Erskine Clarke, By the Rivers of Water: A Nineteenth-Century Atlantic Odyssey
The other day, I was talking with my students about the early American foreign mission movement. We were looking at a map of the world as I listed off some of the places where you could have found American missionaries in the years before 1850: North America, Asia, the Pacific Islands, the Mideast, Africa… “Wait a minute,” one of my students stopped me. “Isn’t slavery going on at the time? Isn’t it hypocritical for them to be sending missionaries to Africa at the same time that they’re enslaving Africans?”
It’s an interesting question, I responded. Foreign missions and slavery have a complex history, and there is no better demonstration of that complexity than in the life of John Leighton Wilson. Wilson was the first missionary to Liberia sent by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. The ABCFM had begun talking about an African mission in the mid-1820s. Sending the gospel was the only way that Americans might repay the debt they owed to Africa for slavery, they believed. At the time, the directors of the Board were sure that any white man would surely die in the West African climate. Yet the search for an African American missionary who was willing to serve the Board was unsuccessful, and by the mid-1830s, some in the Board thought that a white southerner might do well in Africa. The climates were similar enough. And so, they commissioned John Leighton Wilson, a South Carolinian by birth, who together with his wife owned thirty-two slaves at the time that he was selected to become a missionary to Liberia. My student’s eyebrows went up. “Uh oh…” he said.
A self-described reluctant slaveholder, he has real hesitations about southern slavery, but would never go so far as to say that American slavery was inherently wrong. Accused by abolitionists of being a “man-stealer” and by his family of becoming an abolitionist, he existed somewhere between the two. He wrote extensively and earnestly against racial scientists who attempted to lump all Africans into a single, inferior, racial category, and yet his own racism would lead to major difficulties for his cooperation with African American colonists in Liberia. Most of this story takes place in West Africa, where the Wilsons lived first among the Grebo in Liberia and then Mpongwe of Gabon.
In both places, Clarke emphasizes the ways that missionaries and those they hoped to convert were in conversation with each other. As the missionaries taught about their faith and culture, they also learned about that of the people they had come to change and to serve. While the Wilsons found much that they did not like about Liberia and Gabon, they also found much to admire.
Clarke does a wonderful job of describing life on the mission and the ways that these former slaveholding missionaries approached the African individuals they met. But the Wilsons were not the only Americans in Liberia, and the relationship between the mission and the colony at Cape Palmas challenges any simple interpretation of the mission as an anti-racist space.
One of the most wonderful parts of this book is the way that Clarke is able to trace not only the Wilsons’ journeys in Africa, but also those of their former slaves. Clarke opens his book with the Bayard slaves and the haunting question of what would become of them when Jane Bayard married Leighton Wilson. Her move to Liberia opened up the possibility for their own move to Liberia. The Wilsons wanted to free their slaves if they would choose to leave their homes and set out for colonization in West Africa. Eventually, some of them would settle not far from the mission house in Liberia. The Wilsons, for their part, had tried to stop the migration of the Bayard slaves after their own arrival in Africa. Wilson came to disapprove of colonization and of many of the African American colonists, finding them entirely unsuitable for self-government and “civilization.” His letter reached South Carolina too late, however, and the freemen and women made new lives within sight of their former owners.
Within a few years, Leighton Wilson would become deeply troubled by the appointment of an African American governor, John Russwurm, in Cape Palmas. The two would argue about power and authority for years. This is the part of Wilson’s story that I am most familiar with from my own research, and Clarke tells it beautifully, seeing in this conflict a hint of what was to come for Wilson in the second half of the nineteenth century. I have always found Wilson rather unsympathetic here, but Clarke challenges us to take a closer look.
For Clarke, Wilson’s story is ultimately a tragedy. Back in the United States by the coming of the Civil War, Wilson finally sided with the Confederacy, to the disappointment of his former colleagues in Liberia. As he discusses the Wilsons’ decision to move back to the South, Clarke describes the “siren voice” of their childhood homes that “seduced them” away (336). A different writer might not have let the Wilsons off so easy. As Clarke himself points out, the Wilsons had a choice in the matter; nothing was inevitable here. As much as they were shaped by long-ago memories and associations of the slaveholding South, their experiences in Liberia and Gabon might have led them down a very different path. But then, a different writer would not have been able to tell the Wilsons’ story with such beautiful complexity.