A Page from History Remembering Slavery: Mapoo’s Journey from Slavery to Freedom

William Ezra Allen, Ph.D. Associate Professor of History, University of Liberia

On March 14 the United Nations commemorates a case of extreme wickedness meted out by one group to another. This evil was the transatlantic slave trade which lasted from 1514 to 1866. Approximately 10.8 million Africans were forcibly transported to the New World—i.e., North America, South America, and the West Indies or Caribbean. The original number was 12.5 million. But 1.7 million of the captives perished during the horrifying three-to-eight week voyage across the Atlantic Ocean as a result of diseases and hardship. Survivors labored under ruthless plantation masters to produce export crops like sugar, cotton, and tobacco.

This year’s remembrance is for the enslaved females. They comprised 4.2 million, just about Liberia’s current population. Women worked as hard as men doing most of the physically- demanding and dangerous plantation chores such as making sugar. But their drudgery continued well after the plantation’s dawn-to-dusk routine, especially for single mothers whose spouses were enslaved elsewhere. They cooked and cared for children well into midnight, barely getting a wink before the next day’s grind. Additionally, many females were repeatedly compelled to satisfy the predatory sexual demand of their slave masters.

In this and a subsequent article, I will separately memorialize a girl and a boy. Children (15 years and younger) made up an equally astounding 3.4 million captives that were forced into the “floating dungeons.” This article is the story of Mapoo’s journey from slavery to freedom. Information about her enslavement and freedom is scant. One source is the ship’s log, though it is a mere glimpse of the “cargo.” I fill some gaps with the generally accepted history of the slave trade.

In 1810, the log of the slave ship “Diana” contained the name Mapoo, listed as a female; her age is given as 6 years and height, 45.5 inches, or about 4 feet tall. All together there were 84 captives on board, 56 of whom were 14 years and younger. The youngest were girls, all like Mapoo six years of age.

Mapoo boarded the Diana at “Cape Mount” (roughly Grand Cape Mount County) but shortly afterward the Diana was intercepted by the British anti-slave-trade Navy Squadron. At the time, the British Navy patrolled the Atlantic coast to enforce that nation’s 1807 law that prohibited the slave trade. The captured Diana, along with its 84 captives, was escorted to the British colony of Sierra Leone. Eventually, all 84 of the Diana slaves, including Mapoo, were liberated in Freetown. So far, there is no additional record of this six-year old child.

Mapoo’s name reveals her Bassa background. It represents light-skinned woman in the Bassa language. The child probably lived in one of the Bassa towns on or near the Atlantic coast that extended from present-day Monrovia to Grand Bassa County (e.g., Gbehzon later renamed Buchanan). Or Mapoo was of the interior Bassa, a group that inhabited the inland portion of present-day Margibi County. This would be the Gibi (or Gibbee) who today are, by and large, Bassa-speakers. That Mapoo originated in the interior and not on the Atlantic littoral is more consistent with the pattern of the transatlantic slave trade.

Principally, due to denser population, the African interior supplied the bulk of the slaves. Most were victims of wars. In that period, for instance, the Gibi/Bassa on the one hand, and the Kpelle (who resided further inland) on the other, fought sporadically. Oftentimes conflicts erupted over control of commercial routes, passages that linked the interior and coast. Interior people crisscrossed these roads bringing slaves and primary goods like ivory, to exchange for salt and foreign merchandise such as cloth, metal wares, and rum. Prisoners of wars, together with other victims obtained mostly by kidnapping were forced to march for weeks or even months to the coast. Many died along the way of starvation and deprivation. If the six-year old Mapoo was Gibi, she survived the painful walk to Cape Mount. This was the lot of the 3.4 million children.

Partly out of fear of re-enslavement, liberated people seldom returned home. Consequently, Mapoo almost certainly remained in Freetown and joined others that had also been emancipated. Known collectively as recaptives or recaptured Africans, they came from various parts of Africa. Their number grew steadily in Freetown and eventually reached around 50,000. By 1848, the largest group of recaptives was Yoruba-speakers from Nigeria. (Parents of President Charles D. B. King are said to have been recaptives of Yoruba descent.) Among the Freetown recaptives were the Congos predominantly from present-day DR Congo and Angola.

Freetown Congos were culturally related to another grouping of recaptives that was resettled in the new colony of Liberia in 1822 and onward. Also called Congos, they included minorities like the Igbo of Nigeria. Liberian Congos had been rescued by the American Navy Squadron and relocated to Liberia. The population of Congos went from 18 in 1823 to approximately 1,000 by independence in 1847. The final cluster disembarked in Liberia in 1861 and brought the total number of recaptives to 5,722.

Sierra Leone’s recaptives, as well as Liberia’s Congos, adopted Western culture. They learned English, became Christians, and many obtained Western education. Accordingly, following acculturation, it is likely that Mapoo melded into Sierra Leone’s influential Creole (or Krio) class consisting of Europeanized black settlers from the New World and recaptives. As a Creole, Mapoo would have had greater opportunities for upward social mobility compared to local Africans like the Mende and Kono.

Similarly, the assimilated Congos in Liberia joined the ruling class of Americo-Liberians or descendants of former American slaves. From the late 1800s and onward, Congos held key positions in government. Some became members of the House of Representatives, e.g., Joseph W. Brown, Sinoe County; Abayomi Karnga, Grand Cape Mount County; and J. C. N. Howard, Montserrado County. Other prominent Congos included Chief Justice Anthony Dash Wilson.

Mapoo’s 1810 journey from slavery to freedom foreshadowed a significant aspect of Liberian history: the resettlement of slaves rescued at sea. One of Mapoo’s Liberian counterparts was Daniel Bacon, a Congo youth. In the next article I will recall Daniel Bacon in continued remembrance of children in the transatlantic slave trade.

(Sources provided upon request: allenulhist@gmail.com.)

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