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Lecture from Prof. Florence Bernault @ULB (Brussels), 21 February 2019, 5 PM


As part of the lecture series “New Histories of Central Africa”, Prof. Florence Bernault (Sciences-Po – Paris) will deliver a lecture on “Transaction: Revisiting Imaginaries of Domination in Colonial Gabon” at ULB (meeting room NA.4.302, access plan can be found here) on Thursday 21 February at 5 PM. Attendance is free.

Please find below an abstract of Prof. Bernault’s groundbreaking work

This paper draws on Bernault’s forthcoming book, Colonial Transactions: Imaginaries, Bodies, and Histories in Gabon (Duke University Press, May 2019), a history of how practices and imaginaries of agency and power transformed during the long twentieth century, in the region of west equatorial Africa. The heuristic device of transaction, a tool that, with a few exceptions, has been rarely applied to the colonial situation, and even less so by historians. This opens new avenues of investigation.


Transaction elucidates how singular moments of exchange arose, on the ground, between and among French colonialists and the Gabonese, bringing them together in single units of action and agency.  Although avoidance, indifference, and lack of contact were very much part of the colonial experience, transaction helps us to retrieve important instances of intersection, exchange, and negotiations between colonized and colonialists.  The concept of transaction, moreover, allows us to follow the shape and design of the imaginaries that Europeans and Africans used to reflect about domination and social reproduction. The French imagined, for instance, that the colonial “mission” was also a transactional affair, one that incited white men to invest their personal life in Africa, and use immaterial forces called science, pouvoir, and civilization to bring progress to the natives.  By the 1900s, the Gabonese understood that whites had significantly disrupted the normal circulation of spiritual gifts and social investments, and were feeding on the destruction of local charms and relics.  They found themselves trapped in an economy of exchanges that forced unequal and extraordinary transactions upon them.


In the context of colonialism, using the concept of transaction allows us to see how, across the racial divide, power and capacity existed as relational realities produced by active or passive forms of exchanges.  Colonialism not only worked as a field of power, where people battled for sovereignty and survival, but also as a transactional field in which myriad of deals, exchanges and transfers determined, each day, subtle or major reordering of hierarchies, status, wealth and knowledge.


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