Project Canterbury

Within the Green Wall
The Story of Holy Cross Liberia Mission 1922-1957

By the Rt. Rev. Robert Erskine Campbell, O.H.C.
Formerly Prior of Bolahun and Bishop of Liberia

West Park, New York: Holy Cross Press, [1957]

Reproduced online by permission of the Superior of the Order of the Holy Cross, 2006.

Chapter 2. Pandora's Box

BY THIS time many questions must excite the curiosity of the reader. In the pages which follow we shall try to supply some of the answers, giving as best we can both the background and the actual work of Holy Cross Mission. Thus, if Sir 'Walter Raleigh could undertake writing a "History of the World" while under sentence of death in the Tower of London, surely we may be excused when we try to describe the African background as a suitable introduction to the story of the mission itself. Raleigh apparently was determined to put England in its proper perspective. We have the same plan regarding Bolahun and its remarkable development under the hand of Almighty God.

The land of Egypt and the valley of the Nile are the first parts of Africa to emerge into history. Even that is but a small dot on the map, for the continent measures about 5,000 miles from north to south, and 4,500 from Dakar in the west to Cape Gardafui in the east. Learned authors inform us that the [6/7] geological formations in Africa are similar to those in India. Generally speaking, Africa is not unlike a three-layer cake. First of course comes the coastal plain, anywhere up to 100 miles wide. A plateau averaging about i,5oo feet in elevation above sea level comes next and embraces the greatest area in the interior of the continent. Above that we find the real highlands which include Kenya, Abyssinia and a great part of the Sahara Desert. In Kenya there towers Africa's loftiest peak, Kilimanjaro, 19,321 feet. This lies almost on the equator.

Of the people in this vast area, those dwelling in Egypt and Abyssinia have apparently always been distinct. But through the centuries many Semites from 'Western Asia have migrated to Africa and intermarried with the indigenous Negroes. This mixture is supposed to give us the Bantu in South and Central Africa, below the Sahara and in the Congo Basin. Many of these mixed ethnic groups during the years have been pushed westward under the impact of fresh migrations. The principal units still surviving are the really superior, progressive Hausas in northern Nigeria, and in French Guinea the Susus, Mandingoes and a markedly semicaucasian tribe known as the Fulas. All these last named tribes overflow into Gambia, Sierra Leone and Liberia. They are now pretty solidly Mohammedan in religion and ferocious in trade.

These refugee peoples in turn squeezed the indigenous Negro tribes into the dense tropical rain forest and ever nearer to the sea, if they did not actually exterminate or assimilate them. Thus in West Africa we have a curious sort of ethnic patchwork quilt. Strange tribal groups obviously related by culture and language as isolated units yet many hundreds of miles distant from their original home, clearly different from their neighbors, are a not uncommon spectacle. From careful observers we learn that the Kisis in northwest Liberia for example, and the Temnes in Sierra Leone must be Bantus separated from their brethren on the Congo long, long ago.

[8] As might be expected in so huge a land mass as Africa, we meet isolated populations which rather defy classification. Since our main interest is West Africa in general and northern Liberia in particular, we shall do no more than mention the Berbers along the Mediterranean and the aboriginal Bushmen and Pygmies in the far South. Incidentally, in the forests in Liberia there survive a few of the "small people," as the Pygmies are termed, who build no towns, make no farms, living on roots and herbs and sleeping in the high trees. To return to the genuine West African Negro, he is apt to be either a warrior, a hunter or a farmer. Many of the tribes to the North of us in French Guinea, where the dense forest gives way to open grasslands, busy themselves with cattle raising, and with sheep and goats. This includes the Susus and others of mixed origin.

For its size and long history Africa has really very few ancient monuments. We all know of Egypt with its pyramids and temples along the Nile. By the Zambezi in the southeast lie a number of ruined cities of which Zimbabwe in Southern Rhodesia is one, especially interesting because of their supposed connection with King Solomon's gold mines. In East Central Africa especially archaeologists have been busy digging into prehistoric graves, piecing together fragments of bones, mending bits of broken pottery, in an effort to determine whence they came and why. How and when did those Jewish Negroes get to the Gold Coast? What is the source of the agri beads, the soapstone figurines occasionally unearthed, the odd coins, bits of a rosary or of a cross which come to light in most unexpected places? The Susus, for example, are known as the "People of the Snake." Their cattle look exactly like those seen in Egyptian hieroglyphics. It makes us feel pretty certain that if they possessed any written history it would carry us right back to ancient Egypt. This conclusion is obvious, though only a shrewd guess on our part.

Poor facilities for travel and the general lack of incentive [8/9] and trade locked Africa's secrets tightly for many a century. Sailors from Egypt and Crete seem to have explored the Mediterranean coast, and of course we know of the highly successful Phoenician settlement at Carthage. These bold adventurers from Tyre and Sidon must have pushed on out into the open Atlantic through the Gates of Hercules, now known as Gibraltar, for they and the Carthaginians surely knew of the tin to be found in Britain. Incidentally, Dr. Hermann's recent "Conquest by Man" says that the Phoenicians also must have reached the Canary Islands. Because of the valuable dye barks they found there they are supposed to have invented the tales of horrible monsters and other terrors of the great deep to keep all inquisitive competitors from following them.

All that had happened by the time of the Greek historian Herdotus, who informs us that Phoenician navigators had already sailed around Africa a century and a half previously--i.e. about the year 6oo B.C. He it is who records an expedition across the Sahara, presumably from Carthage to the Niger River. But this account seems founded on hearsay, for it is quite vague. It may indicate however that in his day caravans were finding their way into a country rich in ivory, spices and with some gold.

The very first written record we have of what is now West Africa comes from a second-hand Greek translation of a tablet from one of the temples in Carthage. It was set there by a navigator named Hanno about the year 500 B.C. and tells of his exciting voyage into a world hitherto unknown. By that time Heme (or Kerne) Island in a deep bay at the mouth of the Rio d'Oro, now part of a Spanish protectorate, was a Punic trading station, between Gibraltar and the Canaries. This spot he mentions, and relates his sailing along the coast to a mountain called Wakulo, which he says was on fire. The only peaks worthy of note along the West Coast are Sierra Leone, Cape Mount in western Liberia, and Camerun, [9/10] where the shore line turns sharply south. Each of these lays claim to be the authentic Wakulo. The natives of Cape Mount are especially insistent about their bid for fame, for, as they maintain, burning the brush for their farms is a custom of hoary antiquity and still practiced every year. Hanno tells also of huge hairy men called gorillas. If these are the same as what we know as gorillas, they now are found chiefly in the Camerun district. On the other hand, these monsters may have been chimpanzees, still plentiful all along the coast, as many travellers and explorers testify. Interesting as all these speculations are, the fact remains that Hanno's is the earliest record we have of a trip to West Africa. Others may have made this journey before him, but if so no account of it has been found.

West Africa drops out of sight during the heyday of Greek and Roman culture. Fresh hordes of so-called barbarians rushed into Europe from central Asia. Slowly but surely they took unto themselves and absorbed the older Mediterranean civilization. But in 1339 a Norman vessel is said to have sailed from Dieppe on the French side of the English Channel. From the account brought home months later, by Christmas they had reached Cape Verde, the western-most bit of Africa jutting out into the Atlantic. The mariners seem to have visited Sierra Leone, called Boulombel, passed Cape Mount on the Grain coast, so called from the "grains of paradise" (pepper) which they found, and finally to have anchored at Bassa Cove, some sixty miles east of the present Monrovia. By i 367 it seems pretty certain that there existed a trading post at Bassa named Petit Dieppe, of which nothing much beyond the name is known, though its business must have been profitable. In those days in Europe pepper came as an expensive luxury, and those Norman adventurers must have made fabulous fortunes. There are indications too that in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the Italians had an overland route from the Mediterranean to West Africa. This surmise is made because of the [10/11] ivory and spices which appeared in Venice, Rome, Naples and other centers of wealth and culture.

About a century later (1461) ships from Portugal began to arrive, and for 200 years monopolized West African commerce. To this day their place names along the shore line as far as the mouth of the Congo have stuck. On the Liberian coast, for example, almost every landmark, every river bears a Portuguese name from Cape Mount in the West to Cape Palmas and the Cavalla River in the East. They were good traders, carrying to Europe spices, ivory, gold in exchange for inconsequential trinkets, gunpowder and firearms. When the opening of the new world across the Atlantic created a demand for slaves to work the Spanish mines and plantations in the sixteenth century, of course they entered that business too. Yet be it said to their credit that even after a lapse of three centuries the reputation of the Portuguese is high. They introduced rice, bananas, ground nuts and kitchen vegetables. Many words obviously from their language are in use along the coastal regions even today. Of these perhaps the most common is palava, meaning talk, a discussion of some sort, and finally a law suit.

It is quite beyond our province to tell of the bold explorers who found their way to India and the far East. But Portuguese mariners again were pioneers in all these ventures, even though they failed to keep their monopoly of trade. By the end of the seventeenth century they had brisk Dutch, French and English competition, especially in the slave market. From accounts we have seen, the Dutch and British were hard men driving hard bargains, and with plenty of hard liquor and firearms to help them. How West Africa managed to survive this deliberate debauching of its people is anybody's guess. For the entire eighteenth century the bait alluring not only Europeans but Americans and Arabs was ivory and slaves. It is distressing to relate, but the slave trade has continued almost to our own day. [11/12] Certainly in this Liberian Hinterland slaves were bought and sold freely as late as 1909; and the early missionaries at Bolahun recall hearing of a regular slave market in one of the larger centers in French Guinea, just to the North. While there is still all over Africa probably considerable "bootleg slaving," at least it is everywhere officially outlawed. The high altar of our Anglican cathedral in Zanzibar stands over the site of the old slave market, while that of Mombasa marks the yard where recalcitrant, non-cooperative captives were flogged, sometimes even unto death. Right here at Bolahun we know of several elderly men and women who in childhood had been sold as slaves but managed later to win their freedom. As far as we can make out, to the ordinary native man hereabouts, slavery is an economic arrangement, with no moral stigma attached in any way to either purchaser, seller or the person sold.

For weal or for woe western materialism and a veneer of so-called civilization have been imposed upon a simple, primitive people. It would require more space and greater skill than ours to discuss this clash of races and cultures. Always there arise tensions when strange peoples and ideologies meet. Here in the Liberian Hinterland we are convinced that this could easily deteriorate into a reign of terror unless sweetened and guided by principles truly Christian. Of one thing we may be sure. Europe, Asia and America have entered Africa to stay. We have brought a new culture, a different religion and a competitive economy. Each group has something worth while to contribute to the common welfare. In this adjustment none can be superior, none inferior. We must rather consider ourselves and those about us as fellow workers in an effort to produce a new and a better Africa to the greater glory of God and the lasting benefit of each one of His children.

Project Canterbury