Dutch Photographer (Part 3): Paul Julien Helped by the Catholic Mission

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Paul Julien, who leads us through parts of Liberia in the early 1930s, was born into a Roman Catholic family and devoted to that religion his whole life. During his travels he regularly stayed with missionaries. He speaks of them with great respect and admiration. On August 30th 1932 Julien writes to his parents: "When the rain stopped for a moment I went to the Catholic mission, that operates a simple, small church at the edge of the village [referring not to Monrovia but to Kru Town]. I was received warmly by the three Irish religious men, who immediately offered me their guestroom."

The next day Julien would shift from Madam Richards’ guest-house, where we found him last week, to the fathers.  In the book, written 8 years and several trips to other countries later, Julien says that "There are few periods of my African life that have caused such intense memories as my stay at the mission in Monrovia. I knew that the brave missionaries lived a sober life – oh, why shouldn’t I just say they lived in poverty, and that the pastor, Father O’Leary, had trouble keeping the household going, but that the optimistic spirit and the vitality and warmth radiating from Mgr. Collins made one forget every lack of luxury."

By the time he wrote this, the missionary he met as Mgr. John Collins had been promoted to the post of Bishop of Liberia. The mission also was a consulate. Collins was representing the Vatican with the Liberian government.

"A search for a Legation that is as modest as this Mission on the West-African coast and completely devoid of pretences, would be without success worldwide."

On August 4th 1932 Julien informs his parents that "My route will be: Monrovia, 10 days forest; Gbarnga, 6 days forest; Sanequellie [sic], 4 days forest; Gwecké, 1 day Beyla; 3 days road Niger-Kankan; 3 days train Conakry. With delays it will take about 5 or 6 weeks."

September 6th he sends them a message that he arrived in Kankan, which means that all worked out as planned. It is remarkable how the experience of time changes in Julien’s writings. Looking back, still in appreciation of the missionaries, it sounds as though the hike did not take a month but almost half a year: "I am sure that my trip to the distant Niger, a route that had to be covered fully on foot during the height of the rainy season, would not have been without accidents if I wouldn’t have had the huge privilige of using the extensive knowledge and experience of Mgr. Collins. The Vicaris had, albeit along a different route, made the first part of the journey, up to Sanequelleh [sic], himself, which was invaluable to me because up to now there are only sketchy maps available of Liberia’s interior that are highly unreliable and that fail to mention even places of importance. It was then July 1932, and before that same year ended I would have reached the Niger to the astonishment of the authorities of French Guinea, who had never had a European traveler coming from the south."

There is a moment in which Julien’s exchange with the missionaries touches another important story in Liberia’s history of the late 1920s and early 1930s: the influence of the League of Nations in Liberia following their inquisition into forced labour and slavery, and the threatening bankruptcy of the country. Father Collins tells him that the authorities consider him to be a League of Nations spy and see his research as a scapegoat because he was the first European in years to travel through the interior.

A letter written by Pro-Vicar J. Kennedy, who replaced Bishop Collins while he was on leave due to ill health, testifies to Julien’s intentions to return to Liberia. The letter is dated November 29, 1946, a year and a half after the end of the Second World War. It tells Julien that, "The Centenary Celebrations of Liberian Independence occurs on July 26, 1947. A great celebration was planned, and Foreign Nations were expected to participate. Owing to World conditions, the celebrations will be now purely domestic, and instead an Exposition has been fixed for 1949." Kennedy advises against Julien’s travel-plans: "I could not advise you to come to Liberia next year. Accomodation is almost impossible to obtain at present, and costs are very high. The construction of a new harbour at Monrovia has brought many people to the town and increased the population. This harbour may be completed by August of next year. One of the reasons why the Centenary Celebrations have been changed is because of the lack of accommodation for visitors and the impossibility of obtaining building materials.’

Julien never set foot on Liberian soil again. But thanks to what he left behind we will be able to see the Krutown community of the 1930s next week.

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