266: By the Rivers of Water by Erskine Clarke

by Gerard


266.5092: Clarke, Erskine. By the Rivers of Water: A Nineteenth-Century Atlantic Odyssey. New York: Basic Books, 2013. 378 pp. ISBN 978-0-465-00272-6.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 200: Religion
  • 260: Christian social and ecclesiastical theory
  • 266: Missions
  • 266.5: Presbyterian Church missions
  • +092: Biography

Slavery was a way of life in early 19th-century Georgia. While the wholesale importation of slaves from Africa was officially banned by law by 1807, the subjugation of existing blacks in the South was still legal. The different layers of culture, status, and race blended to create a complicated atmosphere. Erskine Clarke’s By the Rivers of Water details the lives of plantation owners turned missionaries John Leighton and Jane Bayard Wilson to West Africa and how their journey to help others offers new perspective on an old problem.

The Wilsons left the shores of Georgia in November 1834 to establish some of the most influential missionaries on the continent. In their eighteen years in Africa, they built schools, fought the slave trade institution, beat back colonial invaders, and translated the Bible into native languages. John and Jane were both brought up in the Southern slave-owning tradition, but their inability to reconcile owning slaves and the teachings of their faith led them to fight against the prevailing culture.

Aside from the lives of the Wilsons, we also get insight into the fledgling Protestant mission culture, the lives of the Gullah, stories of freed American blacks travelling back to Africa (and creating a new kind of class differential there) as well as bits of the European scramble for African colonies, Grebo and Mpongwe history, and a different side of the American Civil War. The tone is rich, and Clarke’s description of foreign landscapes is among the best I’ve read. His prose easily invites the reader into the narrative even when the story is not so easy to stomach. While the main focus on the missionary work, the background history into Gullah culture gives a voice to a people that have been forgotten for too long. A dense and interesting read.