A Dutch Photographer’s First Impressions in Liberia, 1932


Introduction: It was the end of July when the adventurous Dutch anthropologist named Paul Julien, then 31 years old, arrived in Monrovia after a long journey on a Spanish ship he boarded weeks before. The year was 1932, 3 years before Graham Greene who wrote the famous book ‘Journey Without Maps,’ traveled through Liberia coming from Sierra Leone. Julien made a living as a chemistry teacher back home in the Netherlands. That was the reason he traveled during the rainy season, it was the long break between one school term and the next.

For my research I brought the photographs made in Liberia to Liberia for the first time since they exist. I am trying to find out what their value is in Liberia and which stories can be connected to them. For Paul Julien the photographs he made, the filming, even the writing, were side effects of his scientific research. He came to collect both anthropometric and serological data among the Mano, Gio and Geh because, as he said, ‘little has been known about them’. In anthropometric research people were measured as their bodily features were supposed to give valuable anthropological information. This line of work would soon be abandoned by Paul Julien, as it did not lead to any significant result. But he did carry on with the serological research during travels to many places on the African continent until the early sixties. He took blood samples of specific groups of people to find ‘blood group correlations’ that could provide information about the way human groups are or are not related to each other and spread in the past.

Next to the photographs that Julien made, he wrote about his experiences in Liberia. First he did this in letters to his parents. Later he would write radio columns that he presented for the Dutch radio and articles for a Belgian magazine. Several chapters of the book ‘Campfires Along the Equator’ that was originally published in the Netherlands in 1940, were devoted to his Liberian journey. I will use quotes from all of these sources in the texts I will be sharing with you over the following weeks.

Immediately after arriving Paul Julien writes a letter to his parents: “This morning I arrived before Monrovia.” It was not possible for the ship to enter Monrovia, since the Freeport (and therefore also West Point) were not yet there. Boats with Liberian officials and traders came to meet the ship and take those who had reached their destination to the mainland. “When we were about 3 miles from the shore we entered the boats and a gang of blacks rowed us to the land that looked extremely pictorial in the distance. There was a nonstop drizzle. While I write this, heavy rain is beating down on the roof. The three Germans were very nervous and looked pale. When I asked what the reason was for this they said: ‘Die Barre’ (which is German for the sandbank). In front of the coastline there is a sandbank the boat has to hover over, and it happened more than once that a boat capsized over here. But it all went well. The boat with about 30 rowers suddenly was elevated and the surf made it pass the sandbank. Now we were in quiet waters and 45 minutes later we set foot on land. The first impression is beyond description, I have never and nowhere seen such an incredible mess in one place. Streets full of people in all shades of black, dressed in rags were making their way through the mud. A little bit further on the ‘city’ is a bit tidier, more pictorial than any other place. Everything is incredibly run down. There used to be electrical light: no longer possible since the government doesn’t have any money. All streets are overgrown with grass.”

Paul Julien, himself a very religious Catholic notes “an unbelievable number of ‘churches’ from a variety of American sects, built in an untidy way. It’s very messy and at the same time of an unforgetable beauty. All this is located beautifully on a peninsula, with a lovely climate, 70 degrees, only lots of rain.”

He will later change his mind about the lovely climate when walking through the hinterland. But first there would be work for him to do in Monrovia.

Author’s note:

Paul Julien (1901-2001) was an anthropologist from the Netherlands who traveled through Liberia in 1932. Andrea Stultiens (1974) is a photographer and researcher from the Netherlands. As part of her PhD-research she tries to connect the past that was documented by Paul Julien to the past as remembered in Liberia and the way it is connected to the present.  From July 19th till August 19th 2014 Julien’s photographs and the film he made will be on display at the National Museum. Leading up to this some of the stories are shared in History and Us columns written collaboratively by Kenneth Best and Andrea Stultiens. Comments are most welcome on info@andreastultiens.nl


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