Washington – Dr. Patrick Burrowes’ love affair with Liberia’s rich history goes as far back as his childhood days. It is something he says that has mesmerized him since he can remember.
‘Between The Kola Forest And The Salty Sea’ – A History of Liberian People Before 1800
“I was always interested in history, even as a child. I remember devouring a loosely-bound mimeographed book that my father brought home called Legends of Liberia”
“I was always interested in history, even as a child. I remember devouring a loosely-bound mimeographed book that my father brought home called Legends of Liberia,” the historian told a gathering of friends, family, loved ones and well-wishers at the weekend as he unveiled a piece of work - thirty years in the making aptly titled: ‘Between
The Kola Forest And The Salty Sea- A History of Liberia Before 1800'.
According to Burrowes, the ancestors of Liberians were more advanced than Europeans in some ways. To show this, he cites a French author who visited the area of Liberia around 1666 AD.
Speaking of blacksmiths at Grand Cess, he said, ‘They work excellent well in Iron, they mended our shears for us, with which we cut out our bars of Iron, and gave them such a temper as made them incomparably better than they were at first.”
According to Dr. Burrowes, the French author was alluding to something scientists have recently proven. When Europeans first came to Africa, our iron smelting knowledge and technology was superior to theirs.
“Both Africans and Chinese iron workers learned how to make steel before Europeans did.”
The book explores variations in languages and ethnic groups of Liberia, showing their common root.
It reveals that the barkless hunting dogs found in Northwestern Liberian villages were the favorite pets of Ancient Egyptian pharaohs.
It also unveils how kola – once used as an ingredient in soft drinks –discovered by the ancestors of Liberians.
Early European explorers learned from early Liberian seafarers how to navigate some dangerous currents and winds of the Atlantic Ocean, he said, and rice growers from West Africa’s “Grain Coast” helped teach Americans how to grow rice.
Today, the United States exports rice to West Africa, including Liberia.”
Dr. Burrowes explains that “Between the Kola Forest and the Salty Sea” took 30 years of research and uses documents first published in Arabic, Portuguese, Spanish and French to unveil some riveting background in Liberia prior to the 1800.
The book also draws on oral traditions, archaeological digs, historical linguistics, studies of cultural patterns embedded in masks and other forms of material culture, regional and continental histories, and even biological anthropology.
For centuries, Burrowes explains, African cultures have been portrayed as “strange,” “weird,” even “evil” through the use of words like “fetish,” “witch,” and “country devil.” His chronology demolishes those negative stereotypes, just as West African farmers burn a field to remove weeds.
Instead, the book uses more neutral words to describe African culture, such as ethnic group (not “tribe”) and energy or power (not “spirit”).
Between the Kola Forest and the Salty Sea is part of a campaign launched in early 2016 to address negative portrayals of Liberian history and to counteract their harmful effects on the Liberian psyche.
The campaign highlights many commonalities and brings to light significant accomplishments of earlier Liberians. It aims to foster greater unity, a sense of national dignity, and empathy among Liberians, regardless of ethnicity.
A Love Affair With History
At last Saturday’s book launching, Burrowes recollected his love affair with Liberia’s historical folklore. The book called “Legends of Liberia”, he says, contained more than 100 trickster stories, historical accounts and other folktales.
“Although each chapter consisted of stories from a separate “tribe,” I noticed common themes and characters.
This led me to begin comparing and synthesizing various genres of tales.
For example, Spider the trickster was not only common to all Liberian groups, I knew from my parents that Jamaicans, too, told stories about the same rascal, whom they called Anansi. Funny as it might sound, it was actually Spider who first led me to a pan-African consciousness.”
The centerpiece of the book launch was an interview of the author conducted by renowned scientist Dr. Dougbeh C. Nyan, who read the book before it was published and gave feedback to the author.
Nyan opined that one of his favorite passages in the book is the opening section of Burrowes’ conclusion: “In some villages deep in Lofa and Bong counties lives a breed of hunting dogs called Basenji that does not bark.
Africans brought the Basenji into existence through selective breeding, as they did with several yams, African rice, and cotton.
Hunters wanted dogs that would not scare away their prey, so they mated quiet dogs with other quiet dogs until they produced one that is nearly silent.
These unique does were once prized by the pharaohs of Ancient Egypt, who attached bells around their necks in order to know where they were.
"In many ways," Burrowes continued, "the story of the Basenji is similar to the history of the Liberian people."
"We generally know next to nothing about the regal past and the torturous journey of the dog and the people who brought it here. As the dog was bred to be backless, Liberians have been inculcated to glorify the past of others and to dismiss our own."
Perhaps the book’s most riveting revelation evolves around Dr. Burrowes’ claim that "The story of the Liberian people did not begin in America, as portrayed in many history books, nor in the rain forest of present-day Liberia, as many people would assume."
He said all ancestors of West Africans originated in the Sahara when it was green, but they moved south when climate change turned the region into a desert.
Burrowes stresses the need for scholars to think critically. "Organizing knowledge involves more than assembling multiple sources. Historians must ask critical questions about each one: Is it authentic? Is it original?
Is it reliable? Is it typical? Who created it? When and where and why it was it created?" Give some concrete example of how taking this critical approach made your work better?
Dr. Burrowes recalls one of those misconceptions from a blogger who posted a story on Facebook about something that allegedly happened in pre-colonial Liberia.
“He took the story verbatim from a book by a French explorer who visited the Cape Mount area in 1666-1667 AD.
The French writer made two claims that were taken as gospel truth.
First, he said the ruler of Cape Mount had offered his territory to the French, if they wanted to settle there. Second, he said French sailors had visited pre-Liberia before the Portuguese Pedro de Sintra.”
Dissecting Misconceptions, Distortions
Dr. Burrowes averred: “The person who posted on Facebook copied those claims word-for-word from the French writer, so in that sense his information was 'accurate.'
What he probably doesn’t know is, the French writer was on a secret mission to find an opening in West Africa for France, which was late in coming to the region.
Instead of giving factual information, he was making propagandistic to please his boss and stir French chauvinism. Both claims are false, according to the consensus among professional historians – including French historians.”
The historian says, the person posting on Facebook would not have known this because he’s an economist, not a historian.
“That’s why it really is best for all of us to “stay in our lane.”
Just as reading the Wall Street Journal doesn’t make me an economist, reading history books doesn’t make one a historian. At the very least, we shouldn’t copy-and-past stories from history books uncritically.”
Dr. Burrowes also tackles another glaring misconception in Liberia’s history over the origins of the word Mesurado.
“Where did the name 'Mesurado' come from?
Writing in 1700, for example, a British author speculated that the river was named “Miserado” by the Portuguese ‘because it is incompassed with Rocks that lye under the water, and inevitably destroy any Vessel which should come nearer than half a League.’
Or, he speculated further, it might have been named by the French ‘who were Massacred here, cryed out Misericorde, Misericorde, Mercy, Mercy.’
“Notice how both his explanations are negative and portray the place or people as dangerous.”
Dr. Burrowes’ adds: “His speculations have been copied and pasted by many writers who came after him, but they are false."
"The name actually dates back to the first Portuguese visitors in the mid-1400s. But it was not given by Pedro de Sintra who visited the area and it is not even Portuguese.
The name was given by an Italian writer named Ca da Mosto, who published the first account of de Sintra’s voyage, four decades after it occurred.
Although most of his book was written in Portuguese, Ca da Mosto used an Italian word, ‘Misurato’ to describe the river near what is now Monrovia. The word means ‘a passage performed in measured time,’ which is not negative at all."
Reason for Global Perspective
Dr. Burrowes laments that many Liberian scholars have written so much about the Liberian state and presidents, that it is almost as if readers have been trained to expect more of the same.
This is why, he explains, he had to take a global perspective. He argues that his book is about “the Liberian people, not the Liberian state.
The story in my book moves from place to place because people move! If I had written a book about the Anglo-Saxon people, it would have started in France, moved to England, then branched to all those places where descendants of Anglo-Saxons live: The United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.”
Second, he says Eurocentric scholars presented the ancestors of Liberians as living in isolation from the rest of the world.
“Some have labeled Kru-speakers, the Gola and others as ‘hunters and gatherers,’ living at a ‘primitive’ stage of existence. So, what about the multinational fishing trawlers that sweep the ocean harvesting seafood they didn’t grow? Why aren’t they labeled ‘hunters and gathers’?”
Dr. Burrowes says while it is true that ancestors were involved in gathering some foods and commodities they had not planted, such as kola, ocean fish and deer meat, much of what they gathered was not for direct consumption.
“Those goods were traded through long-distance trading networks – just like the seafood gathered by fishing thrawlers! So, long story short, I have included chapters on areas outside Liberia proper because I’m trying to show how we, too, were embedded in long-distance trade networks.”
“Many of Liberian 'book people' don’t questions the use of such labels as 'hunters and gatherers' and 'primitive.' They are what I call cut-and-paste scholars. If you went to high school in Liberia, you probably had some of them in your class, too.
They would copy anything and everything from their classmates’ test paper, including sometimes their classmate’s name! To the young people here, I beg you not to be like our older cut-and-paste scholars. Read everything through a critical lens.”
Dr. Burrowes’ take on Liberia’s history comes in the aftermath of a brutal civil war as Liberia embarks on a transition from war to peace and one he says makes the book timely for Liberia’s historical sanity.
“Liberians went through a war. And war – any war, anywhere – is a form of temporary insanity. People take leave of their senses. Some 12 years after the guns were silenced, however, Liberians face the danger of normalizing abhorrent behavior.”
Embarking on A New Journey
For the foreseeable future, Dr. Burrowes laments he would like the word to go out that Liberians are embarking on a new journey, a journey that involves taking back control of our history and will insist on presenting the best of who we are -even at some great difficulties.
“The journey will not be easy, but I hope each Liberian will find a way to advance the process. If you are a songwriter, why not write a song about some aspect of our history? If you are an artist, I hope the book inspires you to paint historical scenes."
"If you are a videographer, let us work together to produce historical documentaries. If you don’t have time to give but you have money, consider sending copies of Between the Kola Forest and the Salty Sea to your favorite college or school in Liberia. No one can do everything, but everyone can do something.”