A Liberian Journey

On the move in Sinoe County, Liberia. Loring Whitman, October 18, 1926. Indiana University Liberian Collections

Loring Whitman, “Expedition team examines children in Monrovia, Liberia,” A Liberian Journey: History, Memory, and the Making of a Nation.

July 7, 1926. Krutown, on the outskirts of Monrovia. Children and adults gather round, many staring intently back at the camera pointed toward them, behind which Loring Whitman, a first-year Harvard medical student, is recording on film the unfolding events. Others curiously watch as the ear of a young boy is pricked, and a blood sample is taken by Harvard physician George Shattuck. Behind him, a gentleman dressed in a suit and tie takes off his hat, and wipes the sweat off his brow with a handkerchief. These remnants of a scientific expedition—sediment, if you will, that has settled out as visible remains of encounters with empire—have troubled me for some time.

More than a decade ago, I learned of a private collection of digitally restored expedition film: nearly four hours of raw footage documenting the 1926 exploits of an eight-member scientific team from Harvard University traveling through the interior regions of Liberia and the Belgian Congo. Disease and rubber had brought the Harvard African expedition to Liberia. In 1926, Firestone Tire and Rubber Company had secured a ninety-nine year lease for up to one million acres of land from the Liberian government to establish one of the world’s largest rubber plantations. But Firestone faced significant challenges in transforming the tropical rainforest into an industrial plantation. The biological and medical survey undertaken by the Harvard scientists on behalf of Firestone, documenting endemic human and plant diseases that threatened a healthy labor force and imported rubber plants, was instrumental in transforming the economy of nature and a nation. The film footage is both artifact and evidence of the entangled relationships among science, medicine, and commerce that were transforming landscapes across the globe after the First World War.

The Harvard expedition footage was a rare find—a phrase that suggests how central collection and extraction are to the practices of history, science, medicine, and film. While the ghosts of “early cinema’s collusion with colonialism” haunt this expedition footage, they are not the only spirits that live there.1 The footage embodies more than the objectifying gaze of science; it is more than an indictment of anthropology—or, we might say, all field science—as “the eldest daughter of colonialism” in the words of French anthropologist and filmmaker Jean Rouch.2 In the reaction between chemicals and light, material traces of life in movement and abundance are left. These traces are what haunt me: landscapes to be transformed; people, commodities, and diseases set in motion; a contested path to development; and a film never made. The shooting and later viewing of this expeditionary footage altered landscapes and lives—physically, economically, and socially.

So, I found myself in January of 2014 in Grand Cess, a small Liberian coastal village 250 miles southeast of Monrovia. I had planned the journey for two years. My Liberian friends tried to dissuade me; fourteen years of civil wars from 1989 to 2003 had left the country’s roads in ruins and the trip would be all but impossible during the rainy season. But January was dry enough, so I set off with a videographer, a security guard, and a University of Wisconsin graduate student, all Liberians. After driving three hours from Monrovia, the pavement ended. For the next two days, we traveled on logging roads, raft ferries, and jungle foot paths through customary lands of the Bassa, Sapo, and Kru peoples—lands quickly giving way to a new wave of logging and mining concessions in the name of development. As we neared Grand Cess, the muddy red clay roads of the tropical rainforest gave way to sandy dirt paths of the coastal lowlands.

An overturned logging truck on the way to Grand Cess. With Emmanuel Urey. Gregg Mitman, January 12, 2014.

An overturned logging truck on the way to Grand Cess. With Emmanuel Urey. Gregg Mitman, January 12, 2014.

The sandy coastal plain on the outskirts of Grand Cess. Alexander Wiaplah, January 12, 2014.

The sandy coastal plain on the outskirts of Grand Cess. Alexander Wiaplah, January 12, 2014.

We had come seeking the history and memory of Plenyono Gbe Wolo, the man wiping his brow in the opening clip of this essay. He was, perhaps, Grand Cess’s most famous son. We drove past a school named in his honor. We walked through the graveyard populated by those who died in battle during the 1915 Kru rebellion. When that rebellion, one of the most significant indigenous uprisings against the government in Liberian history, was suppressed with the aid of a U.S. destroyer and an American-commanded Liberian Frontier Force, Wolo, the son of a Kru paramount chief and a student of Harvard University, spoke out. Wolo met with Senator Henry Cabot Lodge and Assistant Secretary of State William Phillips to argue for fair treatment for Liberia’s “aboriginal inhabitants.” It was Wolo, a 1917 Harvard graduate, who at the request of Harvard president Abbot Lawrence Lowell, brokered many of the arrangements in Liberia for the 1926 Harvard expedition. But like many go-betweens critical to the production of scientific knowledge, Wolo was largely written out of the official Harvard expedition record.

Of nearly 600 photographs taken on the expedition, this family portrait is only one of two taken of Plenyono Gbe Wolo. Loring Whitman, 23 July 1926, Indiana University Liberian Collections.

Of nearly 600 photographs taken on the expedition, this family portrait is only one of two taken of Plenyono Gbe Wolo. Loring Whitman, 23 July 1926, Indiana University Liberian Collections.

In Grand Cess, we hoped village elders might expand upon Wolo’s story, but little knowledge of him remained. The civil wars took a heavy toll; many elders living in Grand Cess were killed or died in the 1990s. Indeed, by 2003, at war’s end, life expectancy in Liberia had declined to 47 years of age. We left reprints of expedition photographs of Wolo with the local town chief and the school. Soon, reports of our journey began circulating on Liberian Facebook sites. Some posts claimed that Wolo was fabricated by elders to inspire local youth. Others countered, posting photographs of Wolo that I had never seen. Crowdsourcing was filling the oral history gap created by war.

The Liberian civil wars severed generational links in the telling of Liberia’s history. They also left the country’s archives in ruins. The wars led to other acts of forgetting, as more than a decade of civil conflicts overshadowed the ties that intimately bound Liberia to the United States, ever since free blacks from America first settled on West African shores in the 1820s. The reach of American business, science, medicine, and the state transformed the landscapes and peoples of Liberia in the first half of the twentieth century. But Liberia has occupied little more than a footnote in scholarship on the history of American empire. For almost half a century, Liberia served as a laboratory for American visions of development, from dollar diplomacy in the 1920s to the technical assistance programs of Truman’s 1949-inaugurated Point Four. The arrival of Firestone in Liberia in 1926 laid the economic and legal foundation for today’s wave of land concessions. In recent years, 25 percent of land has been ceded in Liberia to multinational companies for large-scale oil palm, logging, and mining concessions in the name of development. Furthermore, the recent clinical trials of Ebola vaccine in Liberia repeat a long and largely forgotten pattern of American biomedical research in Liberia that began with the Harvard expedition and was critical to the establishment of Liberia’s plantation economy.

Filming on the Sime Darby concession, a monoculture landscape of newly planted oil palm in Grand Cape Mount county, Liberia. With Emmanuel Urey and Sarita Siegel. Gregg Mitman, June 12, 2014

Filming on the Sime Darby concession, a monoculture landscape of newly planted oil palm in Grand Cape Mount county, Liberia. With Emmanuel Urey and Sarita Siegel. Gregg Mitman, June 12, 2014

These imperial remains of the Harvard expedition, fragments of Liberia’s past, fractured and forgotten by war: what purpose might they serve? The black-and-white photographs and film footage featured in this essay are a lasting legacy of the expedition. They have a materiality like the physical landscape they sought to capture. How might we think with these “ruins of empire” and “attend,” as anthropologist Ann Stoler suggests, “to their reappropriations within the politics of the present”?3

Until recently, image content has been at the core of much scholarship on visual culture and the environment. But such images are also physical, material artifacts, mediated, as historian Jennifer Tucker notes, “by past and present forces.”4 As objects, films and photographs are constituted through a set of relations that give them agency in the world. To imbue photographic and film documents with agency is to look upon them through the dynamic social interaction among people and things. Photographs and films are constantly acquiring new meanings, becoming part of a dynamic social fabric as we use them to relate to each other, the past, and the future. Anthropological film, often enmeshed in the economic, material, and social relations of colonialism and empire, now provides an active site for reanimating imperial matter into new, vital reconfigurations. Such film is capable of becoming, circulating within, and acting upon the world, in both the present and some unimagined futures.

Bassa Devil and attendants on Division 2 of the Firestone Plantations Company, once the traditional lands of the Bassa people. Loring Whitman, August 11, 1926. Indiana University Liberian Collections.

Bassa Devil and attendants on Division 2 of the Firestone Plantations Company, once the traditional lands of the Bassa people. Loring Whitman, August 11, 1926. Indiana University Liberian Collections.

Over the last four years, we have put these ideas into action, purposefully retracing the itinerary of the Harvard expedition, accompanied by the photographs and films it left behind. Previously, the expedition footage and photographs only circulated within the networks of American empire—at luncheons of the Harvard Traveler’s Club, trustee meetings of the American Museum of Natural History, and private gatherings of the Round Table in St. Louis—but never among the subjects who were the objects of its scientific gaze. Then, for almost seventy-five years, these images were forgotten. In returning these objects to Liberia, we seek to unleash them from the shackles of empire that had bound their movements, to give them a second life. Everywhere we traveled, paramount chiefs, clan chiefs, elders, and local villagers clamored to watch the footage and share their stories with our team. We met women educators, like Reverend Yatta Young, who are eager to use the only known footage and photographs of the great woman chief and Zo healer, Madame Suah Koko, to recollect memories of this mythic hero, now an inspiration and symbol of women empowerment in post-conflict Liberia. In Queezahn, a Bassa place name meaning “the civilized or whites pushed us away,” elders—upon watching traditional dances performed by their great grandfathers and grandmothers—spoke painfully of the still-open wounds sustained when Firestone displaced them from their ethnic homelands.

Through a partnership with George Mason’s Center for History and New Media (CHNM), Indiana University Liberian Collections, and the Center for National Documents and Records Agency (CNDRA) in Liberia, we developed and recently launched a public history website, A Liberian Journey: History, Memory, and the Making of a Nation, that makes these materials publicly available for the first time in Liberia and the rest of the world. The website features a pilot exhibit on Chief Suah Koko—along with digital collections containing nearly 600 photographs, more than two hours of motion picture footage, oral histories, and documents linked to an interactive map. A Liberian Journey is meant to inform, raise questions, and invite crowdsourced stories about a transformational moment in the history of land and people in Liberia. The expedition footage and photographs offer an opportunity to begin to gather the perspectives and voices of Kpelle, Mandingo, Kru, Vai and other ethnic groups whose lives and lands were transformed by Firestone and American biomedical research.

Over the course of our Liberian journey, which is ongoing, we have filmed the oral histories of approximately one dozen elders as they respond to the expedition footage and photographs. Some of these stories are now available on A Liberian Journey. Through a share function, the website also allows people to contribute their own stories and memories connected to the website materials. Thus, the website highlights the possibility of generating a history of science and its meaning from the widest possible demographic base, by and for a people whose land, cultural traditions, and disease burdens became a focal point of American scientific research, and who are eager to reclaim a forgotten past that might nourish and support a new future.

Four years ago, when I visited CNDRA on my first trip to Liberia, the national archive was just getting back on its feet. During the civil war, CNDRA was in a heavy fighting zone. Dilapidated infrastructure, destroyed buildings, and damaged documents—scattered, burned, and lost in the chaos of war—posed serious challenges to the rebuilding of a national archive. But CNDRA Director-General P. Bloh Sayeh has been determined in her resolve to rebuild the archive, speaking passionately about the importance of history to postwar reconciliation in Liberia. A transformational moment came two years ago, when two rusty safes were discovered in an abandoned government building. An acetylene torch burned through the heavy plates of iron. Inside, the original 1847 Constitution of Liberia and land deeds, in which indigenous chiefs granted free blacks from America access to land to settle and establish new homes on the West African coast, were found. “I felt the day when we saw the documents, the war was completely over,” remarked Director-General Sayeh. Those feelings were echoed once again this past March at the official launch of A Liberian Journey at CNDRA. Speaking before Liberian government officials, including President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, legislators, and cabinet ministers, as well as the Liberian press, Director-General Sayeh spoke to the importance of the website as “the beginning of a recollection of Liberia’s lost history” and as a means of obtaining “additional historical information to produce an inclusive history of Liberia.”

We do not yet know where this new life of the expedition footage and photographs will lead. But we do know that in this next life, these remains will generate stories, many told for the first time, by the descendants of ancestors whose voices might resonate again. They are ancestors who were much more than laboring bodies, reservoirs of biological specimens, or objects of a scientific gaze. In these acts of remembering, ghostly traces of lives once lived are reclaimed and transformed, given new meaning in the search for peace and reconciliation in post-conflict Liberia.

Featured image: On the move in Sinoe County, Liberia.  Loring Whitman, October 18, 1926. Indiana University Liberian Collections

Gregg Mitman is the Vilas Research and William Coleman Professor of History of Science, Medical History, and Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His research and teaching interests span the history of science, medicine, and the environment in the United States and the world, and reflect a commitment to environmental and social justice. Together with Sarita Siegel, he recently directed and produced  In the Shadow of Ebola, a short film available online on PBS/Independent Lens that offers an intimate portrait of a family and a nation torn apart by the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Siegel and Mitman have also just completed a one-hour documentary, The Land Beneath Our Feet, which weaves together rare motion picture footage shot on the Harvard expedition with the journey of a young Liberian man seeking to understand how the past has shaped land rights issues in Liberia today. WebsiteContact. 

  1. Paula Amad, “Cinema’s ‘Sanctuary’: From Pre-Documentary to Documentary Film in Albert Kahn’s “Archives de la Planète” (1908-1931), Film History 13 (2001): 138-159, p. 146. 

  2. Quoted in Mike Eaton, ed., Anthropology-Reality-Cinema: The Films of Jean Rouch (London: BFI, 1979), 33. 

  3. Ann Laura Stoler, “Imperial Debris: Reflections on Ruins and Ruination,” Cultural Anthropology 23 (2008): 191-219, p. 196. 

  4. Jennifer Tucker, “The Historian, the Picture, and the Archive,” Isis 97 (2006): 112. 

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