Interview with the author, Dr. Carl Patrick Burrowes, by Dr. Dougbeh C. Nyan at the launch of the book in Washington, D.C., on Saturday, January 15, 2017.
Few Liberians know the history of the Basenji – quiet dogs mated with other quiet dogs over the centuries to produce dogs that are nearly silent. This lack of knowledge about these dogs is similar to our general lack of knowledge of our history, so much so that we glorify others and dismiss ours.
In his book, ‘Between the Kola Forest and the Salty Sea,’ renowned Liberian historian, academic and author, Dr. Carl Patrick Burrowes, delves into the history of Liberia unbeknown to many, giving us a great appraisal on why that should change.
At the launch of the book in Washington, DC on Saturday, January 15, Dr. Burrowes was interviewed by Liberia’s foremost scientist of world renown, Dr. Dougbeh C. Nyan, who was the National Orator at Liberia’s 2016 Independence Day celebrations. Below is a transcript of the interview between these two giants of Liberia’s intelligentsia.
Dr. Dougbeh C. Nyan: One of my favorite passages in the book is the opening section of your conclusion on page 333. Kindly read it for us.
Dr. C. Patrick Burrowes: 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 dogs 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, 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 barkless, Liberians have been inculcated to glorify the past of others and to dismiss our own.
Over time, the local past fell silent. Today, Liberians typically show little regard either for the ways of their ancestors or for the dog, which we often look down upon for being barkless.
Dr. Dougbeh C. Nyan: The first chapter of your book begins with the bold claim, on page 27, 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.” Please elaborate.
Dr. C. Patrick Burrowes: 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.’ It contained over 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.
Dr. Dougbeh C. Nyan: What would you say are some of the key findings of your research?
Dr. C. Patrick Burrowes: Ok. Here are a few: The different languages and ethnic groups of Liberia share a common root. The breed of barkless ‘kaykay’ dogs found in Liberian villages was a favorite pet of ancient Egyptian pharaohs. Kola – once used as an ingredient in soft drinks – was 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. 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. Dougbeh C. Nyan: In the introduction to your book you stress the need for scholars to think critically. On page 5 you say, “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 was it created?” Give some concrete example of how taking this critical approach made your work better?
Dr. C. Patrick Burrowes: Ok. Here’s one example: Just the other day, a Liberian economist 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.
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 propaganda to please his boss and stir French chauvinism. Both claims are false, according to the consensus among professional historians – including French historians. (See pages 261-269.)
But the person posting on Facebook wouldn’t know 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.
Here’s another example: 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.’ (See pages 185-186.)
Notice how both his explanations are negative and portray the place or people as dangerous.
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 visit 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.’
Da Mosto was saying the river was calm and steady flowing, not dangerous. You wouldn’t know that unless you are critical of what writers have said and are willing to dig behind them. When people ask me why it took 30 years to write this book, well, that’s why: Being critical and digging.
Dr. Dougbeh C. Nyan: On page 332 you say “one of the main problems of Liberian studies – one that has blocked the writing of the nation’s history – is the assumption of cultural and ethnic purity.” What do you mean?
Dr. C. Patrick Burrowes: As shown in this book, purity never existed. African religious ideas impacted Judaism, and through it, Islam and Christianity. Likewise, African culture was impacted by imported elements, such as the use of Indian Ocean cowries in traditional religious rituals.
Similarly, the Wee, Glebo and Klao resulted from the blending of various Kru-speaking groups. The Mende emerged from the mixing of southwest Mande and northern Mande. The Loma acknowledge that they are a blend of southwest Mande and some Kissi ancestry. The Kpelle and Ma are a fusion of Mande and Kru-speakers, with some Kono as well.
The evidence shows that ethnic identities did not exist along the coast from time immemorial. Neither were they brought intact from someplace else. Instead, each was woven like a fabric, out of many threads.
Dr. Dougbeh C. Nyan: Your book is global in scope. You discuss the empires of the Sahel and factors that drove European explorers. You even touch on China and the Americas. Some readers might say your perspective is too broad. What would you say to them?
Dr. C. Patrick Burrowes: I fully understand that reaction. After all, many of our scholars write so much about the Liberian state and presidents, it is almost as if we, readers, have been trained to expect more of the same. But I had to take a global perspective for two reasons: First, my 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, and then branched to all those places where descendants of Anglo-Saxons live: the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
Second, Eurocentric scholars have presented our ancestors 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’?
Yes, it’s true our ancestors were involved in gathering some foods and commodities they had not planted, such as kola, ocean fish and deer meat. But 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 trawlers! 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 question 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. Dougbeh C. Nyan: Your book includes a chapter called “Egypt and Religions of the Book.” What connection is there, if any, between Ancient Egypt and the ancestors of Liberians?
Dr. C. Patrick Burrowes: To explain why I did it, allow me to read the opening section of that chapter: The way of the ancestors – traditional West African religion – left no written records, but it apparently influenced religion in Ancient Egypt, which did leave extensive inscriptions. Those records show striking similarities between ideas and practices of Egypt and contemporary West Africa.
For over a hundred years, most Western Egyptologists credited ancient Egyptian religion to invaders from the Middle East or Mediterranean world. But, E. A. Wallis Budge broke with that consensus in 1911.
Budge’s conclusions drew on multiple sources: his experience as keeper of the Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities in the British Museum; a scientific examination of mummies; historical and geographical evidence taken from hieroglyphic texts; claims of ancient Greek and Roman chroniclers; and impressions of contemporary African cultures derived from his first-hand observations in Egypt and Sudan.
The roots of Egyptian religion, Budge argued, laid deep in Africa. He found parallels in parts of Africa with no known Egyptian influence. For that reason, he concluded, the similarities did not flow from the Nile. Instead, it came from a common source in Africa, which predated Ancient Egypt.
My second reason for including that chapter is this: Many Liberians have bought into the idea that Christianity is ‘the white man’s religion.’ That idea leads some to reject Christianity completely.
But that idea is even accepted by some Liberian Christians. As a result, they look to Europeans and white Americans as the final authorities on Christianity, as if God is unable or unwilling to raise up Godly men and women from among us. I pray that some of what is included in that chapter will help dispel that idea.
As noted on page 106 of the Kola Forest book, Christianity was implanted in the Sahara before it put down roots in either Greece or Rome. Egypt and Ethiopia were the first two countries in the world to convert en masse to Christianity. Christians in Rome and Constantinople would later use the political power of their empires to marginalize the Coptic Churches of Africa.
Dr. Dougbeh C. Nyan: Chapter 10 is titled “They work excellent well in iron.” Please explain what that means?
Dr. C. Patrick Burrowes: I took the title from 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 barrs of Iron, and gave them such a temper as made them incomparably better than they were at first.’
That 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.
Dr. Dougbeh C. Nyan: One question on the minds of a lot of people is, were there empires in the area of Liberia like Ancient Mali, Ghana and Songhai?
Dr. C. Patrick Burrowes: I’m sorry to disappoint those who want that, but the answer is no. I say ‘sorry’ because many of us suffer from what I call ‘empire envy.’ Not having empires did not mean our ancestor were odd or less worthy of admiration.
As noted by historian Philip D. Curtin, and I quote him on page 10 of the book, ‘empires are often cruel and unpleasant institutions and are not necessarily a sign of political progress.’ He added, ‘Africa’s great achievement in law and politics was probably the stateless society, based on cooperation rather than coercion.’
The spectacular success of the empires rested in part of two trade items: gold and Africans sold as slaves to Arabia. How many have heard of Mansa Musa of Mali? On his hajj to Mecca, he reportedly took an entourage of over a thousand people. That trip is renowned because Mansa Musa and his followers used so much gold buying things in the markets of Cairo that they caused the world-market price of gold to drop.
This story inspires pride in some listeners, but on deeper reflection it might inspire shame. First, here is an early example of an African ruler going aboard and wasting public funds on exotic foreign goods. Over a thousand years later, we are still hearing such stories. Second, Mansa Musa and other West African rulers invested very little in economic development. As a result, they left no public works on the scale of the Pyramids of Egypt or the Great Wall of China.
Furthermore, it is estimated that between 700 and 1900 AD, more than nine million West Africans were sold into Mediterranean slavery, that bloodletting began in the context of West African empires.
So the reality is this: Not only did our ancestors not produce empires, they were so committed to equality and democracy, they were anti-empire. To use a European analogy that might be familiar to many of us, our societies were like the democratic ancient Greek city states while the Sahelian empires were like autocratic Rome. In reality, the love of religious liberty did bring some of our early ancestors to seek shelter in the forest.
Dr. Dougbeh C. Nyan: In the introduction to the book, you urge Liberians to stop using Eurocentric or racist words to describe our customs and history. You cite terms like “country devil,” “tribe,” “witchcraft” and “uncivilized.” How would you answer those who might say it’s too late to change now since those words are so widely used by Liberians to describe ourselves and our reality?
Dr. C. Patrick Burrowes: The use of those negative words to describe ourselves and our culture was copied by uneducated Liberians from those of us who are educated. And those of us who are educated copied them from Western missionaries and scholars. As a result, we must accept responsibility for fixing the problem, since we helped to legitimize this language of racial inferiority. In changing our words, we will change our thinking. Arguing that ‘everybody is doing it’ is never a good defense for doing something you know is wrong.
Dr. Dougbeh C. Nyan: In the preface of the book you say your parents came from Jamaica to Liberia in the 1940s. Some critics might say a history of Liberians before 1800 should be written by an “Indigenous Liberian,” not someone of your background. How would you respond?
Dr. C. Patrick Burrowes: Obviously, I do not accept the assumption that the value of a book is somehow determined by its author’s ethnicity or biological characteristics. In my view, writing a book is like cooking: It takes years of training, some passion, the right ingredients and a lot of patience.
Like many Liberians, I grew up thinking only Kru women made great palm butter. But, two experiences changed my mind. The first was tasting an insipid broth of watery palm oil thrown together by a Kru woman who obviously lacked cooking experience. The other was a memorable palm butter prepared by a male chef who wasn’t Kru.
I offer ‘Between the Kola Forest and the Salty Sea’ in that spirit. Taste it for yourself, and see.
Dr. Dougbeh C. Nyan: Share one or two things from the book that surprised you when you were doing the research.
Dr. C. Patrick Burrowes: The degree of Portuguese influence on our speech and culture. True story: A friend called me recently to ask if I knew why so many places from Bassa to Cape Palmas have ‘Cess’ or the related ‘Cestos’ in their names. I happened to know based on research for this book: The Portuguese were impressed by the unique baskets they saw people carrying along that stretch of our coast, so they name these places based on the Portuguese word for basket.
My friend seemed very skeptical about my answer, and I don’t blame him. First of all, direct Portuguese contact with our territory was brief and so long ago. Second, many of us were never told that the Portuguese named many other features along our coast, from the rivers like St. Paul and St. John, to Cape Mount and Cape Palmas. Whether we acknowledge it or not, the Portuguese had a major impact on our languages and cultures.
Dr. Dougbeh C. Nyan: In closing, is there anything you would like to say?
Dr. C. Patrick Burrowes: Yes. As we all know, 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.
I’m proposing a campaign to heal Liberia using history. A history that is balanced and inclusive. This is not a call to engage in politics or to rally around a party or some messianic leader. Instead, it is a call to rehabilitate our psyches and our spirit.
I would like the word to go out from this place that on this day Liberians embarked on a new journey, a journey that involves taking back control of our history and the best of who we are.
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 you 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.