Rivercess: A well known location to world travelers


Researched and written by C. Patrick Burrowes
All rights reserved

Rivercess has been well known to world travelers for many centuries.

The earliest know inhabitants of Rivercess were the ancestors of the Bassa. Some migrated from Musadu in the present-day Guinea, a trading town,1 down along the St. John.

Others had previously lived on Mount Gedeh. They cite Mount Niété in Grand Gedeh as their ancestral home, the summit of which is said to be the site of a village of the dead.2 Oral traditions suggest the ancestors of the Bassa engaged in metal smelting in Grand Gedeh, probably to make iron tools.3

One Bassa tradition claims that their ancestors encountered Europeans when they first reached the Atlantic Ocean.4 They claim to have learned canoe building from the Klao only after relocating near the coast.5 After moving to their present location, they continued smelting iron using ore from Mt. Finley.6

Having mingled near the mouth of the St. John, they then ventured eastward to Rivercess and westward as far as the Mesurado River.7

The language of the Bassa belongs to a family that includes Kuwaa, Dei, Kru, Grebo, Sapo and Krahn. Unlike most of their linguistic cousins, they and the Dei share membership in the Poro power association diverse ethnic groups living in Northeastern Liberia.

The ancestors of the Bassa probably adopted the Poro while living in Guinea. There, they were a link in a pan-ethnic Poro chain that ran from the Gola, Dei and Vai through the Kissi, Bandi, Kuwaa, Loma, Bassa, Kpelle and some Dan in the middle, to the Lobi, Birifo, Dya and Senofu8 at the northern-most tip.

In a book published in 1668, Dutch geographer Olfert Dapper described an invasion near Cape Mount that touched many groups, including some Bassa. Dapper’s book was the fullest description of Africa to that date.

An English translation was published in 1669-70 by John Oglivy with the title Africa: Being an Accurate Description of the Regions of Egypt, Barbary, Lybia, and Billedulgerid, the Land of Negroes, Guinee, Ethiopia, and the Abyssines.

Dapper himself never visited Africa, but he drew upon many Dutch works available only in manuscript form. Especially important was the writing of Samuel Bloomeasrt, a Dutch trader who lived in the area of Sierra Leone and Cape Mount sometime between 1614 and 1651.9 Dapper also used the published work of Pierre d’Avity (also Davity) , a French soldier.10

According to Dapper’s account, the Quabbe was one of several groups said to be living along the Cestos River. This was possible the Kuwaa, who would be pushed west when the Kpelle and Ma entered from the north.

He mentioned another group called Quea. This was undoubtedly the Kwea, a Bassa group in present-day Liberia. According to Dapper’s informant, the Quoia, the Karou, the Folgia, the Manou, the Hondo, the Gola and the Gebbe all shared the Poro association and practiced circumcision.11

The Earliest Written Records on River Cess

The first written records on the area now known as River Cess were left by Portuguese navigators.

In 1462, two Portuguese ships anchored near the Junk River along the coast of present-day Liberia. They were captained by Pedro de Sintra. They came searching for gold and other goods, including malagueta spice.

At that time, malagueta was grown only along the West African coast between River Cess and Cape Palmas. Along that stretch of coast, goods were carried in woven baskets shaped like sugar loafs.

De Sintra’s visit was momentous. It marked the first European contact with the area now known as Liberia.

Other voyagers from Portugal would follow de Sintra. They would map this coast and gave names to many of its features. They named geographical features like “Cape Palmas” and such rivers as “St. Paul’s” and “St. John’s.”

As a result, the Portuguese word for a pannier or large basket, “cesto,” came to form a part of many place-names along this coast – Sestros River, Grand Cess, Little Cestos and others. 12

The malagueta trade was so wide-spread and important that it fostered basket-weaving on a large-scale. Moreover, the wicker baskets used locally to carry dried malagueta and other produce became entrenched as units of measure.13

The account of de Sintra’s travel was written by Alvise da Cá da Mosto based on oral and written sources. A native of Venice, he had reportedly moved to Portugal to recover from his family’s economic ruin back home. For him, the exciting new West African trade presented a path to quick profits. He had previously explored the region of Senegal and the Cape Verde islands in 1456.14

Writing four decades after de Sintra’s voyage, da Mosto was not able to verify if it occurred in 1461 or 1462. In copying notes from de Sintra’s voyage, the Venetian gave an Italian name to one of the first points visited in present-day Liberia: Capo del Monte (for “chief mountain”). This came to be rendered as Cape Mount in English.

Duarte Pacheco Pereira, writing c. 1505, left the earliest surviving detailed European account of the Upper Guinea coast. He identified the coast between River Cess and Cape Palmas as the location of the malagueta trade.15

An Early Sample of the Local Language

Much more revealing of local cultures was London merchant William Towerson, who first visited the area with Lok. On Oct. 21, 1555, he led two ships from Dartmouth, England, arriving at Sestros River on December 15.

By Towerson’s reckoning, the “greatest abundance” of malaguetta was to be found between River Cess and Cape Palmas. In one day at Sestros, he exchanged basins, bracelets and beads for 1,100 pounds of spice and two ivories.

Towerson described the town as consisting of 20 “small hovels, covered over with large leaves.” The houses were open on all sides with floors raised almost a yard off the ground. The only animals were two goats, a few small dogs and some hens.

Inhabitants, both men and women, were engaged in carving “many ingenious things of the barks of trees” and working in “iron, making very pretty heads for javelins, tools for making their boats and various other things.”16

Unlike many European visitors, Towerson made an effort to record some vocabulary of the residents. Included in his account were 11 phrases written (with translations) as Bezow! bezow! (meaning, “hello”), manegete afoye (“spice plentiful”), crocow afoye (“hens plentiful”), zeramme afoye (“Do you have enough?”), begge sacke (“give me a knife”), beggy come (“give me bread”), borke (“silence!”), contrecke (“you lie!”), veede (“put forth” or “empty”), brekeke (“row!”), and diago or dabo (“captain” or “chief”).

Of the local language, he said, “they speak very thick, often repeating one word three times successively, and always the last time longer than the two former.” For the amusement of the English visitors, several women danced, clapped and sang repeatedly what sounded to Towerson like “Sakere, sakere, ho! ho! Sakere, sakere, ho! ho!17

In the 1600s, cotton-cloth weaving was least developed east of River Cess. Instead, people made cloths from grass, raffia and tree bark. Cotton tended to replace those alternatives wherever it became available because those fabrics were less sturdy.18

The First Record of Liberia’s Famous Finger-Snap Handshake

One of the first detailed accounts was left by French nobleman Nicolas Villault de Bellefond. He sailed as comptroller of the 400-ton frigate Europa in 1666-1667, sponsored by the French West Indian Company.

The voyage was intended to secretly investigate prospects for a more vigorous French engagement in West Africa. For that reason, the ship was outfitted with goods and crew in Amsterdam, and at least once on the Windward Coast Villault misrepresented his sponsors as Dutch.

Three years after returning to France, the nobleman published a 280-page account of his voyage in English, titled <em>A Relation of the Coasts of Africk called Guinee. </em>It was, according to the front page, “Written in French, and faithfully Englished.”19

While anchored off the coast of River Cess, the Europa was approached by local fishermen who enticed the Europeans to come ashore with the promise of many ivories. Taking some commodities in a boat, some crew members sailed more than nine miles up the river to meet the ruler of the area and present him with gifts “according to the Custome.”

Upon returning to the ship, one crew member described the local leader as “a very lusty man, with a stern and supercilious aspect.” He professed “a great friendship for the English,” who once had a store house nine miles up river that was now in ruins.

Although there was a large quantity of ivory, the price was high, driven up –– the ship’s comptroller assumed –– by two vessels that had stopped here two weeks before on their way to the Gold Coast.20

While the crew was ashore, the ship was approached by about 12 canoes with a variety of fish, including a sea pike, which Villault declared “an excellent good fish.” Perhaps based on the fishermen who visited the ship, he concluded that the local people “are generally well proportioned.”21

Regarding their “manner of salutation” at River Cess, he noted, “they take our fore finger and thumb, into their hands, they pull them hard, and make them snap.” This is the earliest documented description of the unique handshake among men for which Liberians have come to be known. The local greeting was “Aquio,” which “is as much as your servant with us.”22

Regarding foodstuff, Villault thought River Cess was “very fertile, well furnish’d” with fowl, rice and millet, “which they carry with them in their Canoes when they go fishing.” As for trade goods in particular, rice, malaguetta and ivory would likely yield a profit for “He that would stay upon the place.” He insisted that the kindness of the local people “has been always more conspicuous to the French, then either to the Hollander or Portugal, neither of which they would ever suffer to cohabit with them.”23

From Villault’s book, it is clear that European ship-traffic along the Malagueta Coast was, not only frequent, but riddled with tension.24

Arrival of the Dutch

As the Dutch tightened their control of world trade, their presence increased in the area now known as Liberia. In the early 1700s, a detailed account of West African life was published by William Bosman, a Dutch merchant. From the age of 16, he spent 14 years in West Africa. He served as chief factor mainly at the Elmina fort on the Gold Coast and was the second highest ranking Dutch official on what was then called the Guinea Coast.25

Bosman’s manuscript was structured in the form of 22 letters to his uncle in Holland, who had visited West Africa himself. It was written between early 1701 and September 1702, during a period when Dutch supremacy in West Africa was being eclipsed by the British and French.26

Bosman noted a daily traffic of canoes to trade from Cape Mount to River Cess, which attracted more European vessels.27

Arriving at River Cess on Dec. 3, Bosman was impressed by several imposing aspects of the landscape: in the background were two high hills, “one of which appears like a Semicircle or Rainbow” and to the east a distinctive peninsula extended into the ocean.

These attractive features were counterweighted by a more menacing aspect: the entrance to the river was lined with rocks hidden six feet beneath the surface.28

Close to the shore was a village of “very neatly built” multistory houses that were so high they could be seen from three miles at sea. Adding to the “charm” of the river was the multitude of villages that lined its banks.

Bosman characterized the inhabitants as “very Industrious, especially in the Planting of Rice, which is their chief Employment.” The rice harvest here was so prodigious that “in a very short itme we easily get enough to load a Ship.” Those “above the common Rank,” he noted, were engaged in a “perpetual trade” in rice, malaguetta and a small quantity of ivory.29

Three miles up the river was the village of the local ruler, Peter, who, like “The Great or Principal Men hereabouts,” had assumed European names. Bosman described him as a “Silver Haired very old Man,” who was “very agreeable, obliging.” Peter claimed all the inhabitants of his village were his descendants, “Which is very probable, they not being very numerous.”

The Dutch visitor could learn of no local conflicts, except for a few “Skirmishes,” which supposedly began when people from the interior burned a local village in a surprise attack. Hostilities ended, however, after local residents seized many of their inland attackers and sold them into slavery.

Of the local people’s “Habit, Fruits of the Earth, Cattle and Fish,” he noted little except their similarity to those at Cape Mount. Bosman was prevented from exploring the country more fully, he wrote, because the English ships generally “come so thick upon this coast.”30

Description of a Local Funeral in the early 1700s

One significant local rite, a funeral, was recorded by Bosman because he thought it was “strange;” it was probably the first written description of a local death ceremony.

Immediately after an old woman died, her body was covered with a cloth and surrounded by villagers – young and old – holding banana leaves to shade it from the sun.

The men began running about her house in what he described as a “Desparate and Distracted manner.” Had she been half dead, he added sarcastically, their continual and dismal howling would have been “sufficient to have accelerated her Departure.”

The women, who sat around the body, began crying loudly. “This jarring Discord continued incessant” for a day. The next day an empty canoe was brought, into which was placed the corpse, one pot of rice, another of palm wine and a variety of green plants, all intended to sustain her on her journey in the afterlife.31 Several aspects of this funeral scene echo the rituals of ancient Egypt, including the offerings of food and drink, as well as conveying the body by boat.

After another half hour of weeping by villagers, the loaded canoe was carried to the river by “ten young vigorous Fellows.” The deceased was taken to her birthplace for burial, in keeping with local custom. Three days after, those relatives and friends who had accompanied the body returned with a sheep and a good supply of palm wine for a commemorative feast.32

Bosman was famished after a day spent trading for rice, so he joined in eating and drinking “heartily” for “as long as either Wine or Edibles lasted.” The next morning, to his surprise, the mourners insisted that he help defray the cost of the feast. This experience, he noted sarcastically, “obliged me to clap down as a Memorandum in my Note-Book never again to venture to an old Woman’s funeral.”33

After eight days of trading at River Cess, Bosman sailed east on Dec. 11. He recorded descriptions of interesting geographical features but spent little time in most locations.

Fishing and Houses at River Cess

England’s growing global empire was reflected in an increased presence in West Africa. Few English visitors to the area of Liberia during this period recorded their impressions. An exception was Jean Barbot (1655-1712).

A French Protestant, he was living in exile in England when he undertook two voyages to West Africa (1678-79 and 1681-82) as a commercial agent on slave ships. He wrote a lengthy description of West Africa that was published in English after his death.

Barbot drew on his own observations, as well as a mixture of previously published sources that he sometimes did not credit. One appeal of his work were the masterful illustrations prepared by the author himself, 120 of which were included in the French version of his manuscript.

Speaking of the coast east of the Junk River, Barbot noted, “Here is where they begin to demand the ceremony of taking sea water and putting a handful on the head thrice, as a promise taken at sea not to cheat them in anything, for the sea is their fetish and god.”34

Using phrasing that suggested sea-going at Sestros was a specialized activity, Barbot noted, “Those among them who venture to sea have little canoes in which they come out to ships passing along their coasts.” He also referred to fishermen as “others” who paddle six to nine miles out to sea in the morning and return at noon.35 According to Barbot, there were only fishermen living at both Little Sestros and Cap das Baisox Svino.36

A village at the mouth of the Sestros River reportedly had about 30 huts in 1670, but had grown to about 150 by 1701.37

According to Barbot, who travelled inland on the Sestros River, it was lined with large trees on the western bank and mangroves on the opposite side. He noted two villages there in 1688: One near the ocean had 100 huts situated between a field of malagueta shrubs on the sea side and, on the river bank, a collection of banana trees that shielded the village from the glare of the sun. The other about six miles inland contained 25-30 huts, which were enclosed by a clay wall of about six feet in height.38

Houses in this area were apparently built of bamboo or what Barbot called “rushes or reeds.” This material made them susceptible to being destroyed by the fires that were kept burning continuously in each one. Ladders were required to enter them because they were on pillars with flooring about three feet above the ground due to the predatory leopards that prowled at night.39

The lower portions of some interior walls were painted black or red. All of the huts had two stories, each about three-and-a half feet tall, which made standing in them impossible.40

One exception was “the Whiteman’s Hut,” which laid outside the wall of the inland village. It was circular and 60 feet in circumference, with a pointed roof. At the center was a large wooden icon of a woman and child, where food and drink offerings were made and oaths were administered.41

The First Written Record of the Word “Bassa”

The first published uses of a name like “Bassa” in reference to this coast appear at two points in Barbot’s book.

At one point, he refers to a river called “Little Barsay,” which marked the boundary between the Monou people to the west and the Quabee people of Sestro to the east.42 Later he refers to the ruler of the Sestro River region as a man named Barsaw, who was known as “Pieter” to foreigners. His territory extended from the St. John river to “Croe,” in a straight line covering 35 leagues. Various European visitors to River Cess noted the presence of a ruler named Peter, Pieter or Pedro in 1682, 1693, 1701 and 1727.43

During Barbot’s visit, Barsaw lived at the inland village while the coastal town was led by an underling named Jacob. He was dressed in a white gown with embroidery of various colors. His hair was braided to two points on the side that looked like “the horns of some animal.” He wore a conical straw cap decorated with small porcupine tails, goat horns and “other trifles, which are they grigri.” Attached to a necklace, two young goat’s horn hung near his stomach.

Other than his attire, “Almost nothing clearly distinguished him from what is common among the other blacks.” Hunched on his heels, he was smoking a pipe with the bowl resting on the ground. In front of him were two large pots of palm-wine.44

Between the early 1600s to the early 1700s, several Europeans reported that River Cess was “very fertile, well furnish’d” with fowl, rice and millet, “which they carry with them in their Canoes, when they go fishing.” Trade goods in particular were rice, malaguetta and ivory.45Around River Cess in 1701, William Bosman spent a day trading for rice.46

Impact of the Slave Trade

As a result of the slave trade, societies along the Windward Coast of West Africa went from supplying rice to European vessels to experiencing food shortages. By the late twentieth century, they were net importers of rice, much of which came from the United States. The forced transfer of labor and know-how caused by the slave trade may well help to explain this important shift in rice-growing in the two regions.47

Around 1701, William Bosman described some villagers near River Cess as “very Civil and Courteous.” He reached this conclusion because “an old Man that looked like their Governour” insisted that Bosman eat and drink before returning to his ship.48 He deemed the residents of Settre Crou “a good sort of People, honest in their Dealings.”49

Tobacco already had a presence along the Windward Coast by 1678, when the ruler of River Cess was described as hunched on his heels, smoking a pipe with the bowl resting on the ground.50

As Dutch slave buying increased along the coast in the late 1700s, so did the use of Dutch names by some of their African partners: There were Claesz and Pietersz, two leading men at River Cess in December 1678. Jan Vrijman (John Freeman) was the name of one local man at Grand Bassa in 1791.51

By 1700, traders documented an emergent trade in ivory and trickles of gold, but both commodities would be overtaken fifty years later by the traffick in Africans.52 As European interest in slaves grew, they stopped buying African products, like cotton cloth, for sale to Europe and other regions. 53

As noted by historian Hugh Thomas, “five times as many Africans went to the New World as did white Europeans” between 1492 and 1820. “Most of the great enterprises of the first four hundred years of colonization owed much to African slaves: sugar in Brazil and later the Caribbean; rice and indigo in South Carolina and Virginia; gold in Brazil and, to a lesser extent, silver in Mexico; cotton in the Guyanas and later in North America; cocoa in what is now Venezuela; and, above all, in clearing land ready for agriculture.”54

Between 1630 and 1700, England’s colonies in the America took in five Africans for every two Europeans. The number increased four to one between 1700 and 1780.55

Between 1514 and 1866, an estimated 12.5 million captives were removed from Africa. The major carriers were Portugal (including Brazil), 3.8 million; Great Britain, 3 million; France (including the West Indies), 1.3 million; the Netherlands, 544,478; Spain, 475,6 27; United States, 366,797; and Denmark and the Baltic countries, 102,889.56

Approximately 1.8 million died during the Atlantic crossing and another 2 to 3 million died in Africa en route to the coast.57

Rivercess was one of 13 slave-exporting ports in Liberia. Others were Bassa, Cess, Grand Bassa, Little Bassa, Grand Junk, Little Junk, Grand Mesurado, Petit Mesurado, Grand Sestos, Rock Sestos, St. Paul and Trade Town.58

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.”59

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.”60

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.”61

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,62 till at least one of his sons is fixed in some settlers’ family.”63