Sophie Berrebi | 2018 Rita Bolland Fellow

Sailor Shirts and Photographs: A Research Diary - Part 2

3 (the Kru – ethnographers – explorers)

I proceed to research the Kru and in the weeks that follow, and find myself scouring nineteenth-century accounts of travelers who repeat in substance the same information: that the Kru are a people whose homeland is in Liberia, and their talents as sailors made them a sought after labour force since at least the late eighteenth century. Recruited by Western ships, mainly British, French, Portuguese and Dutch, they sail down the coast as far south as Angola or the Congo before being returned home, working for a few months or a year on each job.[1] They are the only ones, these sources repeat, who can safely manoeuvre across the great waves and rollers that hug the West African coast. All sources similarly evoke the recruitment process, un-changed for more than a century or so and which happens via a headman, an older and more experienced sailor who recruits men for the ship, and a ‘book’ that each Kru keeps, in which their recruitment information is consigned. That the Kru traveled across such large territories across different colonies and linguistic zones explains why such photographs could be taken in Angola, and it is also what prompts me to check sources in various places and libraries beyond Leiden and the Netherlands. In accounts from Europeans dating back to the mid-nineteenth century, around the time that settlements of formerly enslaved men and women from the United States were consolidating into the state of Liberia (which declared its independence in 1847), I note with fascination the difference of tone between government officials, self-defined explorers, scientists and missionaries: there is the pseudo-scientific pontificating of the French, the patronizing accent of missionaries and the anecdotal and violently racist tone of the British. They call these workers in different languages ‘krooboys’, ‘krumen’, ‘croumanes’, ‘crumanoas,’ and often question the origin of the name and the strange homonymy between the men from Kru town in Liberia and their activity as Crewmen on ships. From a couple of more recent ethnographic studies I learn that the name Kru has gradually come to be shared by all sorts of people seeking employment by foreign vessels.[2] The racism of the early accounts is almost always coupled with praise for people without whom, sources repeat, Western commerce and exploration would not have been possible.  I even read somewhere that the French under governor Binger negotiated for the border between

Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire to cut through Kru territory because they wanted to make sure they would have access to this particular labour force in their new conquered territory of Côte d’Ivoire. So I have found an explanation of why the Kru in “my” pictures have been photographed in Angola. (I write “my” almost as an automatism: they accompany me in my library visits, pasted in my notebook and over the weeks, I have become somewhat possessive towards uncovering their story).

But in every text I find, I search almost in vain for an indication of Kru clothing. Repeatedly I read in nineteenth-century accounts that they are dressed with little more than a loincloth, and sometimes with hand-me down clothes from the western ships, and in some cases, it appears that their wages are paid in cloth. But certainly nothing in what I read accounts for anything as concerted as the outfits in my photographs. Why is that, I wonder, and first of all is it because these people might not actually be Kru people? Or is it because the European travelers did not bother to record the clothing of their temporary staff? Or is it a question of discrepancy between images and text, that images are collected and archived separately from texts, and that textual archives only rarely contain photographs?

4 (Johann Buttikofer – drawing and photography - the history of objectivity)

This divorce between image and text speaks of several things. Linda, a graphic designer friend points out that technical reasons might offer a simple explanation: printing techniques in the mid or late nineteenth century made it difficult or expensive to reproduce photographs in books, while drawings were easier to reproduce alongside text. But that cannot be everything. I point out to her another photograph that has emerged, in a case where photographer and writer are one and the same person. Johann Büttikofer (1850-1927) was a Swiss-born zoologist who worked for most of his career at the National Museum of Natural History in Leiden in the late nineteenth century.[3] Büttikofer made two expeditions to Liberia, in 1879-82, and then again in 1886, before publishing a book about his work and travel in 1890, Reisebilder aus Liberia in which photographs and drawings alternate.[4] In the book is a drawing showing a view of the Sinoe River, and a man wearing a sailor shirt stands with one hand on the tip of a canoe. In the database, looking at the extensive series of photographs that Büttikofer sold to the museum after his trips, I find the photograph on which the drawing was based. It is much more complex than the drawing, suggesting at that latter, heavily edited image removes the busy messiness of the real in favour of an idealised view of a virgin territory to be explored.

But perhaps, also, Büttikofer’s purpose, in cleaning up the image, was to exemplify what science historians Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison have called  "truth to nature", a regime or paradigm of objectivity formed prior to the invention of photography, and according to which a drawing’s truthfulness stemmed from its ability to depict things (for example, medical cases) in an general way. Photography’s ability to faithfully and mechanically reproduce the real was hailed as a proof of objectivity in the sciences, prompting what the authors call in their landmark book, Objectivity, the introduction of a new paradigm of objectivity in scientific imagery, which they call “mechanical objectivity”. [5]  Nevertheless, a photograph would also pick up incidents and accidents that could disturb a generic representation and turn it into an unwanted individual case study. To me, the book comes to exemplify, with its choice of using both photographs and drawings as illustrations, a prime example of the competing ideas of these two regimes of objectivity: “truth to nature” and “mechanical objectivity” (and I note, almost in passing, that there is nothing about the outfit of the man holding the canoe in Büttikofer’s text).

<--    Part 1          |         Part 3    -->

[1] Richard Burton Wanderings in West Africa (London, 1863).  FLeuriot de Langle, Croisières à la côte d’Afrique, Paris, 1868/1872.  Many historical sources are compiled and presented in George E. Brooks, Jr.,The Kru Mariner in the Nineteenth Century: An Historical Compendium (Newark, Delaware: Liberian Studies Association), 1970.

[2]   Christine Behrens, Les Kroumen de la Côte Occidentale d’Afrique, Talence: Ministère de l’Éducation nationale, Centre national de la recherché scientifique, Centre d’étude de géographie tropicale, 1974; Jane Martin, ‘Krumen “Down the Coat”: Liberian Migrants on the West African Coast in the 19th and Early 20th Centuries’, The International Journal of African Historical Studies, v. 18, n. 3, 1985, 401-423; L.B. Breitborde, ‘City, Countryside and Kru Ethnicity’, Africa v. 61 (2), 1991, 186- 201.

[3] A brief biography and examples of photographs are published in De Bril van Anceaux, Leiden, XXX, 128-129.

[4]  Johann Büttikofer, Reisebilder aus Liberia Leiden, Brill, 1890, This was recently translated into English and published as Johann Büttikofer, Henk Dop and Phillip T. Robinson (editors), Travel Sketches from Liberia: Johann Büttikofer's 19th Century Rainforest Explorations in West Africa. Leiden, Brill, 2012.

[5] Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison, Objectivity. New York, Zone Books, 2007.


Sophie Berrebi
Rita Bolland Fellow