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

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African-American Exploration in West Africa: Four Nineteenth-Century Diaries. Edited by James Fairhead, Tim Geysbeek, Svend E. Holsoe and Melissa Leach. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003. Pp. xi, 488; 38 illustrations, 11 maps, notes, index, bibliography. $59.95.

The four diaries in this book fall within the genre of narratives written by travelers who ventured into the African hinterland during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In fact, two of the diaries were stored in the library of the British Royal Geographical Society alongside the works of famous explorers like David Livingstone and Henry Stanley. The men who carried out the "African-American exploration" were James Sims, George Seymour, and Benjamin Anderson. They were Americo-Liberians of the Republic of Liberia, an enclave on the Atlantic coast founded in 1822 by free blacks from the United States. Seymour emigrated to Liberia in 1841 and became a teacher, a farmer, a preacher, and a legislator, among other occupations. Sims and Anderson relocated in 1852. Sims was probably a merchant; he opened a "grocery business" upon arrival in Liberia. Anderson, trained as a mathematician and surveyor, held several positions in the Liberian government, including secretary of the treasury. They traveled into the interior of present-day northwestern Liberia and Guinea between 1858 and 1874. Their ultimate destination was a thriving commercial town in Guinea, called Musadu, which attracted merchants from the savanna in the north and the forest just below; their goal was to encourage the Kpelle, Loma, and Mandingo (or Manding) along the major trade routes to allow the free flow of commerce to the coast.

There are seven chapters in this book. In the first two, the editors provide an overview of Liberian history and a brief description of other explorations into the interior. The four diaries are presented in the next four chapters. Throughout these early chapters, the editors demonstrate their knowledge of the history of the region by detailed references and meticulous annotations. It is in the final chapter, however, that the reader will appreciate the full depth of understanding that the editors bring to bear. Here, they present a careful analysis of the dynamic political, social, and economic activities that unfolded in this commercial corridor.

James Sims wrote the first diary. He began his journey in January 1858 near Monrovia, the Liberian capital, and returned approximately nine months later. George Seymour's expedition was inspired by an earlier journey into the interior. Seymour, a Methodist missionary who may later have joined the Presbyterian church in Liberia, believed that through Christianity and commerce the indigenous people could be encouraged to accept Western values, and eventually become productive Liberians. His idea, "faith and works go hand in hand" (p. 40), is similar to what is generally known as the "Bible and the Plough" philosophy of nineteenth-century abolitionists. …


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