Gabon History


During the last seven centuries, Bantu ethnic groups arrived in the area from several directions to escape enemies or to find new land. Little is known of tribal life before European contact, but tribal art suggests a rich cultural heritage.

Gabon's first European visitors were Portuguese traders who arrived in the 15th century and named the country after the Portuguese word gabao--a coat with sleeve and hood resembling the shape of the Como River estuary. The coast became a center of the slave trade. Dutch, British, and French traders came in the 16th century. France assumed the status of protector by signing treaties with Gabonese coastal chiefs in 1839 and 1841. American missionaries from New England established a mission at Baraka (Libreville) in 1842. In 1849, the French captured a slave ship and released the passengers at the mouth of the Como River. The slaves named their settlement Libreville meaning "free town." French explorers had penetrated Gabon's dense jungles by 1887. The most famous explorer--Savorgnan de Brazza--used Gabonese bearers and guides in his searches for the headwaters of the Congo River.

France occupied Gabon in 1885 but did not administer it until 1903. In 1910, Gabon became one of the four territories of French Equatorial Africa, a federation that survived until 1959. The territories became independent in 1960 as the Central African Republic, Chad, Congo (Brazzaville), and Gabon.

source: U.S. State Department Background Notes 1997

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