“Mens Liber”: On pondering an inscription

Today I was at the Shaw Hudson House doing some work on the book collection of the Plainfield Historical Society. I picked up a book to check it against the inventory:



Instantly, my mind was a pinball machine, ”slavery and sufferings of the author and the rest of the crew? Just desserts is what I call that! What the hell did we think the brig Commerce out of Hartford was doing there off the west coast of Africa? Trading Tchotchkes? Hartford? Hartford isn’t even on the ocean!” and finally, “1815? Yes, that would work, despite the 1808 law against Americans participating the international slave trade, it wasn’t until 1820 that the law got any teeth – these guys were thumbing their noses at the law.” My indignation was matched by fascination with the anthropological and geographical aspects of the title. This book is an emporium: adventure, geography, indignation, and a stiff dose of the exotic to spice it all up. Unfortunately the MAP “to assist the reader in tracing the eccentric course the author was compelled to travel with his Arab masters,” had been torn out of the book. (Google books edition)

Unfortunately, as we were engaged in a mundane effort called a “shelf read,” of the Historical Society’s book collection, we had a job to do and could not stop to read this enticing goodie just then. “Any inscriptions?” I airily asked coworkers Linda and Anne. Indeed there were. Except we could not read all of them. We could tell the book had belonged to Elisha Atkins and A. Crittenden of Plainfield, who wrote their names in it not once but three times. The book was published in 1824 but Atkins and Crittenden dated it on September? 21?, 1847, and the book came to the PHS through Atkins descendants. Between the three of us, we could not read the last inscription.

IMG_4692.JPG“Mens Liber,” was what I finally made of it after I took a picture and played with the contrast, and my mind went a-spinning again, “mens/mind, liber/free, or is it liber/book? “ And “does that mean ‘free mind”” and if so, I instantly wondered, is that a comment against slavery? Or rather a comment on the captivity of the captain and the crew of this slaving? brig Commerce (I am more given to jumping to conclusions and snarky commentary than historians are supposed to be)? Or does it mean ‘book for the mind’ and is it comment on learning about other places and people?” And why did Elisha and A(mos?) have this book? Together? I needed to know whether  the inscription was a comment on the book itself, and if so what it meant.

Join me in the chase.

Once home I searched the internet for Liber, and found he is the god of drinking and freedom in the Roman pantheon, much associated with the rights of coming of age a free man. Aha! I could see Atkins and Crittenden learning their Roman history, very aware of themselves as young “yeomen” coming of age as free citizens of the American republic, possibly either active or at least active in sentiment against slavery, as many of their neighbors in Cummington were. Or maybe this was their geography text? How old were they even?

Blessed with an internet connection, I now went wild: first the brig Commerce. Was she a slaver? I searched the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, figuring the ship may not have been on her first voyage when she went down off Africa. The results were not so clear. I found ships Commerce trading off Africa, but the voyages were between 1803 and 1808. I put that on the shelf for the moment.

Here’s what I did find also, though: There was another narrative of almost the same name, but only almost:

An Authentic Narrative of the American Brig Commerce, wrecked on the Western Coast of Africa, in the month of August, 1815, with an account of the sufferings of her surviving officers and crew, who were enslaved by the wandering Arabs on the great African Desart; or Zahahrah; and observations historical, geographical, & c made during the travels of the author, while a slave to the Arabs, and in the empire of Morocco

— by James Riley, late Master and Supercargo, 1817. Hartford; published by the author, 1817. (Google books edition)

Dueling narratives! Both first editions in 1817. Riley was first. Robbins says about his “highly respected friend” Riley that “for two months, “ he was a captive, while Robbins himself was held for twenty one. On the other hand, Riley had been part owner of the Commerce. Robbins was 22 in 1815, with a mere “common school” education garnered in the winters, while Riley appears to have been a savvy publisher of his own work. Riley was the leading guy here.

The Master is the captain. The Supercargo is the person in charge of trading on behalf of the vessel’s owner/s. Riley was clearly not a lightweight. I now went looking for James Riley rather than the brig herself. Back to the slave trade voyages database.

The last of the trips I had found was intriguing, the Captain was James Wiley, whereas the master of the Commerce we know about was James Riley. A coincidence? In any case, the Commerce James Wiley captained purchased enslaved Africans in Sierra Leone in 1808, and brought hem to Grenada. After 1808 American participation in international slave trading was illegal, so it’s possible that the books were cooked thereafter. Until the good master had a wee bit of an accident I guess, if that was him. But no, this Commerce was a British ship out of Liverpool. Another Commerce was an American ship, she was out of Newport Rhode Island, and transported enslaved Africans to Cuba in 1806. Nothing definitively right, most not right.

But with Riley I struck Wiki-gold. Not an article Wikipedia feels is sufficiently resourced. But, since I was wild-goose-chasing, I won’t keep the wiki version of Riley from you: Riley was from Middletown, Connecticut and at least part-owned the Commerce, which was a merchant ship (unnamed merchandise, he’d been trading off the West Indies in his training, whatever that means.) The Commerce was wrecked off Morocco (that’s usually called the ‘Barbary Coast’ in that period rather than the “Western Coast of Africa” but hey). Here’s the kicker: After his enslavement, Riley became an abolitionist, his narrative was republished as Sufferings in Africa, as an antislavery text, which later—again, all of this is unsubstantiated although it is everywhere—inspired Abraham Lincoln (belatedly I did find it substantiated – it was in his campaign biography).

Riley went on to settle a town in Ohio where he did the same stuff people did here in Plainfield a bit earlier: erect mills, create roads, do settling stuff of a mixed economic nature). All of this had another bit of a tail. Recently, Riley’s and his crew’s trek was re-traced as a National Geographic expedition by maritime historian Dean King, who published Skeletons on the Sahara (2004), which became a bestseller to which Dreamworks holds the rights. I have a feeling it’s not going to be a major motion picture any time soon. Too weirdly touchy just now. In any case, you can hear King speaking about it at the Virginia Historical Society  here. Oh, and there’s a short trailer for some kind of documentary. (I can’t stream very well here at home, so I haven’t vetted it but it seems pretty violent.).

Meanwhile, no one was mentioning the cargo of the brig Commerce, so I had to actually read the book which led me to some genealogy pages of the Riley family that told me the Commerce ”landed at Gibraltar with a cargo from New Orleans of tobacco and flour, where he took on brandies and wines, intending to add to that salt at the Cape Verde islands.” Alas, then the ship went down in a storm and the adventure started.

I let it go at the information that Riley and Robbins’ tale (King compared the two and found them consistent; both were nationally known) became an antislavery text of a rather strange variety—which, presumably was why Atkins and Crittenden had it. Remember them?

Remember “mens liber?” Did it mean ‘free mind’, ‘food for the mind’ or neither? Did it have something to do with the rather content of the book? What a wonderful expression, I thought. I felt pretty good about that interpretation, but I thought I’d check it some more before I’d use it. Boy was I wrong. Turns out that “Liber meus” is all over Caesar (which is what school boys read when learning Latin in the first part of the nineteenth century), is a version of “my book,” and that in fact school boys are the most likely to claim a book by writing Latin in it. But Atkins and Crittenden weren’t school boys and ‘meus,’ to my mind, is singular, “my” book rather than “our” book.

Atkins (1795-1877) was a middle-aged farmer. Azrial Crittenden was ten years older. He died in 1848. The two men are buried in the same plot—which may simply mean they bought their graves right around the same time. The book was a blockbuster and Riley a household name well into the second quarter of the century, but the book itself was pretty scarce – which may explain the popularity of Robbins as well as the dual ownership and Latin claim. I need to look at the book again to see whether it is possible that Atkins got it from Crittenden and then claimed it, or whether they felt they owned it together — enough to claim it singularly.

I am going to abandon this here. The nice thing about blogging is that it needs no end, nor argument – we’re just trying to satisfy curiosity and get a little further in our understanding.

Captivity and adventure are the stuff of the American literature of persuasion. It started with the Puritans (Mary Rowlandson’s Narrative was first published in 1682– facsimile) and continued apace. Especially the the nineteenth century up to the Civil War was full of so-called captivity narratives. Captivity and escape, adventure and suffering: James Riley and Archibald Robbins, the Whaleship Essex, Moby Dick, Frederick Douglass’s Narrative, The Narrative of Henry “Box” Brown (lately escaped from slavery by mailing himself in a box), Uncle Tom’s Cabin – all of it is literature of high adventure that leads to escape (yes, even Ishmael escaped) from and rhetorical resolution of major problems with the social contract. Here’s hoping.

On today’s captivity and escape narrative—check this out.


9 thoughts on ““Mens Liber”: On pondering an inscription

    1. thank you for your enthusiasm. What happened next is that I had to go to bed because it was past midnight. When I was still in the academic world, and doing research at work in Widener library, this happened continuously. I still see tons of books coming out left and right on topics that I got briefly and wildly interested in because of books I saw in the library. however I can never sustain the interest to write a dissertation on each one of them, or a book. Jill Lepore is someone who managesto do that. I wish there had been blogging then. Good thing there’s blogging now. All I need now is time.

      1. What fun you’ve had with this. Here’s another hypothesis for the mill. Sadly, it’s not as interesting. I think it’s “Meus Liber”. Since it appears on the page with the owners’ names, it could mean “My Book”. Technically it should read “Meus Liberi” or “Liber meus est” (but that “n” could as easily be a “u”). Thanks for the chase.

  1. @ Ann: yes! Of course! I only imply it… well that shows you how one looks over things when rushing to get it posted. Thank you. @ Gail: this was more like playing Gail 🙂

  2. Thank you, thank you! And, in future I’ll try to read computer text more closely so as not to get mud all over my face.

Tell me what you think!