Dutch Photographer II: Paul Julien at Madame Mathilda Richards’

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Last week I wrote about Paul Julien’s arrival in Monrovia and his first impressions. After passing through customs he went to see his fellow countrymen, whom, as he writes in a letter to his parents ‘there are two of in Monrovia.’ They welcomed him and then sent him to Madam Richards where he found a room for the equivalent of 7 guilders a day.

There was hardly any accomodation for travelers available, as Joe Richards, Mathilda Richards son, confirmed when I met him last year. He said that there was only one other guesthouse in town and described the rooms his mother rented out. There were five of them, and most had several beds.

Paul Julien was someone who was very careful in spending money and he considered the amount he was asked to pay way too much. He claims that he would only be paying one guilder and sixty sents a day for the same room in Spain, where he spent some time preparing for his travel to Liberia. He tells his parents that ‘Madam is sure she is quite something because the League of Nations committee stayed at her place (of course, since there is no alternative!).’

Julien continues to write about his experience with Madam in the confidential tone you would expect of someone writing to his parents. Not just Madam, but also he seems to think he is ‘quite something’:

‘It is clean enough. Madam is a good cook, I have to admit, but I had to invest a lot for that. If I would have had it her way I would only have gotten fischerman’s bread. Madam is a grandmother and proudly shows photographs of her daughter who is fat as an elephant. ‘O daughter grown fat, o so fat, O daughter like sweet, like so much sweet; When she hears that I am Catholic she cries out ‘O old bishop die O too many people cry when bishop die. Bishop fine man. Fine fine oso fine man. All people crie when old bishop die'.

Madam is Wesleyan; I’ll be hanged if madam knows the difference between Baptists and Methodists’.

To prepare for his travel to the hinterland he is received by Mr. Gromes, the secretary of state, the minister of Internal Affairs and by President Barclay. When Julien is writing to his parents he describes Barclay as ‘a courteous civilised man, refined, friend’ but also as someone who ‘can’t be trusted’ , is ‘dangerous, cunning, a slavetrader and a consummate villain.’

According to the acclaimed historian, Dr. Guannu, this impression could be caused by Barclay’s recent experiences with white people, in relation to the named slave trade accusations. In the text that is published in Julien’s book 8 years after he wrote the letter he gives quite a different account of the brief meeting and says that ‘His Excellency the President […]was very courteous towars me and I had an interesting conversation with [him] that showed how well informed the President was about a variety of situations in the Netherlands.’  The minister of internal affairs provides Paul Julien with a letter that ask the authorities in the interior to be of as much help to his research as possible. During the years that follow he will get the same kind of letter from each one of the (colonial) authorities in the countries he works in.

Madame Richards enters the scene one more time after Paul Julien was invited to come and stay at the Catholic Mission, and he accepted the invitation. ‘Madam is knocking, she is in a bad temper because I am leaving and she is trying to sweet talk me into staying with some sweet bakery: “Here is a cake for you doctor, o so fine cake, o so fine cakie o so sweet. Sooooo sweet.” She almost sings it. The cake tastes like perfume. I will bath and go to bed. Tomorrow I will move to the fathers.’ 

…Where we will meet him again next week. But not before remarking that Joe Richards added to the story that his mother did not only run a guesthouse, and, as the advertisement in the Liberian Patriot shows, sell children’s clothes, but also ran a games and sweets centre for children. She must have been quite a business woman.

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