Nassau, Robert Hamill (1835-1921)

Presbyterian pioneer in Gabon

Robert Hamill Nassau portraitBorn in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania, Nassau was an ordained minister and a medical doctor. Appointed in 1861 to Presbyterian mission on Corisco Island off the coast of present day at Equatorial Guinea, he and his wife, Mary C. (Latta), served there and at Benito on the mainland until her death in 1870.

A Mission on the Ogowe River (begun at Baraka in 1842 by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions) was transferred to the Presbyterian U.S.A. Board of Foreign Missions in 1871. In 1874 the Presbyterians determined to press into the Ogowe interior, and Nassau established a station in Balimbila, some 200 miles inland. That work was moved to Kangwe two years later. In 1879 the Ogowe church was organized at Kangwe, the beginning of a flourishing work among the Mpongwe people. Nassau’s second wife, Mary (Foster) (d.1884), and his sister Isabel Nassau, where the first white women to live in the Ogowe region.

In 1892 and 1893 France claimed Gabon and Ogowe as a colony. The Presbyterians transferred their work in those areas to the Paris Evangelical Mission Society. In 1894 Nassau and sister were assigned to Batanga station in German Kamerun, where they serve until their retirement in 1906. After serving churches in Florida for several years, Nassau died in retirement in Ambler, Pennsylvania.

Norman A. Horner, ” Nassau, Robert Hamill,” in Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, ed. Gerald H. Anderson (New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 1998), 486-487.

This article is reprinted from Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, Macmillan Reference USA, copyright © 1998 Gerald H. Anderson, by permission of Macmillan Reference USA, New York, NY. All rights reserved.

Editor’s note: According to Raymond W. Teeuwissen’s thesis “Robert Hamill Nassau, 1835-1921: Presbyterian Pioneer Missionary to Equatorial West Africa,” Nassau was born in Montgomery Square, Pennsylvania; the spelling of the station Nassau established is ‘Balembla’; and, the spelling of Nassau’s sister is ‘Isabella.’


Digital Primary Texts

Nassau, Robert Hamill. A History of the Presbytery of Corisco: Ogove River, West Coast of Africa, February, 1888. Trenton, N.J: Press of A. Brandt, Jr, 1888.

____. Africa: An Essay. Philadelphia: Allen, Lane & Scott, 1911.

____. “Batanga Tales.” Reprinted from The Journal of American Folk-Lore. 28 (Jan-March 1915).

____. Bantu Sociology. Philadelphia: Allen, Lane & Scott, 1914.

____. Corisco Days: The First Thirty Years of the West Africa Mission. Philadelphia: Allen, Lane & Scott, 1910.

____. Crowned in Palm-Land. a Story of African Mission Life, [being a Life of M. C. Nassau,] with Illustrations. A Memoir of Mary Cloyd Latta Nassau. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co, 1874.

____. “Fetishism, a Government.” Bulletin of the American Geographical Society. 33.4 (1901): 305-317.

____. Fetishism in West Africa: Forty Years’ Observation of Native Customs and Superstitions. With Twelve Illustrations. New York: Scribner’s, 1904.

____. “Historical Sketch of Missions in Africa.” In Historical Sketch of the Missions in Africa Under the Care of the Board of Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church . Philadelphia: Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society of the Presbyterian Church, 1886, pp. 97-120.  “Africa.” In Historical Sketch of the Missions in Africa Under the Care of the Board of Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church4th Edition Revised and Expanded. Philadelphia: Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society of the Presbyterian Church, 1897, pp. 9-36.

____. In an Elephant Corral: And Other Tales of West African Experiences. New York: Neale Pub. Co, 1912.

____. My Ogowe: Being a Narrative of Daily Incidents During Sixteen Years in Equatorial West Africa. New York: Neale Pub. Co, 1914.

____. The Path She Trod: A Memorial of Mary Brunette (Foster) Nassau. Philadelphia: Press of Allen, Lane & Scott, 1909.

____. “Spiritual Beings in West Africa: Their Classes and Functions.” Bulletin of the American Geographical Society. 35.2 (1903): 115-124.

____. “Spiritual Beings in West Africa: Their Number, Locality, and Characteristics.” Bulletin of the American Geographical Society. 33.5 (1901): 389-400.

____. Tales Out of School. Philadelphia: Allen, Lane & Scott, 1911.

____. Where Animals Talk: West African Folk Lore Tales. Boston: Gorham Press, 1912.

Mackey, James L. and Robert Hamill Nassau. Grammar of the Benga-Bantu Language. New York: American Tract Society, 1982.

Primary Texts

Nassau, Robert Hamill. Ejanganangobo Ya Psami =: The Psalms of David. New York: American Bible Society, 1874.

____. The Gaboon and Corisco Mission. New York: Board of Foreign Missions, 1873.

____. “The Philosophy of Fetishism.” Journal of the Royal African Society. 3.11 (1904): 257-270.

Nassau, Robert H, and H M. Adams. Fañwe Primer and Vocabulary. New York: Edward O. Jenkins, 1881.

Secondary Sources

Cinnamon, John M. “Missionary Expertise, Social Science, and the Uses of Ethnographic Knowledge in Colonial Gabon.” History in Africa. 33 (2006): 413-432.

Mandeng, David Jonathan. “The Philosophy of Mission of Robert Hamill Nassau in the Contemporary World.” Thesis (Ph. D.). Temple University, 1970.

Rogers, Fred B. Robert Hamill Nassau (1835-1921): Apostle to Africa. Philadelphia: College of Physicians, 1963.

Teeuwissen, Raymond Woodrow. “Robert Hamill Nassau, 1835-1921: Presbyterian Pioneer Missionary to Equatorial West Africa.” Thesis (M. Th.). Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, 1973.

Wheeler, W. Reginald. The Words of  God in an African Forest: The Story of an American Mission in West Africa. New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1931, pp. 67-78.

Links and Archival Resources

Notebook of Robert Hamill Nassau. 1881. Archival material available at the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.. Location and catalog information: mm 79002896.

The Robert Hamill Nassau Manuscript Collection. Archival materials available at Princeton Theological Seminary Library. The collection contents are online.

Diaries, 1880-1919. Archival material available at Miami University Library, Hamilton, OH.

Robert Hamill Nassau Papers, 1856-1976. Archival materials available at the Burke Archival Library at Columbia University, New York, NY. The Finding Aid is online.

The Teeuwissen Nassau Website, has a short biographical introduction to his life, as well as a French article for a Dutch newspaper by Raymond Teeuwissen. The site also includes two photo albums, the Robert Hamill Nassau Photo Album, and Robert Hamill Nassau and his family.


Photo courtesy of Suzanne Teeuwissen.