International Encyclopaedia
of the Histories of Anthropology

A Spiritan missionary assigned to Gabon in 1893 (French Equatorial Africa), Henri Trilles (1866–1949) was both an amateur ethnographer and a self-made ethnologist who made a name for himself with his contributions on the Fang culture, particularly on its spiritual dimensions – its tales, myths and “theology”. Through his expeditions in the bush and his missionary commitment, Trilles represented a field-based Catholic ethnology combining scholarly erudition and an intercultural reinvention of the Fang culture and history, namely on the issues of fetishism and totemism, which were central to anthropology at the time. Close to the circle of the journal Anthropos, he was the author of several works, including Chez les Fang, ou Quinze années de séjour au Congo français (1912), Le totémisme chez les Fân (1912), and Les Pygmées de la forêt équatoriale (1932). This latter was commissioned by Father Wilhelm Schmidt, who saw Trilles as an authority on the so-called Pygmies. He was caught up in the contradictions of a Catholic ethnology that claimed to be “modern”, but eventually sacrificed its concern for methodological seriousness to its proselytising aims. An obscure figure in the history of anthropology, Trilles experienced the fate common to many missionary ethnographers: he was recognised by the scholarly community at the same time as he was disowned and sanctioned by his congregation for his scientific commitment. He retired in 1939.

Keywords: Totemism | Fetishism | Missionary | First half of the 20th century | Last quarter of the 19th century | Gabon | Fang | Pygmy | Pahouin | Aka | Anthropology of religion | Catholic ethnology | Wilhelm Schmidt | Anthropos | Paul Schebesta | Robert Hamill Nassau | Günter Tessmann

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