With more than 145 million items, the Library of Congress often discovers an item in its collection thought to have been lost to posterity. Such is the case of a rare West African manuscript, written in Arabic, which was recently rediscovered in the Library’s African and Middle Eastern Division.
Fascinated by the beautifully written manuscript and its potential insight into Liberia’s history, Arab World area specialist Muhannad Salhi and Africa area specialist Angel Batiste eagerly assumed the task of translating, contextualizing and assessing the item. The cursive style in which the letter was written was determined to be a distinctive Arabic calligraphy of West Africa, influenced by North African “Maghribi” script. In consultation with conservators in the Preservation Directorate, it was concluded that the letter dates to the 19th century.
Folded in a most unusual way, the manuscript appeared to be an urgent plea, a request for succor in a time of desperate need. It told the story of a town, that had been ravaged by “carnage, hunger, slavery, poverty,” all because of the arrival of a “vast army.” This invading army had overrun the town and brought with it a new leader, a new king.
After wrestling with various transliterations, spellings, and numerous African encyclopedias and sources, Salhi determined that the name of the town was “Musardu,” famed capital of the Mandingo peoples of West Africa (ancestors of the ancient Mali Empire). The invading king was Ibrahima Sissi arriving from neighboring “Madinah.”
The king was not a stranger. The townspeople were well acquainted with his father and his brothers. Sissi had come with a motive. He decreed that it was their duty as Muslims to rise up against their “infidel” neighbors. It was not long before his army had run out of “infidel” towns, and eventually carried out attacks on neighboring Muslim towns, including Musardu, which was summarily plundered, its population practically enslaved and its resources depleted.
The letter was written by Musardu chief Fanfi Durah (also known as Vafin Dole or Vomfeedole) to a “messenger” who was reportedly on his way from the West—the land of “Christians and Jews.” The letter beseeched the messenger to assess the dire situation in Musardu and report back to his king the desperate need for support “with iron and sword.”
For more information, Salhi consulted a source in the Library’s collections titled “African American Exploration of West Africa: Four Nineteenth-Century Diaries” (2003), edited by James Fairhead, Tim Geysbeek, Svend E. Holsoe and Melissa Leach. The book not only mentions Musardu, but includes a complete facsimile of Durah’s letter, written in 1868. The editors describe the letter as “the only surviving document to be written by an African in this region of southeast Guinea before the 20th century.” They note that the letter had been “lost, in the intervening years, and had not, until now, become part of the historical record.”
The manuscript held by the Library of Congress was, indeed, the letter sent from the chief of Musardu to the “king” or President of Liberia by way of a “messenger.” The messenger was a Liberian government official named Benjamin Joseph Knight Anderson.
Born in Baltimore, Md., in 1834, Anderson had immigrated to Liberia in 1851 at the age of 17. Anderson, who was educated in Liberia, served as Liberia’s secretary of treasury from 1864 to 1866. In 1868, he was commissioned by the Liberian government to explore the Liberian hinterland with a view to furthering territorial expansion and trade. Undertaking his famous journey to Musardu, Anderson traversed Dei, Gola, Kpelle, Loma and Mandingo countries and provided the Liberian government with the first reliable information about the social, political and economic realities of the Liberian interior. Anderson’s expedition was financed by the American Colonization Society (ACS) and its benefactor H.M. Schieffelin, who gave Anderson $200 for the trip. “The African Repository and Colonial Journal,” the quarterly journal of the ACS, dubbed Anderson’s journey the “Schieffelin expedition”.
The American Colonization Society
The American Colonization Society was formed in 1817 to send America’s freed slaves to Africa as an alternative to emancipation in the United States. In 1822, the society established a colony on the west coast of Africa that in 1847 became the independent nation of Liberia. Known formally as “The American Society for Colonizing the Free People of Color of America,” the ACS was harshly attacked by abolitionist societies, who viewed African colonization as a slaveholder’s scheme. Undeterred, by 1867 the ACS had assisted the repatriation to Liberia of more 19,000 emigrants. After 1847 the ACS discontinued the founding of additional African colonies and its activities shifted from colonization to repatriation to improving education in Liberia.
The ACS presented its records to the Library of Congress in 1913, and again in 1964 and 1965, upon the organization’s dissolution. Comprising 190,000 items, and the entire set (26 volumes) of its quarterly journal, the collection contains a wealth of information about the founding of the organization, its role in establishing Liberia, efforts to manage and defend the colony, fundraising efforts, recruitment of settlers and the way in which colonists built and led the new African nation.
It is believed that the Musardu chief’s letter came to the Library as part of the ACS collection, the bulk of which is now housed in the Library’s Manuscript Division. This rich resource for scholars of Liberian history has been microfilmed, and a finding aid can be accessed online.
To develop a broader historical framework for the Arabic letter, Salhi and Batiste researched the Library’s vast Liberian collections to find additional primary and secondary sources relating to Anderson’s journey to Musardu. They found Anderson’s own account of his travels in “Narrative of a Journey to Musardu, the Capital of the Western Mandingoes,” published in 1870, which includes an exact facsimile of the Arabic letter.
In addition to this rare book, the Library holds the account of Anderson’s second expedition into inland Liberia in 1874, published as a “Narrative of the Expedition Despatched [sic] to Musardu by the Liberian Government Under B.J.K. Anderson, Sr. Esquire in 1874.” The Library also holds documents providing accounts of the Anderson-d’Ollone or 1903 Franco-Liberian boundary controversy set in the context of Britain, France, and Liberia’s competing claims for land.
Among the maps that came to the Library in the ACS collection are an 1870 map of Anderson’s first journey to Musardu and his 1879 map of the Republic of Liberia, constructed from authentic charts and original surveys and geographic notes. These maps and others are housed in the Library’s Geography and Map Division. Selected maps of Liberia are accessible online.
More than 550 photographs and daguerreotypes from the ACS Collection are housed in the Prints and Photographs Division. Selected images from the collection are accessible by searching “American Colonization Society” on the Prints and Photographs Online Catalog. Among the images of ACS officials and 19th-century Liberian political figures are Edward W. Blyden, the world famous educator, diplomat and philosopher who translated the Musardu chief’s letter to English for Liberian President James Payne.
Additional information about the American Colonization Society can be found in the Library’s online exhibition titled “African American Mosaic: A Library of Congress Resource Guide for the Study of Black History and Culture,” which marked the 1994 publication of a book with the same title.
Angel Batiste and Muhannad Salhi of the Library’s African and Middle Eastern
Division contributed to this article.