Dutch Photographer IV: Kru Town


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. 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. Julien’s photographs are part of the collection of the Netherlands Fotomuseum in Rotterdam.

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 & Us columns by Andrea Stultiens. Comments or questions are most welcome on [email protected]

This week’s photographs by Paul Julien take us to Krutown, while what he writes about it, and what this leads us to, probably says more about how Africa at large was perceived in other parts of the world than about the reality in Liberia in 1932.

Julien does not refer to what is currently known as Krutown, but to old Krutown, located just below the Catholic mission on, as I have been told, the rocks that in the 1940s would be used to construct the Freeport. When describing Kru-town for a Belgian magazine in 1933 Julien notes that, "The Americo-Liberian society, that is without any doubt the most civilised part of the state, has ever since Liberia was founded certain contradictions to the native population of the coast and interior. These contrasts are sometimes very obvious, sometimes hidden, but they exist, and for instant last year, in 1932, they surfaced in a painful way during the Kru-war."

It is remarkable how he writes about ‘the Kru-war’ as a war that should be known to the people in Belgium, a country then still recovering from the first World War that destroyed it a decade and a half earlier. Maybe it is just the terminology used that made it hard for me to find any references to this Kru-war. Easier to find are references to the revolt that, according to a strange short article in an Australian newspaper on October 13th 1932, included "Tribal fighting, in which chiefs enter the fray wearing tall hats and other striking adornment." Dr. Mackenzie was a member of the League of Nations hygiene section and "despatched to the interior of Liberia to pacify the Kru tribes."

The article reports how "Dr. Mackenzie […] penetrated into a wilderness previously untrodden by white man…" in the hinterland where he supposedly had to "cut tracks in the virgin forest where warlike tribes in ambush awaited the chance to kill stragglers." He found that "18 tribes were concerned in the rebellion; 42 towns were burned and 12,000 men, women and children were driven into the bush and were dying of starvation." Mackenzie supposedly established peace within four months and "induced the tribes to return to their own territories."

According to Paul Julien the territory of the Krus was actually south of Monrovia. He types them as 'historically seafaring people’ that work on cargo ships that pass Monrovia and continue along the West-African coast. While Anthony Morgan, the initiator of the Historical Preservations Society of Liberia explains in an online article the complexity of the use of the name Krus, since, according to him, it is a collective term that was used by Europeans for all "with whom they traded as far back as the fifteenth century."

Paul Julien visits Krutown and describes it as being in a "sharp contrast to Monrovia, of which it is not even two minutes walking distance away. [It] consists completely of square huts with grass thatched roofs. It is obviously situated on the shore, with a wide sandy beach separating it from the surf."

When comparing the two he makes sure the Belgian audience will understand what he means, by relating to what they should know. "Up, in Monrovia, the city still reminds one of a capital city, with streets and buildings that, even though only from afar, remind one somewhat of Europe." While in Krutown, "The narrow muddy alleys that wind in a marvelous disorder through the village are the set for the life of the coastal residents. Small naked youngsters run around in the sand. Elswewhere a Kru-mother is taking care of her baby while smoking a pipe. Every now and then there is a child, seated in a dooropening, holding a book. These are the students of the mission school located just above Kru-town. I wander through the village for hours, and all this time I am followed by a group of children. The youth have a lot of interest in my filmcamera and every other toddler jumps aside frightened when I point the lens at him and he hears the purring sound of the transport of the tape inside the machine."

The result of the transported tape in the machine will be on display at the National Museum in July, and next week Julien will show us what Broadstreet and Ashmunstreet looked like in 1932.



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