Bopolu: An ancient trade town

Researched and Written by C. Patrick Burrowes

All Rights Reserved

Bopolu is one of the oldest towns in the region. It has been continuously occupied for centuries.

It was founded by the Dei as a trade town where products brought from the Sahel were exchanged for their salt, which was made by boiling sea water. Originally called Taabli (“Taa’s town”), it became a regular stop for trade caravans from elsewhere in West Africa. The town was far from their home near the coast, so the name was changed to Bopolu because people kept complaining “bo po mole” (meaning “only foot will put you there”).1

Bopolu was just one of many such towns established by people in the forest and woodlands just for trading. Located miles away from their homes, workshops and raw materials, these towns provided a place to meet with visiting traders without allowing outsiders access to the sources of their resources.

As is still done by companies around the world, local producers went to great lengths to protect their trade secrets. For example, a Dei ruler named Duwan reportedly made the Gola pay to taste salt water –– although his mother was Gola!

Given its character as a trade town, Bopolu has been to cultural diverse residents for much of its recorded history.

Dei History, According to Oral Traditions

The founders of Bopolu were the ancestors of the Dei.

The ancestors of the Dei seem to have migrated from the present-day Guinea down along the St. Paul, then ventured westward.

According to a Dei founding legend told by Gbii Woso, a descendent of the landholding lineage, the group descended from the marriage of a father, Zie, who emerged from the water, and Dewulo, a mother who previously lived with her parents in a cave.

As expressions of their mutual affection, Zie gave Dewulo a silver coin and she gave him a gold ring. Zie’s dowry for Dewulo was a carved iron drum decorated with brass and copper, which fell from the sky near the town of Millsburg, then called Dalon.

After the original drum disappeared, leaders of the Poro power association created a replica in wood, called foivo, which is the chief musical instrument in all Dei higher-level ceremonies of the Poro power association.2

Putting aside the fantastic elements that accrue to such stories retold over centuries, the legend offers several intriguing clues regarding the origin of the Dei. First, it traces their origin to the mixing of a local woman (or, more probably, women) and a maritime man (or men), who apparently arrived from up north via the St. Paul River. Second, it points to knowledge of metal smelting as central to the identity of the new people that emerged.3

The exchanged items were probably different in earlier versions of the story, but was updated to a ring and a coin to suit recent audiences. Third, the multiple metals used in making the dowry drum, as well as its elaborate decoration, suggest the men who descended from north brought a knowledge of metal working.

Dei oral traditions cite a town called Kambai Bli (on the current road to Bomi Hills) as one of their oldest and most economically important. This town was the site of a large clay pit for producing pottery products that attracted buyers from afar.4 However, far more important was the production of salt from sea water for sale to northern markets.

According to Dei oral traditions, it was principally their wealth from salt boiling that attracted other groups to join them.5 Important salt boiling towns were located along the beach from the mouth of the St. Paul to Cape Mount. They included Duojena, Dugbei, Gakpoja and Mbaanwoin.6

Ancient Trade Routes

Several routes linked the Niger to the salt-producing coast as well as the kola forest of Sierra Leone and Liberia. All of those routes passed through Kankan, which was the main transit point for the flow of goods between the Buré gold-working region and forest societies on the one hand and the Sahel on the other.7

One route went from the Niger through Kankan to the Sierra Leone peninsula. The Dyula ancestors of the Vai ethnic group apparently took this route to the Sierra Leone peninsula before slowly gravitating toward Cape Mount.8

A second path ran from Kankan to Musadu to Bopolu to Jondu to Gowolo to Gowolonamalo to Cape Mount.9

West African societies appeared self-contained because they produced their basic necessities. But, even in this early period, they were tied together by trade with distant markets.10

At the west end, one trade route ran from Senegal through southern Mauritania to Sijilmasa in present-day Morocco.

Meanwhile, seafaring groups along the Atlantic ferried goods to the mouths of navigable rivers.11

A central route went from Kwakaw up to Tahart in Algeria.

In the east, a track connected Lake Chad located between Niger, Nigeria, Chad and Cameroon to Jabal Nafusa in present-day Libya.

A horizontal route ran from the Niger through the Aïr Mountain to Cairo, Egypt, which was a major stop for Muslim pilgrims <em>en route</em> to Mecca.12

This network was probably connected to an early route that ran from the mouth of the St. Paul River through Bopolu (both in what is now Liberia) to Musadu (a town in present-day Guinea currently called Beyla), then up to the Niger River.13

The Arrival of the Repatriates

The repatriates arrived just as slave trading was increasing in the area. In 1807, the British had outlawed human trafficking. One year later, the British navy began patrolling high-volume slave marts along the West Africa coast and seizing suspected slave ships. Those actions unintentionally drove slaves buyers from major ports like Elmira and Bonny to previously underutilized areas like the coast of present-day Liberia.

Among people already living in the area, opinions were sharply divided regarding the slave trade. This division was not between ethnic groups, with some being for and others against. Instead, each ethnic group contained some members who were proslavery while others were abolitionist. That was the case in societies all along the rim of the Atlantic.

Given the slave trade’s polarizing impact, local people did not respond in a unified and homogeneous way to African-Americans who came seeking land.

On the one hand, foreign slave buyers and their local allies vehemently and violently opposed the repatriates, whom they viewed as threats to their profits. On the other hand, local abolitionists welcomed African-American returnees as allies whose global ties and external knowledge could help bring a speedy end to the trade in enslaved Africans that had ravaged local societies for centuries.

Common interests quickly manifest themselves in a variety of ways.

By May 1826, Governor Jehudi Ashmun of the Liberian colony reported to the American Colonization Society, that most local rulers are convinced that the slave trade “is indeed a bad business, – and are apparently sincere in their determination to drop it forever, unless compelled by their wants to adventure a few occasional speculation.”14

With some exaggeration, he noted that on several occasions when there was fighting in the interior “the whole population of the country has been ready to throw itself into our arms for protection.”15

He also pointed out that thieves and “other malefactors” from outside the colony who had broken its laws “have, in too many instances to be recited, been voluntarily arrested by their own countrymen, and delivered up to the Colony for punishment.”16

Another point of commonality between some repatriates and indigenous Africans was an interest in Western education. Referring to the rulers and leading traders of neighboring societies, Ashmun said, “No man of the least consideration in the country, will desist from his importunities,17 till at least one of his sons is fixed in some settlers’ family.”18

Beginning in the late 1830s, a key link between Bopolu and the Liberian colony was Gabriel Moore, who became one of the country’s richest merchants. Gabriel arrived as age 20 and identified as a farmer when he emigrated from Mississippi with his father and siblings in April 1835.19

Upon arriving in Liberia, Gabriel “went native,” spending many years living in Bopolu. While there, according to a writer familiar with the details of Moore’s life, he “formed an intimate acquaintance with the native manners and customs.”20

A “natural linguist,” Moore reportedly spoke “with ease and fluency” all of the African languages spoken on Liberian territory, including Via, Mandingo, Goal, Kpelle, Dei, Bassa, Kru and even that of liberated Africans from the Congo. He served for many years as interpreter for the national government.21

Moore harnessed his language facility and residence in Bopolu to become one of Liberia’s wealthiest traders. He had four known children: Rachel, whose mother was Vai; Gabriel, Jr., who assisted their father in the trading business; Hilary, a physician; and Urias, who also studied in the U. S.22 Rachel married John L. Crusoe, the oldest of three brothers who earned a fortune in international trading.23

In 1938, the national legislature granted Lott Hill of Montserrado County a pension [$100, having been incapacitated by injuries suffered in the 1900 Suehn-Bopolu expedition.24