Mahommah Gardo Baquaqua

Mahommah Gardo Baquaqua was born in the 1820s in modern-day West Africa. He was kidnapped and enslaved in 1844. His story is one of endurance, courage, and hard-won freedom.

LISTEN TO HIS STORY

 

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“The first words of English that my two companions and myself ever learned was ‘f-r-e-e.’”

Mahommah Gardo Baquaqua was born in 1820s Djougou in the modern-day West African Country of Benin. According to his own biographical account he was a favorite of a local king. Around 1844 he was kidnapped, enslaved and taken to Recife, Brazil. Taken along with his master to New York in 1847, he became involved in legal proceedings in the city concerning his enslaved status. Helped by abolitionists, he escaped to Boston, where it was arranged for him to travel to Haiti.

Raised as a Muslim, he became a Baptist Christian convert while in Haiti. In 1849, with the help of a Baptist missionary, he returned to New York and studied at Central College until 1853. In 1854 his biography (from which excerpt was taken) was published, soon after he traveled to England where he was last documented in 1857. It is believed he eventually went home to Africa and worked as Christian missionary.

Voice-Over Introduction

In the early 1840s Mahommah Gardo Baquaqua was working as an ironworker in Africa and was a favorite of the king, who also was related to his mother. His relationship with the king inspired serious jealousy which caused Baquaqua to be kidnapped and taken to the coast where he was put on board a European ship bound for Pernambuco Brazil. He endured a horrendous Middle Passage, and was sold several times before finally being sold to a heavy handed ship captain. The level of cruelty Baquaqua experienced caused him to him to try to commit suicide. He was beginning to lose hope of ever being free until he learned that his ship was destined to deliver a cargo in New York City.

Excerpt

When the cargo was landed, an English merchant having a quantity of coffee for shipment to New York, my master was engaged for the purpose, and it was arranged, after some time that I should accompany him, together with several others to serve on ship board…. We all had learned, that at New York there was no slavery; that it was a free country and that if we once got there we had nothing to dread from our cruel slave masters, and we were all most anxious to get there. … The first words of English that my two companions and myself ever learned was f-r-e-e; we were taught it by an Englishman on board, and oh! how many times did I repeat it, over and over again. …I was overjoyed at the idea of going to a free country, and a ray of hope dawned upon me, that the day was not far distant when I should be a free man. Indeed I felt myself already free!

How beautifully the sun shone on that eventful morning, the morning of our departure for that land of freedom we had heard so much about. The winds too were favorable, and soon the canvass spread before the exhilarating breeze, and our ship stood for that happy land. The duties of office, on that voyage, appeared light to me indeed, in anticipation of seeing the goodly land, and nothing at all appeared a trouble to me. I obeyed all orders cheerfully and with alacrity.

One night during the voyage, it blew a perfect hurricane the whole night, and just previous to day-break, the lamps in the binnacle went out with the heavy rolling of the ship. I was ordered to light it, but on account of the high wind, after several attempts I entirely failed. Aha, says the captain, my boy you can’t light the binnacle, can’t you? The man at the helm said it was light enough, he could do without it, he could see the compass well enough; but as orders were given, whether the light was wanted or not, they must be obeyed; so three other hands were called and a blanket was placed around the binnacle to keep off the wind, when they succeeded at length in lighting it, but I not understanding how to do it, could not light it; I had tried over and over again.

After this the captain got out of his berth, dressed himself and ordered me to light his lamp; when I went to him he took a large stick for the purpose of striking me, and aiming a blow at my head, I raised my arm to prevent my head being struck, he told me to keep my hand down. I did so, but when the blow was falling I again raised my hand and succeeded in saving my skull from being cracked; he did not want to strike my hand as that would prevent me from doing my work, but whether my head was broke or not, I should have had to do my usual work.

He then told me to turn round so that he might be able to strike my back. I told him to strike me all that he wanted. He was very angry and struck me at random over my head and body, just where it might happen. I defied him to do his worst, to do what he could and wreak his vengeance fully upon a miserable being like myself. He then called to three of the hands and ordered them to tie me to the cannon. I had thoughts of springing into the water, but was not quite satisfied to go alone; if I could have had the pleasure of taking him along with me I should have willingly done so.

The three men fastened hold upon me and placed me upon the cannon, face downwards; they were then ordered to whip me, which they did pretty smartly; he then required me to make submission and beg for mercy, but that I would not do. I told him to kill me if he pleased, but for mercy at his hands I would not cry! I also told him that when they untied me from the cannon, he must take care of himself that day, as when I looked upon my lacerated bleeding body, I reflected that though it was bruised and torn, my heart was not subdued.

Voice-Over Conclusion

The Captain exerted every effort to deny Baquaqua freedom, but to no avail. With the help of the New York Vigilance Society, Baquaqua was able to establish himself as a free man. He moved to Haiti where he converted to Christianity and later returned to the United States to attend college. He eventually went home to Africa where he served as a missionary and spread the word of Christianity.

Voice-over by Peter Fitzsimmons