His biography The Biography of Mahommah Gardo Baquaqua is invaluable in that it gives one of the most detailed accounts of the internal transatlantic slave trade including the shifting status of enslaved people. Mahommah Gardo Baquaqua’s narrative about his life from Africa to Brazil and then later to freedom in New York and England is indeed worth knowing.
Born around 1824 in Djougou in modern-day Benin to a Muslim merchant family, he was sent to school to become a Muslim cleric. He never really liked the school whose instructor was his older brother. He repeatedly ran away from school and eventually trained as a craftsman. He learned the craft from his uncle, who was also a merchant and a Muslim scholar.
While in his teens, Baquaqua became a bodyguard or palace servant to the chief of a neighboring town, Bergoo (now northern Benin) that was subordinate to Djougou. Thanks to this role, Baquaqua wrote, “I was…singled out as a fit object of vengeance by an envious class of my countrymen, decoyed away and sold into slavery.”
Baquaqua was sold southward from Djougou to Dahomey, where he was then sold to Portuguese slave dealers and taken to Brazil. In his narrative, Baquaqua described the Middle Passage — that is the transatlantic journey of slaves from Africa to the Americas — as a state of prolonged “suffering and fatigue” surrounded by “loathsomeness and filth”.
Getting to Brazil around 1845, Baquaqua was sold to a Roman Catholic baker in Pernambuco. He endured many forms of abuse at the hands of the baker, including whippings and beatings whenever he is unable to sell his loaves. Baquaqua almost drowned himself as a result. The baker then sold him to a slave dealer. By 1847, Baquaqua had been sold to Clemente Jose da Costa, who was the captain and co-owner of the ship Lembrança (Portuguese for “memory”).
Baquaqua became the ship’s steward, but the physical abuse continued. He recalled in his narrative that the captain’s mistress often got him “into disgrace . . . and then a whipping was sure to follow”. The captain would also often beat him, once leaving him incapacitated for several days.
And so in April 1847, when the Lembrança sailed to trade goods in New York, Baquaqua decided to escape. He had been told before the journey that New York was a “land of freedom,” and so he didn’t think twice about escaping when the ship landed. He is soon detained by New York authorities but with the help of local abolitionists, he appealed for his freedom through the court.
The appeal was denied and Baquaqua was sent to prison to await his re-enslavement. But he managed to escape from the cell with “the assistance of friends” and fled to Boston. In Boston, he could be arrested again, so he proceeded to Haiti.
Being in the free Black republic of Haiti, Baquaqua wrote that “I felt myself free” among the “people of color who dwell there”. But he did not understand their language, making it difficult for him to adapt. He had no means to support himself so ended up in poverty until a Christian minister, Reverend William Judd, and his wife Nancy, who were operating the Baptist Free Mission in Port-au-Prince, came to his rescue around 1849.
Baquaqua converted to Christianity and started learning English. After about two years with the Judd family, they helped him travel to New York to continue his education. Abolitionists helped fund his studies for three years at New York Central College in McGrawville, which had been established in 1848 by the American Baptist Free Mission Society to educate White students and former slaves.
With his education, he hoped to return to Africa as a missionary. After leaving school in 1853, Baquaqua traveled throughout New York and Pennsylvania, fundraising for the Free Baptist missions and becoming an abolitionist speaker despite “his heavily accented English”, according to one account.
Thanks to racism, Baquaqua moved to Canada in 1854 and collaborated with an editor to publish his Biography. When it was completed, Baquaqua traveled to Liverpool, England, in hopes of returning to Africa. Unable to raise the money needed to return to his homeland, he petitioned his former sponsors at the American Free Baptist Mission Society.
As of 1857, Baquaqua was still in England and there is no known record of him after that date. No one knows how or where he lived his last days or how he died. It is also not known whether he was able to return to Africa. But his written narrative of his experience as an enslaved man who was later freed still survives today. Baquaqua’s biography is the only known biography of a former slave from Brazil.
Samuel Moore, the editor, helped transcribe and arrange the narrative. Moore, an Irish immigrant and abolitionist, faced “many difficulties” when putting together the text “in consequence of the imperfect English spoken by Mahommah”, reports said.
Here is an excerpt of the lines spoken by Baquaqua:
Oh! Africa, my native land,
When shall I see thee, meekly stand,
Beneath the banner of my God,
And governed by His Holy word?
When shall I see the oppressor’s rod
Plucked from his hand, my gracious God?
Oh! when shall I my brethren see,
Enjoy the sweets of LIBERTY?