Modern history



Some Who Lived to Tell the Tale

A TINY MINORITY of the captives consigned to the slave ships can be identified, and most of those who can were slaves of the late eighteenth or the nineteenth century: men (there seem to have been no women) who gave evidence in inquiries in London, or who were talked to by missionaries, or proto-anthropologists, in Sierra Leone. There were men who, like the hero of Mérimée’s Tamoango, or the resolute Tambo, directed rebellions severe or successful enough to remain in the mind of the négriers. There were African kings or queens whose adaptation to life as a slave in Jamaica has been chronicled or, at least, as in the case of the mother of King Gezo of Dahomey, not forgotten. With respect to the vast slave market of Brazil, there are few accounts, and nearly all from the nineteenth century: for example, that of Mahommah G. Baquaqua, sold in Pernambuco and taken to Rio, who, after numerous attempts to escape in Brazil, found freedom by jumping ship in New York.

Few slave journeys had happy endings. But there were some. The extraordinary case of Equiano has been mentioned several times in this book. But there was also the curious instance of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, a Fulbe, known to Europeans as Job Ben Solomon, son of a mullah of Bondu, a town high up a tributary of the river Sénégal. In 1730, he set out to sell some slaves on the river Gambia. He was robbed, captured, and himself sold by non-Muslims at Joar, a city lower down that waterway, to Captain Pike of theArabella, an English slave ship, which carried him to Maryland. There he lived as a slave for a year with Vachell Denton of Annapolis, an amiable master, who sold him to a Mr. Tolsey, who had a tobacco plantation on Kent Island, in the Potomac River. Ben Solomon eventually sent a letter in Arabic to his father in Africa via London, where James Oglethorpe, then a director of the Royal African Company, and about to embark on the establishment of Georgia as a penal colony, sent that letter to Oxford to be translated. He also sent to Maryland for Job. Once in England, Job was employed by Sir Hans Sloane, the benign botanist and cofounder of the British Museum, who had spent his youth in Jamaica (hence his Catalogue of Jamaica Plants) and who was, at that time, president of the Royal Society. (He was also, like Oglethorpe, a promoter of Georgia.) Sloane found not only that Job was a master of Arabic but that he knew much of the Koran by heart. Either Sir Hans or the duke of Montagu, a noted Afrophile and practical joker, introduced him at Court. After living in London fourteen months, Job returned to Africa, taking with him presents from Queen Caroline and the duke of Cumberland. In a subsequent letter to Mr. Smith, writing master at Saint Paul’s School, Job described how he returned to Bondu and “how elevated and amazed they [his old friends] were at my arrival, I must leave you to guess at, as being inexpressible, as is likewise the raptures and pleasures I enjoyed. Floods of tears burst their way and some little time afterwards, we recovered so as to have some discourse and in time I acquainted them and all the country how I had been redeemed and conducted by the Company from such distant parts as are beyond their capacity to conceive, from Maryland to England and from thence to Gambia first. . . . The favours done to me by the queen, the duke of Montagu and other generous persons I likewise acquainted them of.”

One day, some years after his homecoming, Job was sitting under a tree at Damasensa, not far from Elephants Island, on the river Gambia, with the English slave captain Francis Moore (whose acute memories have been quoted several times), when he saw several of the men who had captured him three years before. Moore persuaded him not to kill them, but instead to ask questions. They said that the king, their master, had killed himself by mistake by letting off one of the pistols which Captain Pike had given him in return for Job. Job then gave thanks (to Allah, of course), for causing that king to die by means of the very goods in return for which he had been sold into slavery. He later admitted, though, that, had the king lived, he would have forgiven him, “because, had I not been sold, I should neither have known . . . the English tongue, nor had any of the fine useful and valuable things I now carry over, nor have known that there is in the world such a place as England, nor such noble, generous people as Queen Caroline, Prince William [the duke of Cumberland], the duke of Montagu, the earl of Pembroke, Mr Holden, Mr Oglethorpe, and the Royal Africa Company.”

Job was not the only slave to return from captivity in the Americas. In 1695, for example, a Dutch interloper, Captain Frans van Goethem, captured a Sonyo prince. The African traders in the Sonyo region (Angola) thereafter made trade impossible until that captive was returned. The Dutch West India Company found the slave, and sent him back from Surinam, via Holland.

Then Jean Barbot described how a certain Emanuel, governor of a large town, explained that his king had once sold him “for a slave to a Dutch captain who, finding me a good servant in his passage to the West Indies, . . . carried me with him into Holland, where I soon learnt to speak good Dutch and, after some years, he set me free. I went from Holland into France, where I soon got as much of that language as you hear by me. Thence I proceeded to Portugal, which language I made myself master of with more ease than either the French or Dutch. Having spent several years in travelling through Europe, I resolved to return to my native country, and laid hold of the first opportunity which offered. When I arrived here, I immediately waited on the King . . . and, having related my travels . . . , added I was come back to him, to put himself into his hands, as his slave again, if he thought fit. The King was so far from reducing me to that low condition that he gave me one of his own sisters in marriage and constituted me Alcaide or governor of this town. . . .”

“Jack Rodney,” a cousin of King Naimbanna of Sierra Leone, should also be remembered. He was asked by an English slave captain to pilot a slave ship down the river Sierra Leone from Bence Island. He agreed, on condition that he be put on shore at the small port of Robanna. But the captain said that he would land him further down river at its mouth. Instead, however, he took him to Jamaica. Rodney talked to the governor there and succeeded eventually in returning. Mungo Park encountered an African servant, Johnson, who had been taken to Jamaica as a slave, had been freed, and then found his way home.

Perhaps the most curious story of all was that of Thomas Joiner, who began life as a minstrel slave, on the Gambia. He was sold in Jamaica as a slave, gained his freedom, learned to read and write English, and made enough money to return to Africa, where he set up as a trader at Gorée (not in slaves) about 1810. He then moved back to the river Gambia where, by 1830, he was the most important shipowner. His brigantine, the General Turner, sixty-seven tons, was then the biggest ship on the upper river.

In the nineteenth century, there were several accounts of slaves returning to Africa from Brazil. In 1832, four freed women of Benguela came back; and sometimes in Rio slaves were punished by being deported to Africa. In 1830, thirty-five prominent citizens of Cabinda were sent home from Rio because they had been criminally seized in Africa by slave traders who had asked them to dinner on a ship. Nearly sixty Africans from “Mina” bought their passage back from Rio to the Gold Coast in 1835. In 1852, about sixty “Muslims” from the same part of Africa were returned to Africa on an English ship (the Robert, George Duck master) for £800, having first assured themselves that the coast whence they had originally come was then free of slave dealers. In the 1850s and 1860s, there were numerous saving societies in Brazil designed to collect enough money to return their members to Africa. All along the West African coast, from Dahomey to Angola, little settlements of returned slaves from the Americas were soon to be found, sometimes giving such names as Pernambuco, Puerto Rico, or Martinique to their new African homes.

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