Travel Sketches from Liberia

Johann Büttikofer's 19th Century Rainforest Explorations in West Africa


Editors: Henk Dop and Phillip Robinson
In the 1880s a Swiss-born biologist, Johann Büttikofer, while working for the Royal Museum of Natural History in Leiden, The Netherlands, carried out two extended expeditions to Liberia, West Africa. In 1890 he published the results of his work in German in two-volumes, entitled Reisebilder aus Liberia (Travel Sketches from Liberia).
Büttikofer worked extensively in the forested regions of coastal Liberia and made the acquaintance of many prominent Liberians and other personalities of that era. His zoological work there is actually exceeded by his detailed descriptions of the state of Liberia some 50 years following its colonization by freed American slaves and their descendents. It constitutes the first comprehensive monograph on the Republic of Liberia.

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Henk Dop, M.Sc. (1982), is a biologist trained at the Free University of Amsterdam. He has been engaged in Africa-related studies and activities for the past three decades. He worked with the Forestry Development Authority in Liberia in 1986-87 and has since then remained active in conservation work in that country.

Phillip T. Robinson, M.S., D.V.M. (1972), Michigan State University, is a veterinary surgeon and wildlife biologist who has been engaged in wildlife conservation work in Liberia since 1968. He has conducted field studies in Liberia under the sponsorship of the World Wildlife Fund, National Geographic Society and World Bank, and he is on the research faculty at the University of Toledo (Ohio).
“…Representing an invaluable update on Liberian natural history and ethnography, this 2-volume set is an exceedingly erudite contribution. For Liberiaphiles, it is an indispensable addition to one’s personal library. Dop’s translation is exquisitely readable and entertaining and the footnotes demonstrate the meticulous and insightful scholarship of the authors. I found myself anticipating these footnotes with gratitude for new tidbits and references. I can think of no three Liberianists (Dop, Robinson and Holsoe) better qualified to undertake and/or comment upon Büttikofer’s seminal journeys in 19th century Liberia. Like Schwab and Harley (Tribes of the Liberian Hinterland) and Johnston (Liberia), this translation completes the set of “must-own” volumes for those who have worked in hinterland Liberia or remain steadfast students of West African history, ecology, ethnography, and culture. Memories will stir, the nocturnal cry of the civet will prickle & piloerect, and libations will be poured to the authors who have revived Büttikofer and Sala to walk again amongst us in untamed terrain! “

Richard A. “Ran” Nisbett, PhD, MSPH
Tropical Public Health/EcoHealth Track
Department of Global Health, College of Public Health, University of South Florida

'In the 1880s, Swiss biologist Johann Büttikofer traveled to Liberia in the employ of the Dutch Royal Museum of Natural History to engage in zoological research and to collect samples for the museum. Upon his return, he published his extensive, insightful work, which has remained available only in German until now. Dop and Robinson have worked to make this important historical document available in English for the first time, thereby presenting numerous scholars their first chance to utilize this source. While Büttikofer was primarily a naturalist, his work contains everything that he encountered during his stay in Liberia, and thus serves as a source for biologists, anthropologists, historians, and others. The work provides insight into the scientific community of the late 19th century and the opportunities and perils of fieldwork. Beyond this, the editors rightly contend that Büttikofer's work serves as the first monograph of Liberia, as it provides insight into the peoples, economy, structures, and environment of the country. The text is supplemented by numerous well-reproduced plates, drawings, and maps; the illustrations include not only flora and fauna, but also important Liberians and coins. Summing Up: Essential. Graduate students, faculty'.

-- T. M. Reese, Univ. of North Dakota
In: Choice, May 2013 Vol. 50 No. 09
This publication is of particular interest to historians, anthropologists, political scientists, conservation biologists, Africana scholars and the citizenry of the Republic of Liberia and its neighbors in West Africa.