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Arrival of the Europeans

Portuguese explorers employed by a rich Lisbon merchant, Fernando Gomez, were the first Europeans to enter the coastal waters of Cameroon. They arrived in the Bight of Biafra in the early 1470s and shortly established a trading station on Sao Tome Island. The Portuguese were attracted to the mainland by trading possibilities around the broad mouth of the Wouri River, which they erroneously named Rio dos Camaroes (River of the Prawns) after the migratory crayfish abundant in the estuary. Thereafter the word Camaroes was used on Portuguese maps to identify the Wouri estuary. The Portuguese initially made Sao Tome the base of their operations, servicing trade points at the mouths of various rivers. In the early 1480s a settlement was also established on Fernando Po, an island twenty miles off the Cameroonian coast, which was named for the Portuguese navigator often credited with the first exploration of the region.

For a variety of reasons the Portuguese were content with the use of coastal lighters for conducting trade with the natives instead of building permanent shore installations. The humid coast was lined with dense mangrove forests and tropical-disease-bearing insects. The local Bantu-speaking peoples — including the Douala — who would have restricted settlement, were willing to serve as middlemen. Moreover, the Bight of Benin, a few hundred miles to the west, offered greater potential for commercial profit. Although some traders built structures on floating pontoons or used derelict vessels at anchor for conducting trade, it was not until the 1830s — when the first explorations of the interior were initiated — that permanent facilities were constructed on land. At the end of the nineteenth century offshore facilities were in use, and European traders continued to rely on the Douala as middlemen.

By 1520 the Portuguese had established full-scale sugar plantations on both Sao Tome and Fernando Po. By the next decade, however, slave trade had displaced commodity trade and had become the most important source of income for the Portuguese. Initially, slaves were used to work the offshore island plantations. Eventually, the Portuguese became the most important supplier of slaves for the West Indies and the Americas. Slaves purchased at Bimbia, Douala, and Rio-del-Rey from local peoples serving as middlemen were collected at centers on the two islands for trans-Atlantic shipment.

In the early 1600s the Portuguese lost control of the slave trade to the Dutch, who established a trading post on Sao Tome in 1642. Meanwhile, competition from Spanish, French, British, and Scandinavian traders increased. In 1777 Fernando Po became a Spanish territory. The Spanish did not immediately effect control over the island and in 1827 granted permission to the British—who had declared their own slave trade illegal in 1807 — to use the island as a base from which to police the slave trade in the surrounding coastal waters. The island thus became the major base from which operations against the slave trade were directed.

In 1844 members of the Jamaican branch of the British Baptist Missionary Society arrived on Fernando Po and expanded the facilities that had been established two years earlier. Although a small school and church were established by this group on the mainland coast the following year, they were closed in 1849. Pressure upon the local governor by Spanish Jesuits forced the missionary settlement off the island to the coast near Mount Cameroon in 1858. This mission community, named Victoria after the ruling British monarch, was the first permanent settlement of Europeans on the mainland coast.

Although many aspects of local administration fell to the mission, a court of equity was established to work out disputes between the local chiefs and the British and German traders. Compliance with the decisions of the court was usual, reflecting the general cooperation between these parties in the furtherance of their individual commercial interests. Decisions on more serious problems, however, were sometimes held for the British consul of Fernando Po and the Oil River Delta, who visited various settlements along the Bight of Biafra. The authority of the British was not challenged by other European powers, and some indigenous ethnic groups came to rely on British legitimization of new chiefs.

The slave trade was gradually phased out, and by the 1840s palm oil and ivory became the major interests of European traders, most of whom were British. During the 1870s British merchants, the missionary settlement, and several of the local chiefs expressed an interest in the establishment of a British protectorate for the coastal zone. The British foreign ministry, however, was slow to show any interest in such a proposal. Attention focused instead on policing the coastal waters and encouraging commercial treaties.

In the early 1880s the British foreign ministry became agitated over increased activity by the French on the coast south of Cameroon, and in 1882 Consul Edward Hyde Hewett was sent to negotiate the local treaties necessary to establish the protectorate. While Hewett was in the process of working his way up the coast in mid-1884, the British learned that a German representative, Gustav Nachtigal, was urging local chiefs to sign treaties with Germany. Before Hewett could arrive in the Wouri estuary, Nachtigal had obtained the signatures of two local chiefs and hoisted the German imperial flag on the right bank of the Wouri River. The British and Germans engaged in a race for the remainder of the year to obtain written agreements with coastal chiefs and to appoint local representatives.

German authority was undermined by several factors in addition to the uncertainty of the final outcome of the contest for treaties. The British merchants and missionaries resented the German tactics and felt that Great Britain had a better claim to the area. The British representative became openly involved in advocating resistance among the indigenous people. The German government had been able to obtain parliamentary support for the annexation of Cameroonian territory only by assuring its members that the operation would not be costly, as most administrative costs would be absorbed by the resident German trading firms. The traders, however, refused to accept the cost and responsibility of such an arrangement and, after the exchange of formal notes between the German government and representatives of the trading companies, the area was left without a local colonial administrative system.

The uncertainty of the situation led the highly dissatisfied Douala to revolt in December 1884. German success in putting down the rebellion brought a visible sign of German political control, and the British began to adopt a conciliatory attitude. By February 1885 the British had agreed to send their representative home and had surrendered several of their treaty claims with local chiefs. The death of Nachtigal and his assistant's illness forced the issue of establishing a local administration. On July 3, 1885, Julius von Soden assumed responsibility as the first colonial governor of the territory. The Germans adopted the name originally applied to the Wouri estuary and called the colony Kamerun.

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Page last modified: 26-09-2016 19:07:17 ZULU