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The King of Kaputa: life as a trader in 19th century Africa

21 December 2016 by Zachary

Eshira beaded belt with English-made metal buckle, collected in Gabon by J.G.C. Harrison and said to have been made by the niece of a King named Ngorlay.

The Harrison group of Central African objects can now be seen online. It is an important early collection, because it is unusually well documented for its time. The museum’s records relating to Harrison’s donations, which were made in 1879 and 1883, are still relatively brief but they suggest that Harrison acquired the artefacts through his close personal relationships with Central Africans. 

One of the most telling objects that he donated was a wooden staff (11.10.83.1) that he acquired while employed as a trader at Sette Cama on the Gabon coast. Although the staff is now unfortunately lost, it was said to have been made ‘by a Loango doctor’ and it is described as having ‘long narrow strips of cane interlaced with grass’. The museum accession record for this staff describes how it allowed a messenger free passage ‘from Loango to the Gaboon river, and entitle[d] him to be fed free.’ The record goes on to explain that:

Mr Harrison had often used this stick to send mail letters along the coast & vast distances. Mr Harrison was made King of Kaputa, & received the stick as an official insignia of office.

The fact that Harrison used his staff in his capacity as ‘king of Kaputa’ suggests that he became involved in local African politics. He seems to have owed the role of ‘king of Kaputa’ to Vili traders from Loango who had set up a distant trading colony in Sette Cama, so his role was probably part of a Vili strategy to bolster Loango’s mercantile power in a profitable outpost.

British traders on the coast of Central Africa who collected African artefacts for museums did not usually write about their life at the coastal trading post where they conducted their business, so it can require a considerable research effort in order to gain an understanding of the contexts in which they were acquired. Mary Kingsley, the well-known late nineteenth century British explorer, was impressed by the depth of knowledge that many of these traders had about African societies but she complained that they failed to record what they knew for posterity. She claimed to have done her “utmost” to persuade the traders she knew to “break through their silence” and named Richard Dennett, a British trader for the Liverpool firm Hatton & Cookson, who had spent almost a decade on the Congo coast, as “the only one inclined to do anything else but shake his head in horror over the mis-statements circulated about Africans”. Trade on the Central African coast was largely regulated and organised by Africans from a cosmopolitan brokering class and British traders depended on the initiative of these Africans for the success of their businesses. Yet dominant Victorian notions of cultural and economic “progress” did not allow for African expressions of economic initiative and cultural creativity. So the British traders were probably inhibited from writing about their African experiences partly because this would have challenged these established European notions.

Before European countries began their competitive consolidation of colonial control over African societies and territories after the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885, successful commercial relations between British traders and their Central African employees and trading partners depended on a degree of mutual respect. In fact Hatton & Cookson traders in Central Africa during this pre-colonial period were known to have formed close personal friendships with some of their posts’ African employees and they are known to have participated in local African affairs as a consequence of such relationships. For example, Dennett attended funerals of his interpreter’s family members and other social events. Many European traders established on the Central African coast also married Kongo women, which would have required them to conform to African institutions and cultural practices.

Copper bracelet donated by Harrison in 1883. A type manufactured for initiation into the Lemba, or similar, trading association, which had widespread influence in Central Africa in the late nineteenth century.

The Central African coast in the second half of the nineteenth-century can be understood to have been a dynamic zone where many exchanges took place between Africans and Europeans, who, between them, produced new cultural practices. J.G.C. Harrison would not have been the only European trader to have become deeply involved in African cultural life during the nineteenth century and his collection helps us to understand the dynamic, cross-cultural, relations through which a cosmopolitan trading culture on the Central African coast was created.

See the Harrison group of Central African objects online now.

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