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Cameroon’s Tycoon: Max Esser’s Expedition and Its Consequences

Author(s):Röschenthale, Ute
Chilver, E.M.
Reviewer(s):Austen, Ralph A.

Published by EH.NET (August 2002)


E.M. Chilver and Ute R?schenthaler, editors, Cameroon’s Tycoon: Max Esser’s Expedition and Its Consequences. New York: Berghahn Books, 2001. xx + 204 pp. $69.95 (cloth), ISBN: 1-57181-988-6; $25 (paperback), ISBN: 1-57181-310-1.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Ralph A. Austen, Department of History, University of Chicago.

This book falls into a number of scholarly genres. Its lengthiest passages are an abridged translation of an 1898 German travel account (An der Westk?ste Afrikas) by Max Esser, a Cologne banker active in the organization and financing of colonial enterprises. A lengthy introduction, notes and appendices provide us with the details and context of Esser’s biography. Finally, a good part of this supplementary material is dedicated to an historical ethnography of the Cameroonian populations with whom Esser came into contact, most notably the Bali of the interior Grassfields. Chilver and R?schenthaler (respectively retired from Oxford University and teaching at Frankfurt University) have both done extensive research in this region and bring considerable expertise to bear upon Esser’s writings, which provide very vivid accounts of his time among the Bali.

From the viewpoint of economic history, the most interesting issue discussed here is the effort by Esser to establish a large plantation company, the Westafrikanische Pflanzungsgesellschaft, on the Cameroon coast and his recruitment of inland laborers with the collaboration of the Bali chief, Garega. The German Cameroon plantations are at the center of a number of historical controversies: First of all, did they make economic sense in competition with export cultivation by smaller-scale African farmers? Secondly, how much suffering did the planters (and their African recruiters) inflict upon the workers forced to migrate to these distant labor sites? Finally, what were the nationalist politics (as opposed to market economics) behind the reestablishment of German plantations in British Cameroon after World War I?

Scholars interested in any of these issues will find plenty of valuable evidence in Chilver and R?schenthaler’s book (including its very extensive bibliography), but the authors never address themselves systematically to economic questions. They do offer new insights into the career of Esser, who became a figure of controversy in his own right when he was publicly attacked (partially on anti-Semitic grounds) for inaccuracies and plagiarism in his book and involvement in the stock-market manipulations of colonial concession companies. Unfortunately, if understandably, Chilver and R?schenthaler spend more time on the relatively petty authorship issue, since the alleged financial chicanery did not involve Esser’s quite solid plantation undertakings.

The picture we get of Esser and his enterprises from this work is that of a serious businessman who chose to involve himself in colonial ventures on both economic and political grounds as well as out of a taste for adventure and “exotic” culture (a good deal of attention, including illustrations, is given to his energetic collection of Cameroon artifacts). We cannot evaluate the economic or social costs and benefits (from either a European or African perspective) of colonial economies, or even their European motivations, on the basis of the documents that are presented and analyzed here. Esser was an important but hardly a dominant figure in this domain. However, it is good to have one set of such materials made so attractively accessible to interested readers. This book is a labor of love, mainly directed at specialists on Cameroon, but it should be appreciated by a wider audience, including economic historians.

Ralph A. Austen is Professor of African History at the University of Chicago. He has published widely on Cameroon, most recently (with Jonathan Derrick) Middlemen of the Cameroon Rivers: The Duala and Their Hinterland, ca. 1600-ca. 1960 (Cambridge University Press, 1999). He is also the author of African Economic History: Internal Development and External Dependency (London: James Currey, 1987) and is presently engaged in research on the comparative colonial history of Africa, the Caribbean and South Asia.

Subject(s):Servitude and Slavery
Geographic Area(s):Africa
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII