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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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The colony of Liberia to which the Wilson slaves emigrated had contradictions all its own. The Wilsons became increasingly disillusioned with the Liberian colonists, who in their view had learned the hard lessons of slavery all too well and now sought to employ them on the natives. Indeed, contrary to the expectations of some who supported the colonization efforts, the cultural identity of African American immigrants a proved a stronger force than any imagined racial solidarity between the natives and newcomers. The conflict became so pronounced that the Wilsons moved their mission away from the town of Harper to the Gabon estuary, where they lived among the Mpongwe people. Eventually, a war would erupt between the Grebo people and the African American settlers of Liberia, including some of the Wilsons' ex-slaves.

Leighton and Jane returned from Africa in 1852, and Leighton was soon appointed to the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions in New York. He wrote a book, Western Africa: Its History, Condition, and Prospect, in which he described the variety of cultures and languages he and Jane had encountered and attempted to dispel myths and stereotypes about Africa and Africans, especially the pernicious but popular view that Africans (and thus African Americans) were less intelligent than whites. He also tried to convince southern family members that slavery was both wrong and doomed, but to no avail.

And yet, when Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States in the 1860 election, Leighton viewed it as a clear sign that the North intended to force its will on the South. In a series of letters to Jane's cousin, the eminent theologian and arch-conservative Charles Hodge of Princeton Theological Seminary, Leighton insisted that in electing Lincoln the North was "planting her heel on the neck of the South." Thus, when the firing on Ft. Sumter assured a shooting war the Wilsons wasted no time hurrying home. Clarke writes, "Slavery was who they were in spite of their manumissions, in spite of their fighting the slave trade, in spite of their years away … . They could not, finally, separate slavery from home or from themselves, because they could not find the freedom to transcend the contingencies of their lives."

Like many of the people in this book—the African American settlers of Liberia who found themselves more American than "African," the Grebo and Mpongwe people who accepted Christianity but could not reject their old ways and customs—the Wilsons were finally unable to entirely remake themselves. Before we judge them too harshly, we should reflect that the modern impulse toward self-reinvention can produce in our attitudes toward the past a kind of imperial desire, a wish to remake some past other in our own image. In this sense, we often demand from those in the past and the present what we are not always willing or able to do ourselves.

Robert Elder is assistant professor of history at Valparaiso University.

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