African-American Exploration in West Africa: Four Nineteenth-Century Diaries

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MEMOIRS & BIOGRAPHY James Fairhead, Tim Geysbeek, Svend E. Holsoe, and Melissa Leach, eds. African-American Exploration in West Africa: Four Nineteenth-Century Diaries. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003. 504 pp. Photographs. Maps. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $59.95. Cloth.

We are not accustomed to thinking of nineteenth-century African Americans in Africa as explorers. We think of them as missionaries, traders, even sons returned to the bosom of their motherland, but not explorers. These four diaries, dating between 1858 and 1874, belie the notion that African Americans in Africa had no role in exploration. Though the authors of the diaries were all citizens of Liberia, African Americans who had left the United States to settle in the colony founded by the American Colonization Society in 1821, the journeys they made further into the interior and the journals they wrote fall squarely into the genre of exploration writing. Reading them, one notes a striking yet not surprising affinity between their writing and that of white explorers in the same era. Much as their motives may have differed from those of European contemporaries like Richard Burton and Winwood Reade (unfair comparisons perhaps), the style of writing is oddly similar.

The editors have done a fine job of presenting the narratives in a comprehensive manner. After a brief introductory chapter in which they present the explorers and a brief historical background of Liberia, they give us the diaries in as original a form as possible. The order is chronological, beginning with the journeys of James Sims and George Seymour in 1858, followed by the two trips made by Benjamin Anderson in 1868-69 and 1874. The last chapter sets the diaries in context, explaining and clarifying some of the references made by the three men. Some readers may choose to read this chapter before the narratives. …