MISSISSIPPI IN AFRICA
The Saga of the Slaves of Prospect Hill Plantation and
Their Legacy in Liberia Today
By Alan Huffman. Gotham. 328 pp. $27 Liberia, the deeply troubled little country on the Atlantic coast of Africa, in large measure exists because of a strange mixture of fear, philanthropy, guilty conscience and self-deception in the antebellum United States. It came into being in 1820 as a territory of the American Colonization Society, whose members believed that the way to solve the manifold problems posed by slavery generally and freed blacks specifically was to resettle them in Africa. Never mind that they had been born in the United States and that in many cases their families had been here for generations; to abolitionists who hated slavery and to slave-holders who feared that freed blacks would incite slave rebellions, sending them to Africa would get them out of sight and out of mind.
One slaveholder who saw colonization as an attractive option was a Mississippian named Isaac Ross, who "ordained, from his deathbed, the destruction of the very thing that he had spent his life building up -- his prosperous, 5,000-acre plantation" called Prospect Hill in Jefferson County. At his death in 1836 his will "stipulated that at the time of his daughter Margaret Reed's death, Prospect Hill would be sold and the money used to pay the way for his slaves who wanted to emigrate to Liberia." Precisely why Ross chose to do this remains unclear. "Some attribute his interest to philanthropy," Alan Huffman writes, "others to something close to a filial love for his slaves, and still others to fear -- either of the fate that would befall his slaves after he died, or of what would become of the South once they and hundreds of thousands of others were inevitably freed." His daughter supported the will, but his grandson, Isaac Ross Wade, spent years trying to overturn it, in court and in the Mississippi legislature. Ultimately he failed, and by early 1848 slaves from Prospect Hill had begun the long journey to Africa. Ultimately about 200 of Ross's 225 slaves went there, "where they were joined by approximately 200 slaves freed by other, more sympathetic Ross family members." The place where they settled was known as Mississippi in Africa, "at the mouth of the Sinoe River." Initially it was "distinct from the greater colony of Liberia," but soon it was incorporated into the colony and remains part of the independent nation that Liberia subsequently became.
Nothing about the resettlement was easy: "In addition to epidemics of various African fevers, and conflicts with indigenous tribes, the Mississippi colony was underfunded and did not enjoy good relations with the Liberian government in Monrovia, partly due to disagreements between the Mississippi Colonization Society and the American Colonization Society." Its "government was essentially bankrupt and its residents were isolated and reeling from depredations by tribes" that, among other things, felt themselves unfairly criticized for participating in the slave trade and deeply resented what they saw as the freed slaves' privileged position.
The settlers from Mississippi don't seem to have done much to ingratiate themselves with their new neighbors. However odd it may seem now, they sought to replicate the social system they had left behind in Mississippi: "Many built massive houses reminiscent of plantations back home, staffed with servants from the native tribes," and "subjugated the underclass of native tribes whenever they had the opportunity, creating a dynamic reminiscent of their former master-slave roles," though it is still unclear whether they actually enslaved native Africans.
When Huffman prepared to visit Liberia three years ago, he "had heard a good bit about the historic enmity between the descendants of freed slaves and indigenous tribes in [his] Internet research," and pronounced himself "amazed to find that so much of the vitriol harked back to the arrival of those intrepid freed slaves, among them the Rosses of Prospect Hill." He quotes a Liberian editorialist named Tarty Teh:
"What more do the African-Americans and Americo-Liberians want from us? We surrendered a century and a half of our lives to absorb the anger of the returnees on behalf of any African who had anything to do with selling our brothers and sisters abroad. . . . If these returnees still don't like us after 150 years, then they have returned to the wrong part of Africa."
For the settlers from Prospect Hill, life in Liberia scarcely seems to have been a return to the Promised Land. Quite to the contrary, they endured "extremely high mortality rates," became entangled in "political alliances and feuds," and now are caught in a terrible civil war that, "although it has officially ended, never seems to end." In some ways most difficult of all, they have to suffer the indifference of the nation that sent their forebears there so many generations ago. Though American authorities have made occasional gestures of friendship toward Liberia and helped persuade Charles Taylor, its corrupt, murderous former president, to leave office, essentially the United States has stood by as Liberia descends into chaos and extreme need. It is too much to say, as this country's more virulent critics sometimes do, that Liberia's endless civil war is America's fault, but it certainly seems fair to say that our indifference toward a country we helped create scarcely has done it any good.
All of which adds up to raw material for a good and important story, but Huffman has botched it at just about every turn. If Mississippi in Africa has a governing organizational principle, it is invisible. Though the logical narrative line would be to trace the freed slaves from Mississippi to Liberia, Huffman gets nearly halfway through the book before he gets them there; the first half is an interminable account of the wrangling over Isaac Ross's will and of what happened to the slaves who chose not to emigrate and their descendants. This is a subplot at best, but Huffman inflates it -- and his own effort to track down these slaves -- into something far larger than the evidence can sustain.
This appears to be explained, though, by the book's central weakness: Huffman is more interested in himself and his research than he is in the freed slaves and their fate. Like others infatuated with what long ago ceased to be the "new" journalism, Huffman just can't get enough of the first-person singular: "I have reached the bewildering conclusion that I will have to descend into the genealogical maw to find descendants of the Prospect Hill slaves who stayed behind. This is not something I really want to do." Or: "Over the last year, as I have been trying to piece together the threads of the story of Prospect Hill, I have come to the unavoidable -- and daunting -- conclusion that I will have to travel to Liberia." Or: "I have been unnerved by Liberia before I even arrived. . . . I have been told that it is too dangerous to travel in Liberia after sundown, although, like so much of what I have heard before coming here, this proves debatable." In two words: Who cares? If a writer chooses to do a book about a 19th-century plantation, he's got to be ready to study the documents, genealogical ones included, and if he's going to do a book about Liberia, he's got to go to Liberia. Whining about all this serves no purposes beyond those of solipsism and self-absorption, and destroys any possibility of turning a good subject into a good book. Instead Mississippi in Africa is merely a narcissistic bore. *
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is email@example.com.