Atlantic World, Liberia, Missionaries, John Leighton Wilson, Slavery, Abolition
Erskine Clarke’s By the Rivers of Water is truly an Atlantic odyssey in the scope of its content, timeframe, and geographical setting. Spanning most of the nineteenth century, this dense four-part book draws together Yankees and southerners, abolitionists and slaveholders, and enslaved and free blacks from the United States along with the Grebo and Mpongwe of Liberia and Gabon in West Africa. Clarke seamlessly bridges the fields of religious history, Atlantic studies, and the biographical trend in the discipline of history to reveal the complex and contradictory nature of nineteenth-century society. Although deficient in examining women’s concerns, the study adeptly tackles such complex issues as master–slave [End Page 690] relations, the legacy of slavery, the abolition movement, missionary activity in West Africa, and controversy around the colonization of Liberia.
John Leighton Wilson, from a modest slaveholding family in South Carolina, dreamed of becoming a missionary. His wife, Jane Bayard, who shared his ‘‘deep religious feelings’’ and ‘‘growing misgivings about slavery’’ (29) despite belonging to an elite slaveholding family, traveled with him to establish the Presbyterian mission Fair Hope in Cape Palmas, Liberia, in late 1834. The narrative of their marriage and Atlantic voyage serves as the framework from which Clarke explores the web of connections linking blacks and whites, enslaved and free peoples, Americans and Africans. The result is both an intimate story about a young couple from Savannah called to be missionaries in West Africa and a sweeping narrative about the challenges facing whites, blacks, and Africans in the period leading up to the Civil War.
The achievements of this book are many. First, it is well researched and broad in scope. Clarke utilizes missionary papers, court records, plantation records, periodicals, and personal correspondence in addition to an expansive body of secondary literature. The chapters set in the United States highlight the struggles around slavery and abolition. Wilson grappled with the future of slavery and the enslaved blacks he inherited. His feelings as an abolitionist and missionary conflicted with deeply ingrained biases and the legal restrictions on freeing slaves in the south. Wilson accepted that ‘‘No Negro ought to be forced to go to Africa’’ (66) and wondered whether colonization positively affected black Americans or African societies. Yet, what were the options for free blacks in the United States at this time? The black men and women invited to join Wilson contended with the same questions. Meanwhile, the sections of the book that are set in Africa explore the effects of the slave trade, colonization, and missionary activity on African society and competing ambitions among Western nations on the continent. In both regions, the author shows the role of privilege and power in shaping assumptions, and he emphasizes multiple highways for cultural exchange. Although the sources keep the narrative focused on Wilson, his family, and colleagues, Clarke admirably introduces the voices and perspectives of black Americans and Africans.
Second, this text is meticulous and thoughtful. Clarke takes familiar stories—of slaves, masters, wives, and missionaries—and uses them to illuminate the limits of each person’s understanding of the surrounding [End Page 691] peoples and cultures. His nuanced depiction of black cultures and communities is especially noteworthy. The book opens from the perspective of Paul Sansay, an enslaved man belonging to the Bayard family. Paul was a carpenter apprentice on Hutchinson Island near Savannah before the Bayards transferred him to a rice plantation on General’s Island sixty miles south of the city. Clarke states that although Paul was a black man from South Carolina, he ‘‘may have had some difficulty himself in understanding the country blacks’’ (12) where the Gullah culture and language brought by enslaved peoples from West Africa was particularly strong. A comparable situation emerged when John Brown Russwurm, a light-skinned black man and Bowdoin graduate, became governor in Liberia. He struggled to find common ground with black settlers (many recently freed from slavery) and with the...