Rethinking the History of Settler Agriculture in Nineteenth-Century Liberia*

Article excerpt

In 1870 five Americo-Liberians, as descendants of the free American slaves who founded Liberia in 1822 later called themselves, sat down to lunch. Their host, another Americo-Liberian, served the midday meal, and an account of that occasion was subsequently published in a local paper.1 An excerpt from the story follows:

We had scarcely finished friendly greetings ... when another little "stir" arrested our attention, and lo, a fine Liberian "Dumboy," the name of which is associated with so many reminiscences.... The Dumboy, not withstanding its singular name, is a very excellent dish.... we Liberians would not exchange for any foreign dishes that could be offered. It is healthy, harmless, and very nutritious.2

Anecdotes like this narrative about the "dumboy"3 and recently uncovered archival evidence suggests that scholars must reconsider a fundamental assumption about the history of Liberian agriculture in the nineteenth century. According to the existing literature, for the most part of the nineteenth century Americo-Liberians failed to produce staple crops for exports because they strongly disdained agricultural labor. This contempt was manifested in the social attitudes of the immigrants.4 For instance, it is alleged that the Americo-Liberians preferred imported American foods like pork and bacon to indigenous African cuisine such as "dumboy."5 Scholars contend that the importation of foodstuffs hindered agriculture; in the words of historian M. B. Akpan, it was "hardly compatible with enthusiasm for agriculture."6

But the evidence shows that in addition to the dumboy, American immigrants did adopt many local foods. Consider the contents of the following letters that immigrants in Liberia sent back to the United States. William Burke, emancipated by his owner (would-be Confederate General Robert E. Lee), emigrated to Liberia with his family in 1853. The following year, Burke sent a letter to the Lees in which he commented that "four or five months after we arrived in Africa, my children looked better than I think I ever saw them; they were so fond of palm oil and rice, and eat so much of it, that they fattened very fast."7 In another piece of Burke's correspondence to Mrs. Lee about four years later, he provided more details about African foodstuffs: "We have a vegetable known by the name eddoe, Or tania, very much like our Irish potato, a very excellent breadstuff. I raised a quantity of them, which my family live upon, they being very wholesome."8 Another immigrant, Henry Hannon, traveled to Liberia after being manumitted in 1837 or early 1838. In a letter to his erstwhile family in 1846, Hannon explained:

You desire of me to mension something about meat and Bread stuffs that we have in Africa. When we want Bread we take the Rice, beat it in a morter, siften it until it become a beautifull white flour, knead it & Break it as other Bread. Meats, we have a great meny: wild Deer, hogs, goats, and meny other animals. Very good meats when we can get them; we cannot get Every time we want them.9

Finally, a dozen new immigrants arrived in Liberia in December 1869 and informed acquaintances in the United States less than six months later: "We have under cultivation, rice, peas, potatoes, corn, eddoes, cassadas [cassava] ginger, figs, and arrow root. Every family is well satisfied' [emphasis added].10

Some scholars have alleged that the large number of former slaves among the immigrant population shunned agriculture because it evoked unpleasant memories of slavery. "Others charged that the former slaves misconstrued their new-found freedom in Liberia to mean that they did not have to work.12 Here again, the evidence leads us to a different conclusion. Excerpts from a set of letters ex-slaves in Liberia wrote to their former masters demonstrate perseverance and determination, not antipathy to agriculture. In 1859, James P. Skipwith, for example, explained to John H. Cocke: "I am trying to Farm But cannot see But little Progress as yet. …