Rachel Jean-Baptiste, Conjugal Rights: marriage, sexuality, and urban life in colonial Libreville, Gabon.
Rachel Jean-Baptiste's compelling book is an intricate tale of women, their husbands, their lovers, local chiefs, elite Gabonese men and colonial administrators in Libreville, Gabon, during the French colonial era, from the mid-nineteenth century to 1960. She eloquently describes how the 'sexual economy' of emotional, social, legal and physical relationships between women and men shaped urban life. Women's and men's intimate aspirations and choices are described and analysed against the canvas of social transformations, and Jean-Baptiste takes the reader by the hand through the convoluted and shifting web made up of kinship obligations, generational tensions, class frictions and colonial rule. The way she studies sexuality not only as an affair between two, or more, persons but as a grid of desire, violence, pleasure, material well-being, deprivation, honour, respectability and biological and social reproduction brings attention to the way in which sexuality is mostly studied as the object of one such concern and how, therefore, studies of sexuality in Africa tend to lack width in scope and breadth in history. Moreover, Jean-Baptiste places sexuality at the centre of marriage in the same way: rather than analysing how marriage often fails as an institution and therefore can be ignored (as seems to be the tendency), marriage is analysed as the hub in the web of shifting desires, controls and concerns among spouses, kin, local elites and colonial agents. After all, this is also a book about the shifting customary terrain, the sometimes opportunistic and at other times antagonistic alliance between patriarchy and the state, and the way in which people manoeuvre in this terrain.
In Chapters 1 and 2, the foundations of the changing sexual economy are laid out by outlining the formation of Libreville, from being a trading post halfway through the nineteenth century to morphing into a colonial city after the turn of the century. The history of Libreville is based on gendered patterns of mobility, labour and agency, like many other imperial and colonial cities, as the era of timber exploitation marshalled economic opportunities and losses, migration, social dislocation and the consolidation of lives.
In Chapter 3, the expansion of Libreville is described, with particular attention paid to the ways in which French colonial officers attempted to transform mobile groups into docile subjects. The author offers a beautiful description of how- omen and men from various ethnic backgrounds managed to carve out spaces for living. Chapter 4 is a core chapter of the book as it introduces the 'motor' of the qualities of the social web mentioned above: the institution of bridewealth. Bridewealth became a means of agency, control and thus conflict between generations, kin, gender and authorities. The 'bridewealth problem' articulated the reconfiguration of social life; with increasing economic opportunities bridewealth costs increased, and this caused great alarm to colonial officers, chiefs, mission-educated Gabonese men and missionaries, all decrying, to various degrees, the delayed social adulthood status for men, the free women, the instability of marriage, and promiscuity. Chapter 5 focuses on the jurisprudence of marriage and divorce laws and how bridewealth payments were often at the core of conjugal intimacy as well as conflicts. Jean-Baptiste soberly describes how bridewealth conferred male access to female sexuality and was often an obstacle for women seeking to leave an abusive or unhappy relationship. Yet she also describes how generational tensions between junior and senior men due to bridewealth payments created space for women to demand more fluid forms of marriage when their husbands failed financially or sexually, because, in both Chapter 5 and Chapter 6, we read about the heart of the sexual economy: love and sexual relations, between spouses and with extramarital lovers.
The way in which Jean-Baptiste manages to study the 'geographies of sexual experience' truly stands out. With respect, she lets women and men narrate their life stories and their desires and intimate experiences. The strength of these personal narrations is that they are woven into broader themes that have been carefully laid out before. In other words, not only does Jean-Baptiste study a web of social intricacies, her methodology also reflects a complex mix of mainly court records and life stories, but also letters from various archives, newspapers and anecdotes. The details and density of the described customary procedures and legal systems make the reading sometimes tedious, yet it is instructive to recognize the phenomenal research on which the book is based. The way in which love and sexual relations are woven into broader processes fleshes out the history of urbanization, of customary practices, of gendered migration and of many other important themes in African studies. The dialectical relationships between small-scale legal events in colonial court records and large-scale reconfigurations of the social fabric of Gabonese society provide an insight into cultural change and people's agency. Jean-Baptiste's book is an important addition to many debates in African studies.
University of Amsterdam
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Aug 1, 2017|
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