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By the Rivers of Water: A Nineteenth-Century Atlantic Odyssey
By the Rivers of Water: A Nineteenth-Century Atlantic Odyssey
Erskine Clarke
Basic Books, 2013
488 pp., $29.99

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Robert Elder


By the Rivers of Water

The power of place.

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In his selected essays, To Begin Where I Am, the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz describes growing up on his grandfather's farm in Lithuania beside a river and a grove of trees that "was never to abandon me throughout my life, wherever fate carried me." He returned to the place as an old man to find the river polluted, the trees gone, and the landscape unrecognizable, ravaged by the forces of collectivization and Communism. Nothing was familiar, and yet, as he writes, "I was looking at a meadow. Suddenly the realization came that during my years of wandering I had searched in vain for such a combination of leaves and flowers as was here and that I have always been yearning to return."

Most Americans hold firmly to the modern myth of self-renovation. We believe that anyone can slip off the deep rhythms of their earliest influences and become something else, something better. Among these influences, the power of a particular place—its geography, people, and customs—is perhaps the least well understood and the most deeply consequential. Erskine Clarke's latest book is about the power of another river in another place, far from Milosz's Lithuania in both space and time, and the story Clarke has to tell casts doubt on the question of whether we can ever escape our own histories or the places we come from.

Immediately after the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter in April of 1861, John Leighton Wilson and his wife, Jane Bayard Wilson, sold their home in New York City, where Leighton had served on the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions for the last eight years, and bought a home sight-unseen in Jane's hometown of Savannah. Leighton was from the Lowcountry of South Carolina, where he had grown up along the Black River, a descendant of the Scottish and Scots-Irish Presbyterians who settled there in the 18th century and quickly adopted the American practice of buying African slaves to raise the cotton that fed the growing industrial economies of the North and England. Jane was from nearby Savannah, the daughter of a wealthy family of slaveholders.

What made the Wilsons' return to their southern homeland so surprising was that they did not support the peculiar institution that lay at the heart of the new Confederate nation. For the twenty years before they had settled in New York in 1853, they had lived as missionaries on the west coast of Africa. After being converted in the fervor of the Second Great Awakening and feeling called to missionary work in Africa—in part because of their experience growing up in the midst of African-American slaves—the Wilsons established their first mission on the west coast of Africa in the colony of Liberia, established by the American Colonization Society in 1820 as a haven for freed American slaves.

The Wilsons' mission was not to the African American immigrants of the nearby town of Harper, but to the Grebo people who lived in the surrounding area. The Grebo had long been exposed to the currents of Atlantic trading routes and the slave trade, and the Wilsons immediately found them adept at negotiating between two worlds. Grebo leaders such as King Freeman and his brother William Davis (their English names) spoke Creole and English, eagerly accepted the Western education offered by the missionaries for their children, and in some cases had even visited the United States or England. And yet, even as they were aware of the benefits of adopting Western mores, and even when they converted to Christianity, these figures stubbornly (in the Wilsons' view) retained their uniquely Grebo identity.

The Wilsons also observed with growing horror the operations of the transatlantic slave trade, in which coastal peoples like the Grebo bartered slaves from the interior of the continent for clothing, guns, and rum, with ships sailing from a variety of Western nations. Leighton and Jane had both inherited slaves back home and agonized over how to deal with the contradictions between their calling as missionaries to Africa and their ownership of other human beings. They wanted to free their slaves, but it was no easy thing to free one's slaves in the antebellum South. State laws forbid freed slaves from remaining in the state for fear of slave rebellions, while most northern states made entry difficult. In the end, the Wilsons offered their slaves a difficult choice: freedom and emigration to Liberia, a place their slaves had never seen, or slavery in the only home they had ever known. As Clarke writes, "Did they want to leave the land of their birth for a distant unknown land? Was the burden of slavery so great … that they would be willing to leave behind family and friends for the free air of Africa?" In the end, nearly all the Wilsons' slaves haltingly chose to emigrate to Liberia. However, at least two chose to stay, living secretly as free people on Leighton's father's plantation along the Black River. For these slaves, even the horrors of slavery did not prevent a conflicted attachment to their southern home.

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