When the French government appointed Dr. Joseph Vassal, Englishwoman’s Gabrielle Vassal’s French husband, Head of Health Services for Equatorial French Africa (A.E.F.), he exclaimed happily to her, “Je suis nommé en A.E.F.”
Naturally she asked, “What’s A.E.F.?”
So he replied “Afrique Equatoriale Francaise,” and pointed to Gabon, Tchad, Oubangi-Chari, and the Congo, with its capital at Brazzaville.
And that is how she started on the journey that she recorded in minute, if somewhat racially biased, detail in Mon séjour au Congo français (1925). Significant portions of the text described the shortage of food experienced by the local, “native” populations, yet in the next sentences she might mention their lethargy and laziness. Nowhere did she seem to put together the impact of malnutrition and the ensuing lack of energy, as well as the energy-sapping diseases prevalent among the populations.
The Congo population is always underfed, and it is impossible to sound the depths of their laziness and want of thrift.
She spent years in other French colonial outposts as well and wrote about those places, too: On and Off Duty in Annam (1910), In and Round Yunnan Fou (1922), and Français, belges et portugais en Afrique Équatoriale. Pointe-Noire, Matadi, Lobito (1931).
As a travel writer, she achieved a small measure of personal fame. Possibly the most surprising thing about this woman — whom no one really remembers — is that she was also an avid amateur naturalist, contributing bird and mammal specimens from Africa and Southeast Asia to the Natural History Museum in London. Naturalists named several animals after her, including the yellow-cheeked crested gibbon, Nomascus gabriellae.
A crack shot, she might remind modern readers of another woman living during the same time period, Baroness Karen von Blixen (also known as Isak Dinesen the writer).
Looking at some of the pictures in Mon séjour au Congo français, it is easy to recognize from where the idea of exoticism came, and how it permeated attitudes toward peoples from areas colonized by Europeans.
For more about writers like Gabrielle M. Vassal, see :
Gulliver, Katrina. Gabrielle Vassal and the Countess Von Hoenstadt. Notes & Queries 56 (3): 425 – 426, 2009.
Mills, Sara. Discourses of Difference: An Analysis of Women’s Travel Writing and Colonialism (1991)
Morgan, Susan. Place Matters: Gendered Geography in Victorian Women’s Travel Books About Southeast Asia (1996 )
Pratt, Mary Louise. Travel Writing and Transculturation (1992)
Robinson, Jane. Unsuitable for Ladies: An Anthology of Women Travellers (1994)
Romero, Patricia W. , ed. Women’s Voices on Africa: A Century of Travel Writings (Topics in World History) (1992)
Youngs, Tim. Travellers in Africa: British Travelogues, 1850-1900 (1994)
Plus a list of women hunters: HERE
To be continued … aspects of food, cooks, and cooking.
© 2014 C. Bertelsen