The Journeys of Benjamin Anderson

Episode II: Boporo

 

by Terence L. Johnson

Former Professor, African and African American History

Former Field Archivist

United States

 

Link for Citation Purposes: https://www.bwwsociety.org/journal/archive/ba/the-journeys-of-benjamin-anderso-2.htm

 

Author's Note: The following story is based on accounts of real events from various newspaper and journal articles. Some scenes in this story have been dramatized with fictional accounts.  Whenever possible, every attempt has been made to maintain the integrity of the events as they have been reported by Benjamin Anderson.

 

This Episode: Boporo

 

While we wandered through a wooded area, one of our guides and interpreters, named Kailfal, ran off into the African bush.  Going on without Kailfal, we wandered into the realm of Boporo.

 

Boporo was the capital of the Boatswain or Condo Country and the usual residence of the King.  The town was founded by the Golahs, but six decades ago, was conquered by King Boatswain, his native name being Sabsu. This muscular king, who stood seven feet tall, and who possessed a spear that few men could wield, engaged in the slave trade in an effort to supply the demands of European ships.

 

The longer Mr. Anderson’s team stayed in Boporo, we came to realize that numerous other African tribes gave their loyalty to King Boatswain and were granted his protection against other tribes. It was this same king that offered protection when the first American colonists boarded the ship Elizabeth and who eventually settled in Liberia.

 

"George, we have been allowed to dwell in the towns of the Mandingo as a result of the early favorable contacts between King Boatswain and western explorers," said Benjamin Anderson.

 

Big Ben, our translator, went on to explain how King Boatswain, as a young man before he assumed his leadership of the South Western Mandingoes, had served on an English merchant vessel and learned some of the customs of the West. 

 

Big Ben then went on to say, “ Sabsu took the name of Boatswain when he lived among the Englishmen.  This same Boatswain had made different African tribes into one people.”

 

“A very smart leader,” I said to Mr. Anderson.

 

In Boporo, we observed those who lived in the town. They spoke many tribal languages.

 

“Vey, Golah, Mambomah, Mandingo, Peasy, Boozie, Boundee, and the Hurrah live here in peace. But all of them using the Vey language for general communication.”

 

“That is unusual,” I said to Mr. Anderson.

 

“Why George? What is so unusual about it?

 

I responded and said, “Mr. Anderson, I thought the civilized tribes all used to read and write using Arabic. I did not know that they had the ability to come up with their own."

 

Mr. Anderson smiled and began to laugh.  I got the joke.  Africans were always surprising us. Our education about primitive Africans often betrayed how poorly educated about the natives we truly were.

 

Then I said, “Well, I found it unusual that the Vey people had developed a written script for their language.”

 

Mr. Anderson returned, “This was a trait that most explorers argued separated Africans from other so called civilized peoples: lack of writing.”

 

Then he further interjected.

 

“It is claimed, in some quarters, that the Vey writing style had been influenced by a few men of part Cherokee heritage who migrated to Liberia.”

 

Mr. Anderson further developed this thinking with an interesting observation that seem to confirm this theory.  "It is thought that the Cherokee people developed writing influenced by white people.  When some of these black Cherokee came to this part of Africa, they used the same model to develop the Vey script.

 

Mr. Anderson made another observation that I had not thought of.

 

"A year ago, do you know what some Bassa natives were brought to Liberia University?"

 

I wiped sweat from my brow.

 

"I am not aware of what they found.  Did it have to do with their language?” Mr. Anderson snorted.

 

"George, indeed it did. It involved something that was of great interest to us. The Bassa created their own writing script, which in my mind, proved that some Africans were as civilized as any other people. For me, it meant that the Vey language did not come from Indians."

 

None of the fears of danger that we suspected ever happened while we visited the Boporo town. We were not attacked, enslaved, or jailed. The most dangerous thing that we discovered was something that we had seen in this and all the other African towns.  We beheld cat-fish pools. The one at Boporo, lay a hundred and fifty yards east of the town. It was twenty-five feet wide and six feet deep.  Near the pool or stream were sixty-five skulls stuck on polls.

 

"What are they?" I acquired.

 

I saw the fear that erupted from our translators' and our carriers' eyes.

 

"I think this is how they maintain order," said Mr. Anderson.

 

Benjamin Anderson and I suspected that the shark-like catfish were not only used to rid human waste, village animal organs and their remains, but to rid a village of undesirable people.

 

One native, who called himself Jim, who been given to us a guide by King Bessa, told me in the Bassa language about the stream containing the catfish.  I then related this to Mr. Anderson.

 

"What did Jim say, George?”

 

Anderson said,

 

"Well, Jim has informed me that it was recently used as a dumping ground for the bodies of sixty-five slaves who tried to free themselves from bondage. The three-foot-long shark-like catfish, raw with scars, fought another for human flesh. By royal decree, these fish were not to be killed for any reason."

 

Near the creek with the catfish lay the King’s chicken town, where poultry abounded.

 

A high point of any day, for most of the African villages and for Mr. Anderson and me in this town, was the market.  A small market existed in the northeastern part of Boporo. While some African markets used iron bars or salt sticks and the Kola nut as currency,  the currency units at this market were equal to our American greenbacks. In Boporo, all the bartering at the market was conducted by women.

 

After the two of us crammed into a crowded square for one full hour, Benjamin Anderson look at me and said, "George, I estimate that between one hundred and seventy-five to two hundred people are here."

 

Then I began to babble with excitement:

 

“Mr. Anderson, look at it all, palm oil, rice, kaffee-seed, shallots, meat, cotton stripes, tobacco, kola, earthen pots!"

 

With all we had seen, both Benjamin Anderson and I came to the same realization.

 

“George, the primitive Africans that are the annals of geographers and novelists are not true.”

 

Our main Liberian scholar, Edward Blyden, wrote in one of his books that civilization and culture for the West African depended on contact with the cultural legacy of ancient Egypt and the Middle East. I also read Count Volney's book 'Ruins of Nation', which implies that the ancient Egyptians were Negroes. I did not know much about Egypt or the Middle East, but the little I knew and the type of industry I had seen in these West African towns led me to conclude that Blyden had been wrong.  I accepted the fact that the ancient Egyptians were mostly Negroes, but what these men and women had created in towns and villages in the Liberian interior had not been a consequence of Egypt nor that of the Mohammedan teaching.  I came to accept what these natives created came from their own minds and hearts.

 

I said to Mr. Anderson, “What the Africans had created in Boporo showed that they had not been primitive or savage.  I am beginning to understand that these people represented nations that rose to great heights, but like other men, cultivated greed and vanity that could cause them to fall from grace.”

 

Mr. Anderson smiled.

 

"They make country cloth without the aid of a loom.  I know that time and labor could be improved if they, meaning the tribal people, employed the loom used in Liberia," noted Anderson.   

 

The loom was a machine that helped one make textiles such as clothing, rugs, and all type of fabrics in a much quicker fashion than if it had been done by hand.

 

As we progressed to the very center of Boporo, Benjamin Anderson began to talk out loud about what he knew and about what disappointed him the most about Africans.

 

"The wars between the various tribes resulted in the destruction of rice fields that led ultimately to mass starvation. Now the tribes need security."

 

All was not goodness and light in Boporo.  I remember Benjamin Anderson conducting a survey of the town and coming up with numerous intriguing observations.

 

"George," he said to me. "The town of Boporo, primarily made up of Mandingoes, had many slaves as servants. The slaves of the Mandingoes are purchased mainly from the Pessy people, a truly despicable situation."

 

Mr. Anderson knew that before coming to Liberia, I was freed by my slave master.  I nodded in approvable but did not want to even put into my mouth how I felt about such a foul institution.

 

After wandering about the town I made an important observation and inquires. I was able to determine that many are reduced to the condition of slaves by being captured in war. This was much like the condition of slaves in many parts of Asia and Russia.

 

I remember on one rainy day, Benjamin Anderson said to me, "These Africans are not victims of Europeans as I once thought.  They themselves promote the trade in slaves without let or hindrance. Although these Boporo slaves also grew crops, they also served as carriers for their masters in the salt and country cloths trade."

 

While we talked about what we had discovered while standing in the town square, we both saw a familiar face.

 

It was the 8th of May, 1868, when Kailfal, our runaway guide, showed up in Boporo.  He was dressed in a dark-blue robe, a red cap bordered with a white band, the badge of his religious order, on his head, sandals on his feet, his prayer beads in his hands, his face and faculties prepared for the worst.

 

"Kailfal, I thought that you abandoned us."

 

Kailfal continued to fidget with his prayer beads. 

 

"Mr. Benjamin Anderson, it was not I who abandoned you."

 

Mr. Anderson smirked.

 

"My friend, it was you who abandoned us. Was this your goal all along? To leave my convoy stranded and without a few silver dollars to make deal with the kings?"

 

Kailfal smiled at Mr. Anderson.

 

"You had decided not to go directly to Boporo, which had made you lose your precious gifts.

 

Suddenly, Anderson jumped up in the Mohammaden's face.

 

“It was solely upon your advice that I had gone to Bessa in the first place.”

 

The Mohammedan call to prayer sounded out in the distance.

 

"My friend it is time for me to go. I must perform my daily duty.  I will meet up with you in an hour."

 

Kailfal walked away from Mr. Anderson, me, and our crew of African carriers, past rows of houses to a modest size mosque.

 

As we stood in the center of Boporo, we saw Seymoru Syyo, a man related to Kaifal.  I can only best describe him as a tall, fine-looking Mandingo who was not happy with the fact that Benjamin Anderson went to Bessa, instead of going directly to Boporo.  Seymoru Syyo, who also heard the call to prayer, counted his prayer beads, waived at us, but passed where we were standing, and went to the Mosque in Boporo.

 

Later, Mr. Anderson and I later attended a meeting with the major Mandingoes and Kailfal. At the meeting Mr. Anderson displayed his anger as he confessed, “I would talk of nothing but soldiers, cannon, the burning of the Bessa’s town because King Bessa had kept most of my boxes that held my supplies and gifts.”

 

Seymoru Syyo rose up and said, “the Mandingoes told me that the Liberians and the Mandingoes were of the same people and you need to remain calm." 

 

 

 

Then Mr. Anderson and I looked up at Kailfal, the man who had deserted us in Bessa's town.

 

"Kailfal, we need those boxes for trade."

 

Seymoru Syyo smiled.

 

"Your justice has come in the person of Sanders Washington. Do you know of him?"

 

"Yes. Sanders is from the Liberian settlement of Virginia," said Anderson.

 

Sanders was a rival Liberian explorer to Anderson.  He had also gone out on numerous journeys in the Liberian interior.

 

Then Seymoru Syyo said, "This white black man.  This man you call Sanders Washington went to King Bessa’s town for the purpose of trading. “

 

I had heard the term white black man before. It was the name that Africans called Negroes who came from the America’s to live among them.

 

Seymoru Syyo went on to say, “Here he learned what had happened between King Bessa and you.  It was Washington that advised King Bessa to keep the peace between Liberia and his people.  It was in this way that King Bessa decided to send all of your property to Boporo. Sanders has all of your gifts around his hut here in Boporo."

 

"Thank you Seymoru," said Anderson.  "I am in your debt."

 

As Benjamin Anderson had done in Bessa, he gave presents to Seymoru. Seymoru became warmer towards Benjamin Anderson after receiving presents.  In fact, I can best describe Seymoru's attitude toward him as one of smiling intimacy and friendship. I understood the custom very well. A stranger from a foreign land, in order to find favor with the bigwigs of a tribe, would provide his host with gifts.  In the African tradition, of that day, it was also customary for a representative of a foreign government to be the one to bestow these gifts. 

 

Benjamin Anderson, me, our translators Big Ben and Jim, and our crew of porters left Boporo and arrived on the seventh of May, 1868 in the town of Totoquella to gain an audience with King Momoru, with whom the Liberian government, a few years ago, had made a treaty. Even though his main residence lay in Boporo, it was during this time, in Togoquella, that the King had tried to curtail a war between two African tribes in the region; the conflict was between two interior tribes, the Boozies and the Barlines.

 

I became aware of the pomp and circumstance that accompanied the stout five-foot-tall King Momoru when he left Totoquella. When the King left Totoquella, a Mandingo priest gave a benediction in regard to his departure.  The King, who had more than three hundred wives, walked all the way to Boporo but could have been carried by his men if he had uttered one word on his behalf.  When the King walked out from the town, courtiers, warriors, women, servants, and musicians of all kinds followed him. Royal singers gave praises to the King, while musicians timed their drums and horns to the clang of an iron cymbal held on with a thumb and banged with an instrument of iron. 

 

My ears almost became deaf from the noise. When King Momoru entered Boporo, everyone in the town gave him a hearty welcome.  Then the tall black-complexioned Mandingo priests dressed in scarlet robes came in front of his court. For a single day, the town of Boporo witnessed dancing, feasting, and exercises of war on the King’s behalf.

 

Later, when Mr. Anderson and I visited Sanders Washington's tent, I would come to learn that King Momoru was not all powerful.

 

"What do you know of this King Mormou?"

 

Sanders Washington slight of build, wearing a frock coat that seem to be wearing him, gave his revelation.

 

"Though he was the chief arbitrator in differences that developed between his subjects, the law of his society dictated that he must take counsel with his chiefs in matters of war."

         

Describing the character of the King, Sanders Washington noted: “He is the most patient hearer of all matters brought before him.  I have known him to remain in his hammock for whole days, listening to what was to be said by either side in any dispute, and his decisions seemed to be generally satisfactory.”

 

Describing the lighter side of the King’s nature, Mr. Anderson wrote in his journal how the king would drink a glass of gin or whiskey and after losing his soberness go from house to house joking and gathering presents from his people.  Although the King had a fat body, he would often try and dance and act like he was a seasoned warrior.

 

Mr. Anderson got on favorably with King Momoru, so much so that anything he desired, the King facilitated.

 

He once said to Mr. Anderson, "I appreciate your numerous gifts, my boy. I especially like this weapon here."

 

The King pointed to a long instrument with a circular metal at its end.

 

"Sovereign you mean this."

 

Benjamin Anderson pointed to the device.

 

"My King, it is a stethoscope."

 

"A Tet-scope?" questioned King Momoru.

 

When Mr. Anderson rose up he tried to position the stethoscope on the King’s chest, two spears were thrust onto his chest. The King looked up at his two tall guards and with a wave of his hand, commanded the men to remove the spears and relieve Mr. Anderson of the threat of death.

 

"Proceed, Anderson," said the King.

 

Mr. Anderson did as the sovereign had commanded.  He placed the cold metal attached to the stethoscope on the King's chest.  A grin and then a smile erupted on his face.  Shortly after that, uncontrolled laughter.  Imagine an African king hearing the pulse of his wrist and the beat of his heart for the first time. He might think it to be a powerful force of magic.

 

King Momoru had already been instrumental in employing many things western.  In Totoquella, a town near Boporo, the King had a frame house with a western style colonial porch, surrounded by lodgings of native construction.  I was aware of the fact that King Momoru used chairs, tables, beds, bedsteads, looking-glasses, scented soaps, cologne and so on. 

 

I once showed the King a picture book. He found the book to be of great interest.  What interested him even more than the picture book was the possibility of a western school for the native children of his town.  One John B. Jordan, a Liberian trader, had taught the King how to spell and learned about the numeral system. 

 

King Momoru was also fluent in dozens of other African languages and could read and write in English. It was my expectation that through education, the Christian church might make inroads into Boporo and the other villages in the Boatswain region.

 

King Momoru made a request that other kings in the previous towns whom we visited had not made.

 

"Anderson and your servant George, I am your king while you reside in my town. I would like to keep the tetiscope."

 

At that moment, Mr. Anderson looked at me, and I at him.  Without saying a word, we bowed before King Momoru.

 

"Oh King, it is indeed an honor to present the stethoscope to you as a gift from our president Daniel Bashiel Warner and the people of Liberia," said Mr. Anderson.

 

Imagine that same African king amazed by the tools that Benjamin Anderson used to continue his mission of science and discovery.  One item that amazed many Africans in the villages was something that was called the Great War medicine.

 

The Congoes traveling with Anderson and me were amazed that this medicine that they believed, when placed on cloth and metal, could cause them all to dissolve. These Congoes informed other Africans that the medicine that we carried with us could kill a hundred men and burn up an entire town. None of my men would even tote this mysterious liquid. Whenever we arrived in an African town, the mysterious medicine was assigned to be placed in a special thatched house.  This Great War medicine was called nitric acid.  But in reality, it was no medicine but a powerful explosive acid.

 

The Africans assumed that we Liberians had made it, but Benjamin Anderson assured me that the origins of this corrosive chemical are still unknown. Although the natives did not clearly understand nitric acid's real properties, they were correct to fear it, given its corrosive properties that could react violently with other compounds.

 

Regarding the nitric acid, Mr. Anderson said to me, “George, if I or any of our carriers spilled it on the skin, we are to find a river and bathe in it for an hour to clear ourselves of the ravages of that acid.  Our clothes should be discarded immediately.”

 

I was aware that many of the villagers were eager to borrow from our civilization like they had borrowed from the civilizations associated with the Mohammadans.  We were also desirous to teach them our science and our arts.  In this way, we would make the white black man from America and the African one, a great people.

 

 

 

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