Again on the limits of settler colonialism: Martin Mühlheim, ‘”Black But Comely”: Settler-Colonial Identity, African Whiteness, and Intertextuality in James L. Sims’s Travel Narrative “Scenes in the Interior of Liberia” (1858)’, UZH, 2022


Abstract: Constructing a coherent sense of communal identity was far from easy for early Americo-Liberian settlers. They felt the need (a) to distinguish themselves from a racist ‘white civilisation’ while nevertheless claiming to be among the ‘civilised’; (b) to set themselves apart from black Americans in the U.S. while remaining equally committed to anti-slavery and abolition; and (c) to emphasise their superiority over indigenous ‘heathens’ while at the same time staking their own claim to ‘true Africanness.’ From previous studies, we know a great deal about the material challenges of life on the shores of West Africa. But how did Americo-Liberians grapple with the ideological and psychological complexities of their contradictory position as black anti-slavery settler-colonists? This essay argues that mid-nineteenth-century narratives of exploration into the black republic’s hinterland are a particularly promising source for scholars interested in examining how Americo-Liberians sought to contain the conflicting push and pulls that threatened to unravel their attempts at self-definition. More specifically, the essay demonstrates that in one such travel narrative – J. L. Sims’s “Scenes in the Interior of Liberia” (1858) – intertextual references are not merely ornamental, but instead deployed strategically, in an attempt to stabilise the disconcerting volatility of Americo-Liberian settler identity.

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