If Seamus Heaney digs with his pen, Erskine Clarke casts his like an expert fly fisherman. In this book, By The Rivers of Water, chapters end with sharp forebodings of what lurks around the next bend. Clarke reels us through the lives of Leighton and Jane Wilson, a married missionary couple who leave their plantation home in Savannah, Ga., to spread the word of Christ in the blossoming African liberation movement. While Leighton and Jane never break with their Southern roots, we see them crash into worlds that shape not only their own consciousness but also the consciousness of the 19th century. Right when we find ourselves comfortable (either after getting over a malaria scare on the Liberian Cape or returning to camp from a trip to the cannibalistic African interior), Clarke casts his line into deeper and darker waters.
The novel begins with an epigraph from Wendell Barry on the troubling relationship between slave and slave-owner: “We cannot be free of each other.” Clarke reminds us that in the 19th century, attitudes toward slavery were far from black and white. Southerners had reluctantly accepted that slavery was not going to last forever. The Southern religious wondered not if slaves should be freed, but what was the limit of white responsibility to blacks in their freedom.
One answer to that question was the African Liberation movement. Many whites embraced the movement with an out-of-sight, out-of-mind attitude. African-Americans who thought they could not adapt to their newfound roles of freedom—or that these roles would not be really free at all—also found themselves yearning to return to their ancestors’ home. Missionaries like the Wilsons are depicted as messengers of God seeking to educate and enlighten these freed slaves.
To missionaries, the movement provides a spark for spreading the word of God to a fresh country. Many American missionaries piggyback the re-colonization movement, building much-needed schools on the outskirts of settlements. On the other hand, men like Benjamin Latrobe, the head of the Maryland Colonization Society, have more devious motives. Latrobe shared the sentiment of thousands of Americans who supported the original back-to-Africa movement as a way to rid America of “inferior” blacks rather than live among them.
Throughout the “Nineteenth-Century Atlantic Odyssey,” as the book’s subtitle reads, we are introduced to a cast as eclectic and remarkable as that of Homer’s Odyssey. The book begins looking over the shoulder of Paul, the ex-slave carpenter who follows the Wilsons from their Hutchinson Island plantation to the African Cape towns. The Wilsons are joined by other missionaries, from the promising couple of David White and Helen Wells, who both die within months of landing in Africa, to the skittish and deranged Albert Bushnell, who spends 30 years teaching on the continent.
Often, Clarke’s fishing line gets tangled. Leighton is bogged down by bureaucratic red tape laid down by Latrobe and the Maryland Colonization Society. The line snags on Leighton’s home life while he is away in Africa, forcing him to make a decision on whether to release his slaves (and be labeled a dirty abolitionist by the community) or keep the slaves working on the far-away plantation (and be labeled a “man-stealer” by those who could have presumably used them). We double back to loosen the knots of tension between native Africans and black settlers. The black settlers look down upon the less civilized Africans, composing a new hierarchy in which the ex-slaves are relieved of their former place at the bottom.
We meet the Grebo people, a barbaric and ritualistic tribe ruled by King Freeman (an ironic name, as he holds hundreds of slaves) who surprises Leighton by his democratic style of ruling. The Grebo are known for their “sassy wood ordeal,” a method used to determine guilt in place of a judge or jury. In this trial, the accused is made to drink the juice from bark of indigenous trees. Guilt is discovered if—more likely when—the defendant vomits the poisonous mixture, exciting the crowd to the next step of the process: burying the man alive. However, the Grebo also provide us with William Davis, the friendly and Christian-curious man who acts as both translator and friend to Leighton.
Much more cultivated are the Mpongwe, a tribe that Leighton praises for their intellectual ability. While merely surviving was difficult among the Grebo, it is with the Mpongwe that mission work is put to the test. By this point, the readers are immune to scenes of brutal African rituals, drawn-out deaths by malaria and hushed coming-of-age rites in the interior. Instead, we notice that the questions the natives ask about the Gospel are like our own. The Mpongwe King George asks Leighton that if God “is good and just and cares for the actions of men,” why do good men die young and evil men live into old age?
When Leighton returns to America, he speaks in packed lecture halls of the profound ability of the Mpongwe, combatting doubters who believe the African race cannot learn as whites can. We are surprised, though, when Leighton makes no mention of Toko, the heartily playful Mpongwe man whom Leighton adores. Toko regales Leighton with his tribe’s creation stories and stays up under the starry African sky talking to Leighton about life and God. He does not mention Toko—who holds his tribal tradition too dear to convert—because he does not “fit the mission narrative that Leighton wanted to convey.”
Leighton’s work in Liberia produces a mixed bag. While we see him acting as a diplomat between settlers and tribes, erecting schools and even printing books in hard-to-learn tribal tongues, Leighton made another discovery that will haunt him. On an excursion upriver, Leighton stumbles upon the skull of a yet-undiscovered gorilla species, called njina. His excitement later turns to frustration as his discovery is twisted by white scientists who tout similarities between the skull and those of African Americans, further perpetuating a theory of inherent dissimilitude between the two races.
The most telling chapter appears away from Africa, away from the coast with “sassy wood ordeals” or Toko and his long-winded jokes. After the American Civil War, conflicts between the Northern and Southern religious are minimized. Both camps realize the importance of foreign mission work as a uniting factor under God. Clarke has shown us what happens when we compete for land: a French fleet bombards African colonies, revenge killings plague tribes, even the Civil War itself acts as a bloody divide between new and even newer nations.
When we return home after our Odyssey, we realize our best work is done not under the flags of nations, but in the name of Christ.