Why the Name: Port-Gentil?

Map of Gabon

I have always wondered why the second largest city of Gabon is named Port-Gentil… Is it full of kind agreeable souls? Is it a gentle town, very laid-back? Otherwise, why will it be named that way?

Emile Gentil in 1902

Well, to my surprise, Port-Gentil is named after the French colonial administrator Émile Gentil who served there in 1902. I have a lot of doubts that the man was a kind or gentle soul. From stories of these colonial administrators in Africa, many were more on the ruthless and disagreeable side, particularly towards Africans, whom they saw as savages. Indeed, after investigation into Emile Gentil, it turns out that he had been accused of massacres in Congo in 1905, but had been cleared by the Lanessan commission (what are indigenous’ words against a European’s?… particularly in those days); he was also part of the expedition that was trying to conquer Rabah, a powerful warrior leader in Chad. Gentil is best known for heading two military missions to conquer and consolidate territories north, from modern Gabon up to Chad. … Thus it is only a tiny shot to imagine the atrocities left in his wake… So why is the second largest city of Gabon still named after someone like that? Someone who murdered Gabonese, and other Africans? I know, it sounds sweet, “gentil”, but knowing the source of the name and the atrocities committed against the indigenous populations, why keep the name? If “gentle” is so important, why not translate it into the local language, or roll back to the original name, which is Mandji. It absolutely makes no sense for a city on African soil to bear the name of someone who has been accused of massacres by contemporaries on that very land!

Port-Gentil, Gabon

For completeness, Port-Gentil is located on Lopez Island (in the mouth of the navigable Ogooué River) and on a bay sheltered by Cape Lopez, which juts into the Atlantic Ocean. As the nation’s chief port and industrial centre, it is linked by air to Paris and major West African hubs as well as many Gabonese towns. Life in Port-Gentil is much more laid-back than Libreville. It is Gabon’s economic engine, and massive oil and gas rigs loom just off the coast. The city stretches along the beach, is full of pleasant wide streets and a bustling port. One block back from the corniche, Ave Savorgnan de Brazza (named after another European who massacred Africans) has most of the banks, shops and restaurants. Port-Gentil sits on a peninsula; it is actually an island, cut off from the mainland by the delta of the Ogooué River.

Surprisingly, just like many places coveted by Europeans on the African continent, there are no roads connecting Port-Gentil to the rest of the country. How outrageous! How come in 2021, there are no roads connecting the second largest city of a country, the industrial hub, to the rest of it? This seems like a wanted political decision, especially when the country, Gabon, has been the milk cow of Elf, the defunct French oil company (now Total), and is still a big milk cow of France today.

So even though, as always, I would like you to visit the sandy beaches of Port-Gentil, and enjoy the warm hospitality of the Gabonese, I think it is about time that the city be renamed! Lastly, ROADS, connections to the rest of the country are a MUST!!!

Libreville: Why the Name?

Libreville today
Libreville today, 2012

Two capitals in Africa share the same name: Freetown in Sierra Leone, and Libreville in Gabon; one in English, the other in French.  I always knew that Freetown was named the way it was because it was a city founded in 1792 by freed African American Slaves also called Nova Scotian who had fought on the side of the British during the American Revolutionary war.  The land was named Freetown as a land for freed slaves.

Libreville in 1846
Libreville in 1846

But why on earth is Libreville named free town?  Since, there were apparently no freed slaves returning from the colonies, or running away from slavery?  I recently found out that the story of Libreville is very similar to that of Freetown, as it does involve slaves!  Yes… that’s right!  In the old days, i.e. prior to French occupation (the French acquired land there in 1839), the area that is today Libreville was inhabited by the Mpongwé people since the 11th century.  In 1846, l’Elizia, a slave ship en route for Brazil, carrying slaves for sale was captured by the French navy near Loango, offshore from the Mbongwé’s kingdom.  260 negroes were thus freed and taken to the Island of Gorée in Senegal in 1846.  After an intervention from Paris, 30 – 50 of these slaves will return to Gabon, where the French governor Bouët-Willaumez will take advantage of this, and found Libreville (French for ‘free town’ or ‘free city’) in 1849, in close proximity to Fort d’Aumale, where the French navy was installed to “fight” against slavery.  The small town, Libreville, was then organized as a “French christian village” around 5 places: the Mpongwé’s place, the freedom place, the Bakélé place, the Pahué place, and the Bulu place, after the main tribes in the area at the time.