Edward Blitheman was a merchant’s assistant on an East India Company trading voyage which stopped at River Cestos, in Liberia, where Prince Dederi Jaquoah and his family lived. Blitheman’s account of July 1614 states that he met Jaquoah at River Cestos and found out that he was the son of King Caddi-biah of River Cestos.
Blitheman also discovered that Jaquoah had been to London and used the English name of ‘John Davis’ after the merchant he stayed with in London. He also indicated that Jaquoah spoke good English.
“Met an Indian…(who) spoke very good English and had formerly been two years in England with Mr. Davis at the Stocks and is known by the name John Davis, being as we perceived the King’s son of that place,” Blitheman wrote in a letter back to Sir Thomas Smith, Governor of the East India Company in London. The term “Indian”, according to historians, was used at the time to describe indigenous people. The Stocks was the name of a market in London.
So who really was Jaquoah and why did he travel to London?
Born around 1591, Jaquoah’s mother was one of the wives of King Caddi-biah of the River Cestos. The river meets the Atlantic at the modern-day town of River Cess in Liberia in between the states now known as Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast. History says it was the Portuguese who gave the river its original name Cestos in the early 16th century due to the baskets that were produced and sold in the town. Cestos in Portuguese means basket.
The small village/kingdom where King Caddi-biah and his family lived was surrounded by palm and banana trees situated just a few miles from the River Cestos. As Jaquoah was growing up, he learned how to navigate a canoe and how to catch fish. Jaquoah’s father’s kingdom became known for its meleguetta pepper or “grains of paradise” and ivory.
During a 1610 trading voyage to Guinea by the ship the Abigail from Southampton, the Captain of the ship, Roger Newse, met King Caddi-biah and his family. The people of River Cestos traded their ivory, meleguetta pepper spice and rice in exchange for the metal goods, wines, silks, and satins from the Abigail.
John Davies, the owner of the ship, was a wealthy merchant who invested in African trading voyages. He was also a tradesman dealing in buttons, hats and ribbons at the time. After the Captain of his ship had met Jaquoah and his family at River Cestos, Jaquoah decided to board the ship for London. His father agreed. It is not known the main reason Jaquoah got on the ship but his baptism record cited by Futurelearn.com states that he: “was sent out of his country by his father, in an English ship the Abigail of London, belonging to Mr John Davies of this parish, to be baptised”.
Jaquoah arrived in England aboard the Abigail in the autumn of 1610 and was baptized in the City of London church of St. Mildred’s Poultry on New Year’s Day 1611 around age 20 and named John. Historians say that he spent two years in England with the merchant John Davies and his wife at their house near the Stocks fish and meat market, where he learned fluent English.
Jaquoah returned to River Cestos in the summer of 1612. Three years later, he would receive a delegation of East India Company merchants en route to Bantam, who reported that Jaquoah did not only speak good English but made “great proffers and promises of trade.”
Actually, there were other Africans who traveled directly to England on merchant ships. Most of them were from prominent families, like Jaquoah. Futurelearn.com writes: “In 1555 five Africans arrived in London from Shama in the area now known as modern Ghana. There are indications of high status in descriptions of one of the men as the son of the Captain of the town. This group are known to have brought gold with them, further suggesting wealth.
“It’s possible that we can see some of these encounters and voyages between Africa and Tudor England as part of wider exchange between African nobility and English merchants for trade and education.”
But there were those Africans who did not have a choice; they didn’t travel to England freely, as some historians have pointed out.
While it is widely known that Africans resided in Britain since the early colonial times, evidence shows that Africans were in Britain in their numbers even before the 15th century and Roman times. Historical records state that in the second and third centuries, Roman soldiers of African descent served in Britain, with several choosing to stay after their military service had come to an end. Viking fleets that raided North Africa and Spain in the 9th century captured Black people and took them to Britain and Ireland, according to historians Fryer, Edwards and Walvin.
Africans were not only found in England’s provinces, as some were living in the Tudor court, mingling with the high and mighty in society. The intriguing story of how and why Dederi Jaquoah, prince of River Cestos, Liberia, left his home for London in 1610