Who Were We Before We Were?


A review of C. Patrick Burrowes’ Between the Kola Forest and the Salty Sea, A History of the Liberian People Before 1800

(Published by Know Your Self Press, Bomi County, Liberia.)

To the uninitiated, not much has been written about what is known as present day Liberia; that is, before the American Colonization Society offloaded several African Americans off our shores. But to those in the know, the history of this stretch of land goes back to antiquity. But before going any further, who were the people that shaped present day Liberia? Where did they come from? And what brought them here?

In his seminal work, Between the Kola Forest and the Salty Sea, Liberian academic C. Patrick Burrowes traced the history of the region and presented answers to the prevailing questions this review hopes to answer. But before delving into Professor Burrowes’ historical treasure trove, let it be made clear that, according to the historical record, which included anthropological, archaeological and oral traditions, the ethnic fabric of present day Liberia is the result of the blending of various ethnic groupings. Therefore, any and all claims of cultural or ethnic purity should at once be viewed as an enervating miasma of fear and suspicion on the side of the proponents – meaning, they are only meant to cause problems.

Carl Patrick Burrowes, PhD, author of the book, Between the Kola Forest and the Salty Sea

According to painstaking research by Dr. Burrowes, our story started 1.5 million years ago in East Africa, from where humanity fanned out to Asia and the various corners of the world. But before the various ethnic groupings forayed into the coastline of West Africa, there was a boom in activities in the present day Sahara desert, as archeological discoveries revealed that plant and animal life were in abundance in what is today a vast sea of sand. Archeological digs showed thousands of rock paintings, bones of sharks and other animals, over 200 graves with jewelry and other handmade objects from present day Tunisia to Niger – all signs of human activity in this part of the world dating as far back as 60,000 years ago. But as climatic conditions deteriorated, the peoples of the region fanned out, following the ever retreating bodies of water, which were central to their very existence.

In 15 sections, including illustrations, Burrowes gave a chronology of how Liberia came to be peopled, starting with strictly patrilineal societies where life was centered on the trade of salt, kola and malagueta spice, and societies controlled by landholding families. From the “Eden of West Africa,” “The Way of the Ancestors,” “Egypt and Religions of the Book,” Burrowes detailed the way of life of a race of people that encompassed all aspects of civilized society trying to come to terms with the forces of nature and organized society, the zenith of which was established in Egypt. Religion was focused on veneration of the ancestors and the control of the life force. In “The Rise of Empires” and “Down from the Niger,” Burrowes detailed how the rise and fall of Songhai, Mali and Ghana as empires would contribute more to the peopling of present day Liberia than any other circumstance of history. At this period in West African history, Dr. Burrowes listed plenty of evidence of trade with the Mediterranean world, going as far back as 1214 AD, long before the advent of the debilitating Transatlantic Slave Trade, which was fuelled first by the need for gold, malagueta spice, salt and ivory, but later morphed into the trade in humans after the discovery of the New World and the subsequent colonies that sprang up on that side of the world, with the need to produce more sugar, more tobacco and more cotton resulting in the depopulation of West Africa. He also detailed the movements of the people of present day Liberia. From “The World Turned Upside Down” to “A New World Order,” we see how trade became a byword for the pillage of a region, continent and race of people for the betterment of Europe and America; how the financial development of Europe and the Americas was accomplished at the backs of and to the detriment of Africa and her children.

According to Burrowes, after several continental migrations, the first groups of African people that came to present day Liberia did in search of salt, kola, iron ore and other resources traded from the forest regions of West Africa all the way to North Africa and Europe. The first group consisted of the Dyula (also Juula) caste, who formed the core of what became the Vai, Dama and Kono of the Sierra Leone-Liberia border. The ancestors of Dei, Gola and Kru were among the first to settle there. They were selling salt, kola and malagueta spice north. Their goods attracted long-distance traders like the Dyula to the area.

Between 1200 and 1235, the fall of the Ghana Empire would see a defeated king and his Mande troops fleeing to Kissidugu in present day Guinea, including ancestors of Kpelle and Loma. A third group resulted from the fall of the Soso Kingdom in 1235 by Sundita Keita of Mali; among them were ancestors of Bande, Mende and Loko. The Kissi and Gola then lived in the highlands of Guinea, along the western rim of Liberia. Along the eastern edge of the forest were the Kru speakers.

The progress and life of these people who came to dominate the region was thrown topsy-turvy with the advent of the first Europeans, the Portuguese in 1462 under Captain Pedro de Sintra, who anchored near the Junk River. This first interaction for trade would lead to the spoiling of the coast for gold, rice and spice that ended, between 1514 and 1866, in the abduction and shipping of over 12 million captives from Africa, including, from names of Africans captured from the Windward Coast (Guinea to Ivory Coast), Kru speakers, who were mostly taken to Suriname and Guyana.

Between the kola forest and the salty sea, a people sought refuge; between the kola forest and the salty sea, ways of life mushroomed and were nurtured; between the kola forest and the salty sea, empires rose and fell; between the kola forest and the salty sea, a race was pillaged; between the kola forest and the salty sea, a nation was formed, providentially, by descendants of those stolen centuries before; between the kola forest and the salty sea, a nation still grapples with the ghosts of its past, trying to live up to its name.

About the ‘founding’ of Liberia, much has been written, but in Between the Kola Forest and the Salty Sea, Dr. Burrowes tried to fill in the gaps of our collective past, thereby giving it a voice. Proper restoration of history should be foremost on the minds of the people of any nation. The telling of this our Liberian story should not be left in the hands of non-Liberian academics; this should be the ‘Great Work of Ages’ for any and all Liberians interested in the future of this land. By telling this great story, thereby setting many a myth, and ghost to rest, Dr. Burrowes has given us a start to the greatest debate of our time: the restoration, telling and projection of a true identity of self.

The million dollar question now would be: Should this book be on the middle school to college curriculum? The answer is a resounding yes! The only drawback is that, as with most self-published books, there were notable typographical errors and layout inconsistencies in the book, one in particular on page 34 that might call for a reprint. These negatives, however, do not in any way diminish the weight and depth of the materials in this work, which should be a must-read for all Liberians, from the very young to the aged.


  1. Liberia Ancient Legal History

    Well I am legal specialist soon to be a Liberian lawyer as my father before me. So would like to provide some Liberian history from a legal perspective. Prior to native Liberians contracting Cape Mesurado to American Colonization Society in 1821 they possessed sovereignty over the ceded territory. Prior to ACS, European powers anxiously desired to get possession of the area. For 100 of years both English and French made repeated trials to obtain but the native government strategically preserved it (Doctor Ali Ayers Dec.11-16 1821 letter to ACS).

    The native kingdoms in the Mesurado area were states. They were independent, except as to certain constitutional arrangements among themselves. They each possessed a fixed territory and a population with strict rules as to membership in the tribe. They had a tribal history and policy extending back centuries they had lived in the territory. They were politically organized and acknowledged their subjection to their kings and other authorities in times of peace and as well as in times of war. They dwelt in villages, and the country was divided into districts. They held assemblies(or palaveries) for the enactment of laws, for determination of questions of importance, and for judicial proceedings in at the palaver hall. They sent and received ambassadors and had a distinct diplomatic ceremonial in connection with their reception.

    The country was held chiefly by divisions of a great community, known by the common name of Monoo. The Mandi, or head of the Monoo, retained reverence and dignity, but had lost dominion. The subordinate tribes ranged themselves in rank, according to the power they possessed which varied with temporary circumstances. Thus, the Monoo lorded it over the Folgias, the Folgias over the Quojas, and the Quojas over the Bulams and Kondos.

    There form of government was a pure democracy not to be confused with a modern democracy(republic). Nevertheless it was more progressive than a monarchy. The body politic was composed of five branchs, which together comprise almost the entire adult male population. The king and his cabinet (his family members) was the chief executive, chief priest, chief lawgiver, chief judge, and the sole commander-in-chief of the army. His powers rested on law and legal precedent. The King presided over most prominent branch of government in pre-colonial Liberia: the Gnekbade, or old men. This body of politics was the functional equivalent of the senatorial institution. The most powerful branch in the body politic were the Sedibo, or soldiery. They comprised the great mass of the middle-aged men. The fourth clas were young men, who were called the Kedibo, They were not influential or powerful; this was an institutional stepping stone to that of the soldiery.

    The Deyabo, or doctors, formed the fifth branch, this class was the clergy institution. This institution provided specific rituals and teaching their religion’s doctrines and practices. The King always consulted Deyabo prior to rendering a final decision to policy, law, or legislation. It was against binding tradition for the King not to follow Deyabo’s didactic. Not following Deyabo’s didactic was treason.

    In all cases where any object of public interest is to be discussed, or law to be enacted, all classes were present at palaveries, and took part in discussion. All questions were settled by popular voice. Matters judicial as well as legislative were settled in these popular assemblies.


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