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Mahommah Gardo Baquaqua

Mahommah Gardo Baquaqua was an African who escaped slavery and who was a noted abolitionist and author of an exceptional nineteenth-century slave narrative.

Baquaqua was born around 1824 to a Muslim merchant family in Djougou, in today’s Benin. After attending a Koranic school and training to be a merchant, Baquaqua was kidnapped around age twenty-one, sold into slavery, and shipped to Brazil.

In Brazil, Baquaqua was initially sold to a baker in Pernambuco. When he refused to comply, he was sent south to Rio de Janeiro and sold to a ship’s captain. Baquaqua served as the cabin steward on the Lembrança, a ship that made two trips to southern Brazil before sailing from Rio to deliver a consignment of coffee in New York. There, Baquaqua became the object of a legal dispute between local abolitionists who helped him jump ship, and his Brazilian master who attempted to recover him. When two judges refused to free Baquaqua, his abolitionist supporters helped him to escape from jail and make his way to Boston via the Underground Railroad. From Boston he was sent to Haiti to avoid being arrested again.

In the free black republic of Haiti, Baquaqua once again faced the difficulty of adapting to another culture and language. The Reverend William Judd and his wife Nancy of the American Baptist Free Mission Society soon took him into their home. There, he worked as their cook and learned English, becoming proficient enough to read the Bible and write letters. He also converted to Christianity and was baptized in 1848.

After two years in Haiti, Baquaqua was in danger of being drafted into the Haitian army. He returned instead to New York to continue his education, hoping to work as a missionary in Africa. With the support of abolitionists, he secured funding and studied for three years at New York Central College in upstate New York. After leaving school in 1853, he traveled throughout New York and Pennsylvania, fundraising for the Free Baptist missions. Baquaqua drew on his own experiences as a slave to become an effective abolitionist speaker in spite of his heavily accented English.

Racist attacks and threats prompted Baquaqua to move to Chatham, Ontario, Canada in 1854. He crossed the border to nearby Detroit in order to arrange publication of his biography under his own copyright. Shortly thereafter, Baquaqua left for Liverpool, England, planning to return to West Africa. However, he encountered many difficulties in securing funding and was still in England as of 1857, the last date in which he appears in the historical record. How and where he died, and whether he married and had a family are unknown today.

Although he may never have reached Africa, Baquaqua’s biography survives to document his resistance to enslavement, as well as his unique journey from bondage in Africa and Brazil to freedom in New York and England. His biography is valuable as one of the most detailed and fully authenticated accounts of Africa and the Atlantic crossing on a slave ship. Baquaqua is also notable for making the cultural transition from being a Dendi-speaking Muslim, who had studied at a Qur’anic school and knew some Arabic, to a Portuguese-speaking slave in Brazil, then to a free Baptist convert in Creole-speaking Haiti, and finally to an English-speaking abolitionist in North America and England.

Online Resources

“Baquaqua, Mahommah Gardo” in Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Biography

“Baquaqua, Mahommah Gardo” in African American National Biography

Bibliography

Austin, Allan D. African Muslims in Antebellum America: Transatlantic Stories and Spiritual Struggles. New York and London: Routledge, 1997.

Baquaqua, Mahommah G. An Interesting Narrative: Biography of Mahommah G. Baquaqua, A Native of Zoogoo, in the Interior of Africa (a Convert to Christianity,) with a Description of that Part of the World; including the Manners and Customs of the Inhabitants …, Written and Revised from his Own Words by Samuel Moore. Detroit: George E. Pomeroy, 1854.

Karasch, Mary C. Slave Life in Rio de Janeiro, 1808–1850. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987.

Law, Robin, and Paul E. Lovejoy, eds. The Biography of Mahommah Gardo Baquaqua: His Passage from Slavery to Freedom in Africa and America. Rev. ed. Princeton: Markus Wiener, 2006.

Adapted by

James Almeida and Steven J. Niven

Contributing Institutions

Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

Oxford University Press (USA) African American Studies Center.

Key Events

c. 1824

Born in Djougou (Benin), the younger son of a Muslim merchant from Borgu and his wife, who was from Katsina in the Sokoto Caliphate.

Early 1840s

In one version of his story (which is inconsistent), Baquaqua follows his brother to Dagomba, a province of Asante. There he is captured in war but released when his ransom is paid.

1845

At about age twenty or twenty-one Baquaqua is captured from his home in Diougou and sold south to Dahomey where he eventually ends up on a Portuguese ship trading at Ouidah. From there he is taken to Brazil and sold as a slave to a baker in Pernambuco. Refusing to comply with his enslavement, Baquaqua attempts escape, suicide, and even the murder of his master. As a result, he is sold again. He spends two weeks on the slave market in Rio before being sold as a cabin boy to ship captain Clemente José da Costa. Da Costa calls Baquaqua by the name José da Costa.

June 1847

Baquaqua jumps ship in New York City with the help of the abolitionist members of the New York Committee of Vigilance. Da Costa attempts to recover him through legal means, and two judges refuse to either free Baquaqua or return him to his master, instead declaring him to be a deserted foreign sailor. The abolitionists help him escape from jail in lower Manhattan and make his way to Boston, via Springfield, Massachusetts, on the Underground Railroad.

September 1847

From Boston he travels to Haiti (where slavery has been abolished) to avoid being arrested or enslaved again.

1849

In danger of being drafted into the Haitian army for an invasion of the neighboring Spanish colony of Santo Domingo, Baquaqua returns to the United States. He enrolls in New York Central College, south of Syracuse, with hopes of returning to Africa as a missionary. This makes him one of the first Africans to be educated at an American institution of higher education.

1853

Baquaqua leaves the college and travels in abolitionist circles as a lecturer, seeking to raise money for his mission work.

1854

Attacks and threats of further racist violence prompt Baquaqua to relocate to Ontario, then known as Canada West. There, he dictates his autobiography to Irish Unitarian minister and abolitionist, Samuel Downing Moore, and publishes it in Detroit as An Interesting Narrative. Biography of Mahommah G. Baquaqua, A Native of Zoogoo, in the Interior of Africa (A Convert to Christianity,) with a Description of That Part of the World; including the Manners and Customs of the Inhabitants (1854). George Pomeroy, owner of the Detroit Free Press and founder of Wells Fargo, also helps with writing and editing the manuscript.

1854-1855

Baquaqua returns to New York City and then journeys to Liverpool, England, still seeking funding for a missionary journey to Africa.

1857

Baquaqua makes his last appearance in the historical record, still fundraising in England.