Dearest Family, September 22, 1926

Creator

Loring Whitman

Date

August 2, 1926 - September 11, 1926

Text

Gbanga, Liberia.

Sept. 22, 1926

 

Dearest Family; -

            This letter must needs be short as the messenger who carries this has just come up from Monrovia and is going back tomorrow. And as he was not expected I have not had a chance to write before – and must develop tonight in preparation for the trip to the coast. Still it will be the only chance to write until I get out in Monrovia the first week in November – so I will try to make the most of it.

            First of all my health is excellent. The day I finished writing my last letter I had a sudden spurt of temperature which went up to 105.4 but the next morning it was normal and remained so from then on. And four days later I left Monrovia for the Du River (Firestone Plantations) where we had our first base camp. Being my first day out of bed for a week the launch broke down and we were only able to get as far as No. 2 by dark where we spent the night. And the next day it rained, as we vaccinated for smallpox some 300 natives, thanks to a reported smallpox case reported from there. Then up the Du to No. 3 by whaleboat, also in the rain.

 

<Map of campsite>

Shattuck X

Linder X

Allen X

Bequaert X

Storage X

Theiler X

Coolidge-Whitman XX

Photo X

Lab. XXX

Dining

Cook Tent

Strong XX

            Our camp was on a very small, long, lean, knoll, which drained into a swamp on each side but which was dry when it didn’t rain all the time. Then we walked in mud. But after all it was mud anywhere and everywhere under those circumstances. And after a few days of fair weather it did rain almost two-thirds of every day so that toward the end the films did not dry over several days. The Lab. Where I developed was a poorly constructed roof stuck on four poles. In the evening I had to hold an umbrella over me while at work. In the daytime it was used for skinning monkeys and for Dr. Strong to look at slides under his microscope. As may be gathered, I used a tent to dry films in. Now as for activity – my day was largely curtailed at the start due to my recent sojourn in bed. In consequence, I puttered around camp in the A M, shooting a few birds, drying negatives, diary writing, etc. The afternoon was likewise occupied – tho I was never allowed to go far and needs must be at hand for pictures. After a couple of days, later, I was allowed to go off a mile or so collecting with Dr. Allen and that day I made my first specimen – a red and black weaver bird which I shot. It was a slow but encouraging job because it looked fairly well when I got through with it. Later I skinned some more.

            On the 9th of August I went for a 20-mile walk with Dr. Strong to Owens Grove on the Farmington R. and back. We passed several villages but the natives were all out in the fields or working for Firestone. Most of those left spoke English and were without interest. Owens Grove had a commissioner – 300 lbs. in khaki clothes and no shoes – very self-important. The trail to and from Owens Grove took us for the first time thru real tropical forest. Altho a bright sunny day practically none reached down to us and for a  large part of the way we were in a dark, comparatively cool, tunnel. In one place we passed between and over  moss-grown rocks. There are many vines and lianas so that you cannot see far, if at all, from the trail, which usually twists constantly. In some places the trail bed is good – in others it is a series of roots at irregular intervals.

            Owens Grove itself is a region of scrub second growth with large green mountain rice fields. These fields are always filled with stumps as the native method of clearing is like that on the Du – chop high and burn. In consequence, walking thru them while hunting means one bumped shin after another.

            Two days later, Dr. Strong, Theiler, Allen, and I went over to Schofield’s place – No. 2, Sect. 4 – where there was a devil dance (in our honor for gin). I took 500 feet of movies and some stills. The dance itself was not too wonderful and I suspect it of being quite artificial. However, it was well worth seeing. First a devil dressed in long, flowing grass skirt, a small jacket, and a mask danced. He continually chatted and talked in a high voice as tho his mouth were full of pebbles. His dance was an irregular stamping or gliding here and there in his clearing, punctuated by sitting down and waving his arms. The audience laughed at his wit. Next came a Giebo dance in which some 15 men painted yellow and black (they were all different) followed the leader in a long slow trot in and out of the arena or through the town. At times they were so interwoven that one suspected ones eyes of being queer. One chap had a pot of coals draped in leaves for a headdress. Another had no headdress, and was a born clown. After that a boy danced on stilts and a little devil bounced around – probably a joke but at least active. 

            As for the rest – Dr. Allen spent a large part of his time skinning animals and birds others shot for him. He either sat in the depths of his tent or at the dining table when it was not in use. Otherwise, when free, he went off shooting – sometimes with me when I was given more freedom. But most of the time it was skin birds, monkeys, rats, which he trapped, and sundry other odds and ends, such as pickling snakes, frogs, chameleons, etc. Dr. Shattuck dressed ulcers, etc., paid boys chop money and looked after their wants, and occasionally shot birds for Dr. Allen – his specialty being hornbills. Dr. Bequaert was always at work helping Linder dry and collect plants, catching, labelling, and “boxing” insects, soldering tin boxes of plants and animals, etc. Linder went out plant collecting every A.M. occasionally bringing in a bird or two, or possibly a frog or snake, etc. In the afternoon he was completely occupied by putting his flowers in presses and drying them. Theiler is at work most of the day looking thru his microscope at odds and ends of things. I say that because no animal, reptile, or mammal, bird or amphibian escapes the insect search of Bequaert, or the blood smears of Theiler. He is also busied examining the 200 blood smears made from humans as a survey of the malaria, etc. in the districts entered. Every afternoon from 2-3 he reads in his hut. Hal is usually busied getting out food supplies or cleaning his guns, or rather trying to persuade the gun boys to do it right. When not so busied he was out hunting monkeys or writing his diary. Dr. Strong is usually looking thru his microscope either in his tent or in the lab in case it doesn’t rain.

            We have a very formal party really – that is, Dr. Strong is trying to make it so by punctuality at meals and very polite “Good Mornings” and “How is your healths”, etc. The rest of us are not being dragged up too rapidly. 

            As for the natives – at No. 3 there were none that lived there outside of the laborers and we didn’t see them except medically. And, as I said before, it rained most of the time so that one’s life was endangered when walking about camp, due to the slipperiness of the mud.

            And then one bright morning I packed up my films, still wet, and we started – Dr. Strong, Dr. Bequaert, and I for our next base camp, with 140 porters and about one-half the stuff. As for the country, it was very similar to that on the way to Owens Grove. The porters carry on their heads and make surprisingly good time with my photo chemicals, which are about as heavy as any of the loads. Some, heavier, are converted in two-men loads, which are carried on poles on the shoulders or head, tho the first is more common. When they first started they were very cheerful and sang as they went tho later in the day that passed off and the change from clearing fields to carrying loads did not seem so attractive as at first. We stopped at Lango town – a small village of about 15 huts mostly occupied by a couple men and many women and children. We slept in an open building like a mud bathtub with a thatched roof. It was just about big  enough for our three beds and a small table in the middle. We paid off our porters – 1/6 each and had a swim – the first since leaving home – in a small stream. Then we stayed there three days due to lack of porters. Bequaert, as usual, worked away collecting while I dried films, shot and skinned a couple of birds and a squirrel, and took some more pictures. Dr. Strong examined some of the natives and made scrapings and blood smears. On the second day Theiler arrived reporting all well behind.

            The people at Lango town were very agreeable and indolent, supplying us with some food but no porters. They were interested in us but did not crowd us as we have been crowded. The young kids go naked – the older boys and girls wear a scant loin cloth – the girls adding a loose string of beads. The men wear odds and ends from a shirt and trousers to a toga like cloth altho when at work a loin cloth wrapped around the waist, being uncovered down to the waist. Beads are worn around the neck and scarification is common over the arms, breasts, and stomach. The women carry most of the family goods including water on their heads – their young children on their backs in their skirts as is very crudely shown in the sketch. <Drawing of woman with child on her back and pestle> They also grind up the rice in big mortars with a log as a pestle and “winnow” it in a broad fat, basket tray, getting the coarsely ground rice separated from the finely ground meal. Otherwise they do little. At Lango town there was a very good-looking and well built young girl, whom we nicknamed Rose of Washington Square. In the early morning she went down to the stream for water and again in the evening, returning with a white bucket on top of her head. Very picturesque.

            On the 15th we moved on – Dr. Strong first and I later when more porters came in. Our destination was Kakatown which we reached in good time. Kakatown is a fairly, large place with more pretentious buildings. At Lango town the people lived in smaller, white mud, thatch roofed houses, two of which had porches. In Kakatown they had bigger houses, bungalow size, tho of the same construction. Kakatown is in a region of scrub bushes,  second growth, and is hot and comparatively uninteresting. What is more, we were continually under the scrutiny of one Daniel Walker, Paramount chief, and one of the richest natives in Liberia, according to hearsay. They base wealth here as elsewhere by the number of wives, it being legal for gov’t. officials to have two – and natives as many as they want.

            Daniel Walker has many wives – 15 or so young girls in his own house and the older ones, once his favorites, scattered here and there thru the town. Some say the total is 300 but Quien Sabe? He has plenty. He is a big, portly man about 60, with a great deal of shrewd character in his face. A tyrant with his people, bleeding the white man where possible. He has worked his way up the scale, is also a miser as well as a robber. He and his secretary, Johnson, sat on the porch of their house and watched us like cats, and at any time of day, breakfast thru supper they dropped in to ask for some gift or other, usually gin. When offered a cigaret they took six and reached for more. They asked for our shoes, trunks, boxes, etc. and nothing escaped their gaze – everything was wanted. The secretary, Johnson, was more of a parasite and had less character tho I am sure that he would have double crossed his chief had opportunity knocked. When we paid the porters thru Walker we had to count the 6-pence into his hand as twice he pocketed a couple and said we had only given him 20 instead of 22, etc. A great pair they made.

            We stayed in Kakatown ten days. Dr. Strong dressed ulcers and made blood smears from several patients which he examined. At the same time he had a nice fever which finally put him to bed for a day. For about a week he ran a temp. between 100 and 102°. We also got word that Linder had fever at NO. 3 and Theiler at Lango town with a temp. at 104°. Bequaert joined us after two days and the three of us worked away. I shot and skinned seven birds of various species and spent a certain part of the time shooting pigeons for “chop”, as they call eating. I also set up photographic shop and developed about 600 feet of movies and a few, 60 or so, 4 x 5 pictures. One day I went with Dr. Strong to Bunda, about a half hour’s walk from Kaka, to find it essentially the same only again with smaller houses. But most of the time it rained – in 12 days we had one hour’s sun – 30 minutes one day, 30 another – so by the end of my stay I was good and sick of the place. Also, the boys made merry too much and became more or less useless. After eight days Coolidge, Allen, and Linder arrived, followed the next day by Theiler and Shattuck – all well and ready to go. And soon we did go – Strong, Shattuck, Coolidge, Linder, and Theiler first – Dr. Allen, Bequaert and I the next. The day the first bunch left I went collecting all afternoon with Allen, getting more than enough birds to keep us busy till night.

            Kakatown is on the main high road which runs from Monrovia to Gbanga – where we are now parked. The road is quite straight and in places, where there are no swamps, it is very good and could easily be travelled by an auto except for the bridges. These are made of three logs lengthwise with a  cross network of rather small poles about the size of the thumb and then covered with dirt or left bare, as they see fit. And it was along this road that we travelled from then on. 20 miles in five hours, 45 minutes brought me to Memmelis town where I caught up with the rest in time for church. Memmelis town is also in the second growth and, as we subsequently found, most of the regions we have entered so far. We were again in a big open building – eight of us – with room for a table, too. But there was little doing at Memmelis except one bright, sunny day to dry our outfits. By that time all leather was rotting and at least four kinds of mold could be found in every box and on shoes, in helmets, etc. So we used the whole day just to dry out boxes, clothes, films, cameras, etc. and a profitable day it was, too. I also got some pictures of a panyolin or scaly anteater, which had been brought in at Lango town. 

            Then off again on Saturday, the 28th of August, for Reppuestown. This was a short day but thanks to the rainy season rivers were well over their banks and in one place we had to wade 100 yards up above our knees and even to our waists to get to the bridge. At Reppues we spent the Sabbath idling in the rain. Dr. Shattuck fixed “Belly humbug him too much” etc. There was a large run on calomel. Dave and I walked out to another town, Cheneakomo, where we formed the centre of an admiring, or at least interested, crowd of spectators – mostly female. But it was uninteresting and quite dirty, so we returned to headquarters. 

            At Reppues we noticed a lot of decoration in charcoal which has subsequently been common. It takes place of cicatrization and is based on cat whiskers on the face. There are also marks on the stomach, breast, and arms but the most characteristic feature is the thin lines, usually three, extending from the upper lip. 

            Reppues town itself is mainly small cylindrical houses with a narrow door and thatched roofs, which are closely packed together. The houses are about 15 feet in diameter. Outside the town was a rather neat coffee plantation with blossoms smelling like orange blossoms. It is quite common to pass thru patches of this fragrance near the towns, especially near the coast.

            The next jump – to Miamu- was short – about three hours and for the first time we got into woods again, which was a relief. Real trees to look at for a change from scrub bushes and raffia palm. Miamu, however, is merely a military headquarters and the town is comparatively nil. We slept on the porch of a house. While there I got a couple of birds which I skinned out – forest birds for a change – but otherwise there was little doing during our short stay. Shattuck joined us at Miamu leaving Bequaert still to come with the remainder, Strong Allen, and Coolidge in the meantime had been keeping a day ahead of us so that we were pretty well scattered. Of course, when you realize that we have need for about 240 porters you see why we are split up.

            From Miamu to Zeanshu was a long hard day with forest and downpours all morning to soak us and the hot, open road and sun to bake us all afternoon. But when we got to Zeanshu we were in the land of lotus eaters. Shattuck stayed behind a Miamu to wait for Bequaert. At Zeanshu we noticed a good deal of charcoal design but otherwise nothing new except that the natives stood in rows watching us wash, change our clothes, etc. Some sat on the walls to get closer. And food just poured in – eggs, pumpkins, bananas, palm wine, plantains, yams, and even cucumbers. A land of luxury in which we gave out many 6 d’s. But the palm wine had no kick in it and next morning Linder and I were on the road again with 60 porters. Again it poured and again it fried us so that by 2 o’clock we were ready to crawl in a hole and die. So we stopped at a town called Bunta and had hot soup, bananas, crackers and cheese for lunch and a rest thru the noon sun. Then on again to Sua Koko. Here we had a audience during our stay three deep on our walls, shutting out all light and air. Of course, when bathing with a gallery on four sides modesty must be laid aside. Still at times it is annoying to have absolutely no privacy. The morning I left, we drove the gallery away to better see our food and where before we had been warm we were forced to put on sweaters. While I am about it – the natives sleep in walled houses but there are usually one or more open sided houses used as courtrooms or kitchens as the people see fit. 

            We have slept in those, both for the cool breezes and the added cleanliness. Sua Koko has a woman chief about 80 years old, nearly blind and looking very much like an overgrown maggot. But she rules her land with an iron hand and is still as powerful as the best of them. She told Dr. Strong, thru our interpreter, that she liked white men – they brought plenty of gin and tobacco as gifts or “Dash” as they call it here. I took some pictures but not having any gin she was not too sociable.

            And then three hours more with 68 porters and I was in Gbanga (pronounced Banga), leaving Dave in Sua Koko, where he was joined by Shattuck, Theiler, and Bequaert. And that is the travelling. They came up two days later – on Monday, Sept. 6th – and we were again settled. 25 days from the Du River and only about 80 miles covered.

            Gbanga is the headquarters for Mr. Clarke, the District Commissioner of District No. 2. We are in a large fenced-in compound and are occupying a huge open-sided building with the customary roof. Out behind is a big house which is the kitchen and just to one side is a round building which I have converted into a dark room. It really is the D.C.’s office but I have used it in his absence. The other buildings are residences for the D.C. and etc. Our big house is in the center and we have set up 4 tents in front – 2 behind. Hal, Dr. Allen, and I sleep in the big shack which is really our work room. We had some benches built for us where we are continually at work. <Drawing of living arrangements in Gbanga>

            <Drawing of interior of sleeping arrangements in Gbanga> Gbanga has fairly large town connected with it, a dual town in that there is the local inhabitants and then a Mandingo section, both with chiefs, altho the former is over the latter. The latter people, however are much higher class and more industrious. They do a lot of weaving and make the cloth into typical Mandingo garments of blue and white stripes. It is a low-necked smock with a square pocket at the throat. There are usually no sleeves. The cotton is first de-seeded by scaping it (and by tooth) and then it is put on a spindle which is spun by rubbing it along the thigh. The thread is then wound onto sticks placed 3 – 15 feet apart and re-wound onto sticks before putting on the loom. The loom is an affair made of poles with only a simple pattern of ordinary checkerboard style. It is controlled by the feet. The warp is hitched to a big rock which is slowly dragged nearer and nearer. The cloth – 3” – 4” wide – is rolled onto a stick as it is made until the end of the warp is reached. And usually they only weave a blue and white longitudinal strip sometimes with a blue woof to give a slight check to the cloth.  Otherwise there is no new industry. However they have a market, on the order of an open air fair. All the people gather bringing in their goods, plantains, corn, yams, oranges, bananas, etc. brightly colored civilized cloth from the French border, mirrors, etc. Tobacco is the medium of exchange and nobody can buy or sell before a given word. They are first harangued as to what should be cheap, etc. Thencomes a pig pile and mad scramble among people squatting around half (calabashes) or dishes filled with “farm produce”. (gourds)

            Another thing we have seen here is the native dance. One was staged for us in return for gin but was not very good. However it inspired the Mandingos to rivalry and stirred them into a dance of their own which we watched. It is not very exciting but is more graceful than I had expected – 15 or 20 women converging, then spreading, with swaying bodies, in the moonlight, as they went round in a circle.

            Since I have been here I have developed over 2000 feet of movies, bringing my total to 4500 developed and 500 more taken. I have also finished 500 negatives. Both these figures are well below estimate but at least they show industry. When not taking pictures or waiting for medical cases to turn up I have been collecting and skinning for Dr. Allen or helping him skin the few antelopes, etc. we have got so far. Today, in fact, I shot and skun a francolin -  like a pheasant with its tail lost – and I am exceedingly proud of my job. Yesterday I skinned out the head of a Duiker Hal had skinned. By that, I mean, Hal skinned the animal while I, next A.M. skinned out the ears, lips, etc. and cleaned off the excess meat, etc. That gives, I think an idea of the life we lead.

            All of us are busy here. Dr. Strong is at his microscope from 7:00 A.M. till 4:00 P.M. Theiler is doing likewise. Dave and Dr. Bequaert are collecting from morning till night, and Dr. Allen is continually at work skinning or collecting. Hal has been hunting when not handling all the mean little tasks which the rest slide onto him such as running chop or arranging for porters, etc., and doing it well. Dr. Shattuck dresses arms, legs, etc. from 6:00 to 6:00. 

            The hunting here is poor as the bush is too thick for a booted white man to move silently thru. In consequence we employ native hunters with cap guns, who have brought us 3 duikers, several monkeys, and just recently a doe and fawn Royal Antelope. This is very rare and is only 10” high and about 14” long – a perfect miniature. Still outside farm rats and squirrels, etc. our mammals are still few, due to the difficulties of hunting in this country. Altho we are still in the centre of the second growth, there is a large patch of “Big Bush” in front, in which trees 200 feet high rear their heads, with vines clinging to their very tops as though trying to drag them down, and thru these monkeys play occasionally.

            As for side trips – we have made but one. Dr. Strong, Shattuck, and I went up to the French border, 40 miles by trail, about 25 straight, to see if we could reach grass land but outside of 80 miles in 4 days we found little of interest. The same towns, though smaller, the same kind of people, the same black and tan goats, the same brown and white, thin, big-eared terriers perpetually kicked and perpetually hungry – the same non-egg-laying, half bantam chickens – the same Muscovy ducks – and at Garnu, our destination, the same government compound. And it was damned hot walking too in the tropical sun. On our way we met a gang of men road building – about 150 of them. First, they cut the woods and remove the stumps. Then they build up the road by digging holes at the side with pointed sticks. This dirt is then carried in little slat baskets to the road, where it is patted down by a row of 15 men listlessly letting flattened sticks fall on it. All is to the accompaniment of a churn so that the hole diggers pick very other beat in unison, while the animated steam rollers pat on every beat. They also sing – one man in high voce , “blah-blah-blah-blah” as though he were telling a bubbling story in song, then a chorus of “Ua/ua\ua – ua/us\ua/.” It really is quite a sight with all in time. 

            Speaking of time, practically anyone here can beat a drum as well as any orchestra drummer at home and they have a variety of drums. One instrument, a gourd in a a bead collar, is particularly good. The gourds has a handle while the cords supporting the beads are held in the other hand. <Drawing of gourd with bead collar> The variety of tunes they can get is fascinating. They also have drums shaped like a diabolo with string between the two drum heads which his carried under the arm. By squeezing the pitch can be altered. <Drawing of diabolo>

            There are two kinds of harps – one with strings held horizontal – the other with strings vertical. <Three drawings of harps> This music is largely repetition of a series of simple notes with a a base running thru it. Accordions, when present, are popular and are handled in the same way as a theme and as a base over and over again. <Drawings of dots and dots connected with a line>

            But one drum – a Mandingo drum – consisted of two large calabashes floating in water, which gave a wonderful tone with deep resonance. These are of different size and sounded like kettle drums. <Drawing of Mandingo drum>

            But we are near the end. First of all, Liberia is well settled. Secondly, is is well civilized as far as black people go. Thirdly, the government has it in its grasp right to the border and is not as we first thought, only limited to the coast. Where we are now, men work without pay and without food on the roads and without a whimper. There are no cannibals, unless it should be a person diseased from natural causes. In fact, it is a tame country. And it is remarkably healthy, too. We find plenty Schistosemiasis, hookworm, ascaris, and on the coast, malaria, but not inland. There is also plenty of tropical ulcer but the death rate seems to be low and there is little of a malignant nature.     

            Tonight we are having a clinic of microfilaria which, being nocturnal in their habits, are best studied at night. These are microscopic blood parasite worms.

            And there are not wild animals, lions and tigers, to maul us. There are some leopards but always a week away. There are bush cow (wild buffalo) but we do not shoot them. Still I have seen them freshly killed – I mean one.

            Yes, it is a comparatively healthy country to travel in. And our temperatures run in the rainy season from 70 to 80° With now a range of from 75-85 as the rains are vanishing. Our days now are largely sunny with thunderstorms in the evening but not violent. In fact, it is very pleasant except directly in the sun, where it is about 122° at noon. 

            And yesterday we got mail, which was a great pleasure. I got one  letter from Mother, one from William, and one from Peg mailed in Lepisic, but I have lost all mail written between the first of July and the 15th of August so that casual mention of K. and her son comes as quite a pleasant surprise and I wish her the best of luck and my heartiest congratulations.

            Please excuse this as it has been written extremely hastily and with not much coordination. I hope that you can get some idea of the country and its people as well as our life. I will cable you when I get out to Monrovia as well as send my diary, which at present is only two weeks behind.

            But I must stop now. My best love to you all and I hope that you will all be able to get something out of this.

            Yours loving son,

            LORING.

We expect to leave Monrovia in the middle of November, getting out to the coast of Liberia the end of October.

------

Type

Historical Documents

Identifier

VAD2036-U-00095F

Original Format

To

Mr. and Mrs. Whitman Jr.

Citation

Loring Whitman, “Dearest Family, September 22, 1926,” A Liberian Journey: History, Memory, and the Making of a Nation, accessed November 23, 2017, http://liberianhistory.org/items/show/3629.