Wednesday, 29 September 2010
Congos and the Country People
When I discover a writer for the first time, someone I find impressive, I tend to work my way in a fever through everything they’ve written. So it was with Graham Greene, who came to me in my mid-teens. I read all of his novels, increasingly fascinated by the moral dilemmas he explores, his short stories and his non-fiction work, including Lord Rochester’s Monkey, an analysis of the poems and life of John Wilmot, second earl of Rochester, a notorious Restoration libertine, and Journey Without Maps, his account of a safari with his cousin Barbara through the West African state of Liberia in the 1930s.
I didn’t think too much about the latter: I saw it; I read it; I forgot it. But an article by Tim Butcher, formerly the Daily Telegraph’s Africa correspondent, in the October issue of History Today (Our Man in Liberia) has not just brought it back to mind but allowed me to focus more specifically on the context of the journey and the history of Liberia, a country, I confess, about which I know virtually nothing, beyond the fact that it was set up by freed slaves returning ‘home’ from the United States in the nineteenth century. The paradox is that Greene was sent to the place as an agent for the Anti-Slavery Society. The ancestors of slaves, in other words, were suspected of practicing slavery!
There are lots of paradoxes here. Liberia itself was a country created not on a principle of freedom but in part on specific forms of racism. The American Colonization Society, set up in the early nineteenth century, was run less by altruists than by those for whom free blacks in a slave-owning society were a problem. The ‘back to Africa’ project, in other words, was a way reinforcing slavery by removing an obvious anomaly.
The project was an early form, if you like, of ethnic cleansing, and was perceived to be such by many among the black population whose home was America, not an Africa of which they knew nothing. Those who did accept the offer of transportation were considered to be lackeys, people who betrayed the struggle against slavery in the United States. In the end only 11,000 agreed to take part in the Liberia venture.
These people were effectively dumped on the shores of what was to become Liberia in the 1820s, on lands bought from local tribal chiefs. Black these settlers may have been but African they most assuredly were not. As Butcher points out, a great many simply could not cope with the local conditions, killed off in large numbers by disease or by hostile tribes, much like the early white settlers in America.
By the late 1840s the population had reduced so much that questions were raised over the project’s viability. By this time the American Colonisation Society had lost all interest. The cords were cut and the few thousand survivors established Liberia as a sovereign nation, with a national motto of ‘The love of Liberty Brought Us Here.’
I used to believe that Liberia survived the late nineteenth century Scramble for Africa because it was under some kind of American protection. That’s the not the case: the simple fact is that it had nothing worth scrambling for. The first signs of any kind of national prosperity did not come until the 1920s, when the Firestone rubber company set up operations in the country.
It’s now that the real divisions began to appear between Americo-Liberians, known to the indigenous people as ‘Congos’, a reminder that it was from here that a huge number of Africans were taken into slavery in past times, and the ‘Country People’, the pejorative expression the settlers used for the native Liberians. It was the struggle between the Congos and the Country People that really defines modern Liberia, superficially called the ‘black republic’ by outsiders.
The greatest contradiction of all was over the issue of slavery, the issue that Greene came to explore. The founding charter of Liberia condemns the slave trade as “that curse of curses”, but by the late 1920s the government was selling its own people, the Country People, rather, into slavery. The Congos offered the bizarre defence that they had simply ‘acquired’ tribesmen disposed of by the village elders, thus preserving a longstanding tradition.
The problem kept coming and going, apparently solved at one moment only to appear at the next. In 1935 the Anti-Slavery and Aboriginal Protection Society described Liberia as “one of our most difficult and anxious problems.” Up to date information was needed and Greene, known from his work on The Times, was the man for the task.
Journey without Maps is far from being my favourite book by Greene; and it’s certainly far from being my favourite book about travel! This is not a trip into the exotic, something the author must have been expecting, but a monotonous sojourn through mile upon mile off elephant grass, punctuated by periodic meals with local villagers, eating something called ‘chop’, a lose term covering culinary horrors! Conditions were generally deplorable, particularly in health care. Greene himself took ill, so badly that he was not expected to live. But he did, thank goodness. No, Journey without Maps is not Conrad but it’s still a worthwhile reminder of past explorations and past times. Besides, the recent history of Liberia and Sierra Leone, through which the author also passed, show that when it comes to Africa darkness is never that far from the heart.