The Journal of African History

Research Article

The vanishing Mpongwe: European contact and demographic change in the Gabon River1

K. David Pattersona1

a1 University of North Carolina at Charlotte

A drastic decline of aboriginal populations has been an important by-product of European commercial and imperial expansion in many parts of the world. Europeans have been aware of this phenomenon from the early days of Spanish exploration and conquest when Fray Bartolome de las Casas deplored the rapid collapse of Indian populations in the Caribbean. The problem still seemed acute in the nineteenth century. For example, the young Charles Darwin, describing the decline of the Australian Aborigines, placed most of the blame on alcoholism, introduced diseases, and the loss of hunting grounds. But these factors did not fully explain what appeared to be the impending extinction of a variety of peoples. ‘Besides these several evident causes of destruction,’ he wrote,

there appears to be some more mysterious agency at work. Wherever the European has trod, death seems to pursue the aboriginal. We may look to the wide extent of the Americas, Polynesia, the Cape of Good Hope, and Australia, and we find the same result.


1 Research for this article was supported by a grant from the Foundation of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.