Volume 11, Issue 1
Jeremy Rich. A Workman is Worthy of His Meat: Food and Colonialism in the Gabon Estuary. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007.
Contributing to the burgeoning scholarship about the history of food and its historical influences, A Workman is Worthy of His Meat offers a crucial sharpening of historical perspectives on the ways in which French colonialism, and its lasting effects, have shaped food supply and consumption in the Gabon Estuary. Pointing out that scholars of African history have typically focused on food supply and consumption only in times of crisis, Jeremy Rich attempts to redress this imbalance by analyzing the everyday diets of urban (specifically Libreville) and rural residents of the Gabon Estuary from 1840 to 1960. Rich argues that analyzing the daily culinary habits of Libreville residents offers an insight on the colonial urban and rural transformation and experience in Gabon.
Rich unpacks his main arguments in seven chapters that are presented thematically and chronologically. What links the chapters together is the author’s overarching assertion that French colonialism disturbed the culinary and agricultural habits of the Gabonese, thereby forcing urban areas like Libreville to find other pathways to the accumulation of food. For example, Rich outlines several reasons for the lasting food shortages in Libreville. One explanation was the heavy reliance of domestic slavery. The author underlines that because Gabon was on the Atlantic coast, the slave trade slowly began infiltrating the Estuary in the mid-eighteenth century, particularly in Mpongwe coastal communities. As a result, rooted domestic slavery greatly impacted the diets of Mpongwe, for it was slaves who cultivated the land and prepared the meals. However, there were also culinary shifts under French occupation and colonialism beginning in 1840. The French disdained slavery and pushed for its elimination. As domestic slavery declined, Libreville residents, who did not want to farm themselves, began to rely heavily on imported food from Europe and other areas of Africa. In pointing out this historical trend, Rich is careful to note that African eating practices never disappeared. The author reminds readers that African and European culinary habits intersected and borrowed from one another. Hence, the culinary (and cultural) habits of the Gabon Estuary became a hybrid of European and African influences.
This is clearly an erudite and scholarly book rooted in the extensive use of a wide array of sources—clearly a noteworthy strength of the book. The author utilizes diverse sources, such as interviews and records from Gabon and France. This helps the author to provide a useful synthesis of issues of colonialism, food supply and production, and changing access to food.
A key strength of Rich’s book is embedded in the useful background information he provides for the Gabon Estuary. The author discusses the country’s colonial past, its ties to slavery, its environment, and even the ethnic groupings of the people. For example, he explains who the Mpongwe people are (a small ethnic community that was highly influential in the Gabon Estuary until French occupation in 1840). Equipped with the beginning knowledge of the historical context in which Rich frames the book’s main themes and arguments, readers will be better able to approach and understand how culinary habits and access to food changed in colonial Gabon.
Rich’s work also positively diverges from many African historical texts in that he carefully weaves in the roles that women (both African and European) played in transforming Gabonese culinary habits. Though the author points out in his introduction that “constructions of gender are not on the table,” he impressively intertwines the historical narratives of women as part of his larger arguments and explorations (p. xvii). For instance, in the 1920s, many Mpongwe women in Libreville protested colonial policies on food production by demanding that restrictions and fines on food be lifted. In highlighting such events, the author acknowledges the important roles that African women have played in shaping the political, social, and economic facets of their societies. Though not a book specifically focused on gender roles, this text is an excellent example of how historical narratives of African women can be utilized to better shape the understanding of historical events.
A drawback of the text is that there is some confusion over exactly how European and African eating habits started to diverge in the twentieth century. The author claims throughout that African and European culinary practices always intersected and that even today the country’s colonial legacy shapes contemporary culinary practices. He points out, however, that from the early twentieth century Europeans started to distance themselves from African culinary habits. He stresses that multiple factors such as strict racial lines in Libreville and changing attitudes toward race and hygiene influenced this change. Unfortunately, the author leaves several significant questions unanswered such as, did Africans, like Europeans, also try to distance themselves from European foods? How complete was the divergence of European and African eating habits? It is hard to believe that European food in Gabon today is not somehow influenced by African culinary practices.
This is an excellent book despite its shortcomings. A Workman is Worthy of His Meat contributes significantly to the understanding of multiple forms of history—colonial, economic, political, food, and cultural history. Scholars and graduate students in these fields will greatly benefit from the text. As graduate reading seminar, students will gain from the book’s insights such as the linkage between colonialism and changing culinary habits. The text will also provide students with a foundation for discussion and critical analysis of the historical impacts of colonialism and the agency and roles that the colonized assert in their lives.
Jacqueline-Bethel Mougoué Purdue University