Thèse du Troisième Cycle, Département d'Histoire, Université de Paris, 1973, pp. 101-102.
 The following is taken from ANSOM Carton 5D52, Dossier Affaire Fergusson, Minutes Cour Criminiel de l'AEF, 25-28 juin 1922.
Jeremy Rich is an American graduate student at Indiana University presently finishing his research in Gabon for his dissertation entitled, "A Workman is Worthy of His Meat: Food Consumption, Food Supply and Social Conflict in Colonial Libreville (Gabon) 1842-1960.