LET FREEDOM RINGAn Interesting Trip Into The History Of Montserrat
Montserrat has been associated with Britain for over two hundred years, and is today described as a British Overseas Territory. But, it wasn’t always so. During the lucrative years of sugar production, made possible, as every school child knows, by the use of slave labour, many a battle was fought between the French and the English for domination of this fertile little island. Eventually, in 1783, British rule was restored.
Over the years, the island has produced its own heroes – the cricketers Jim Allen and Lionel Baker. The soca musician Alphonsus “Arrow” Cassell, whose song “Hot Hot Hot” is still a disco favourite, Maizie Williams, member of the pop group Boney M. and, top of my list, Sir Howard Fergus, historian, poet and three time acting governor of Montserrat. I once shared a stage with Sir Howard raising money for his educational scholarships. Part of my role was to whip the audience into a frenzy of raffle ticket buying and his to announce the winners. Famed for his steely intelligence and somewhat severe manner, it was gratifying to see him visibly relax.
“You sound like one of those media types,” he joked, as I offered to raffle my husband John for an evening.
“I am one of those media types.”
Everyone laughed and clapped and dug deep into their wallets eventually raising nearly $EC17,000 for his estimable foundation.
It was to his book “Gallery Montserrat: Some Prominent People in Our History” that I first turned to learn more about one of Africa’s greatest freedom fighters Olaudah Equiano, who I was excited to discover had lived on Montserrat for three years, during which time he was able to save enough money to buy his freedom. Such a simple phrase “… during which time he was able to save enough money to buy his freedom” … but I knew that beneath those words must lie an extraordinary story. And, as I found out, I was not wrong.
First stop on my researching journey was to the island’s National Museum at Little Bay in the north of the island. I drive past Carr’s Bay where two cannons keep watch, a reminder of the earlier skirmishes with the French, situated close to a palm fronded shelter, still decorated with gold Christmas tinsel, under which a gentle Rasta, his hair hidden beneath a beret knitted in the colours of the Jamaican flag, dispenses chicken or fish and coconut milk straight from the fruit. I I turn left past a row of fishermen’s huts and Piper’s Pond, now an arid patch of reclaimed land, a constant reminder of a failed development folly and on towards the Cultural Centre, an important building, made possible by the late Sir George Martin’s generosity and his band of loyal fund raisers.
The museum, a pretty pink building, overlooking the bay, bordered by multi-coloured bougainvilleas is to the left of the Cultural Centre and was built six years ago to replace its previous home in an historic sugar mill outside Plymouth, devastated by the volcano. I sit on a rock waiting for Donna who works at the National Trust, who will be my guide, and try and imagine what life must have been like here in the 16th century with no electricity, antibiotics or paved roads and only mules and the occasional horse for transport.
Donna arrives, accompanied by a friend from the neighbouring island of St. Kitts, who will be volunteer warden for the day.
“We had a travelling exhibition about Equiano,” Donna explains, “but most of it is now in storage.”
I follow her down to the basement, my shirt already sticking to my back, and am immediately drawn to a large portrait of a handsome young man, with high forehead, wide set almond shaped eyes, full mouth, and a stylish hair cut which could have been a wig. He’s wearing a frock coat, waistcoat and ruffled cravat. Every inch a 16th century gentleman. A far cry from how he describes in his autobiography, “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano Or Gustavus Vassa, the African, written by himself”, he and his sister were kidnapped from their village in the Eboe province, in the area that is now Southern Nigeria, separated and sold by local slave traders. Aged only 11 he describes how he was shipped across the Atlantic to Barbados and then Virginia.
Anxious not to take too much of Donna’s time, I ask if there are any documents she can show me about his time on Montserrat.
We puff back up the stairs and she leads me to a cabinet which contains a small glass tumbler.
“This is how he pay for his freedom,” she says proudly. It’s obvious that I need to read his autobiography to get the fuller story. She crosses the hall and points to a framed document.
“MANUMISSION FOR GUSTAVUS VASSA – ALMOST TWO YEARS BEFORE THE 1768 ATTEMPTED INSURRECTION”
“This man, Robert King, was his master, and Equiano bought his freedom from him.” I shiver in the heat.
Montserrat. – To all men unto whom these presents shall come: I Robert King, of the parish of St. Anthony in the said island, merchant, send greeting: Know ye, that I the aforesaid Robert King, for and in consideration of the sum of seventy pounds current money of the said island, to me in hand paid, and to the intent that a negro man-slave, named Gustavus Vassa, shall and may become free, have manumitted, emancipated, enfranchised and set free, and by these presents do manumit, emancipate, enfranchise, and set free, the aforesaid man-slave, named Gustavus Vassa, for ever, hereby giving, granting and releasing unto him the said Gustavus Vassa, all right, title, dominion, sovereignty and property, which, as lord and master over the aforesaid Gustavus Vassa, I have had, or which now I have, or by any means whatsoever I may or can hereafter possibly have over him the aforesaid negro, for ever. In witness whereof I the abovesaid Robert King have unto these presents set my hand and seal, this tenth day of July, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and sixty six.
Signed, sealed and delivered in the presence of Terrylegay, Montserrat.
Registered the within manumission at full length, this eleventh day of July, 1766, in liber D.
It was only after I read Equiano’s emotional account leading to his freedom, that the portent of this historic event really registered. This is how he describes how he felt.
When I got to the office and acquainted the Register with my errand he congratulated me on the occasion, and told me he would draw up my manumission for half price, which was a guinea. I thanked him for his kindne3ss; and, having received it and paid him, I hastened to my master to get him to sign it, that I might be fully released. Accordingly he signed the manumission that day, so that, before night, I who had been a slave in the morning, trembling at the will of another, was become my own master, and completely free. I thought this was the happiest day I had ever experienced; and my joy was still heightened by the blessings and prayers of the sable race, particularly the aged, to whom my heart had ever been attached with reverence.
He was 31.
The reference to the Insurrection in 1768 at the top of the document is about a slave uprising on the island on the eve of St. Patrick’s Day and about which I have written in the first volume of Plenty Mango.
But it is Robert King I now want to know about. How did he come to acquire Equiano and what or who persuaded him to sell him his freedom?
According to a summary of Equiano’s life, displayed at the Museum, Equiano was born in 1745 in what is now Nigeria, kidnapped and enslaved at the age of eleven, with his sister, and sold to English Slave Traders who transported him to the West Indies, from where he was then taken to Viriginia in the USA where he was sold to a planter. He was given the name Gustavus Vassa by one Henry Pascal, who took him to London where he learnt to read and write. Pascal promised to free him but instead sold him to a Captain James Doran, who subsequently sold him to the merchant Robert King, a Quaker, who plied his trade between Montserrat and other Leeward islands and Philadelphia.
According to Equiano’s own account and that of other historians, King appears to have been a fair minded man…. “he possessed a most amiable disposition and temper and was very charitable and human….” and had, in 1765 promised Equiano that he could buy back his freedom if he could raise the sum of forty pounds, the price King had originally paid.
As well as clerical duties, King, knowing of Equiano’s seafaring abilities, put him to work on one of his ships under the Captaincy of Thomas Farmer. It seems that Farmer took a shine to his intelligent slave and even encouraged him to make some money of his own. Now the relevance of the glass tumbler in the Museum becomes clear, for it was one such glass that was Equiano’s first trade, from which he made 100% profit. His entrepreneurial spirit had at last found a monetary outlet.
From these small beginnings he saved enough to approach King for his redemption.
Maybe King made his promise on the not unreasonable assumption that his slave would never be able to amass such a large sum. But he was wrong.
Equiano picks up the story:
“We set sail once more for Montserrat, and arrived there safe … When we had unladen the vessel, and I had sold my venture, finding myself master of about forty-seven pounds – I consulted my true friend the Captain how I should proceed in offering my master the money for my freedom. He told me to come on a certain morning, when he and my master would be at breakfast together. Accordingly, on that morning, I went and met the Captain there, as he had appointed. When I went in I made my obeisance to my master and with my money in my hand, and many fears in my heart, I prayed him to be as good as his offer to me, when he was pleased to promise me my freedom as soon as I could purchase it. This speech appeared to confound him; he began to recoil; and my heart that instant sunk within me.”
Had it not been for Farmer’s vigorous persuasion, Equiano may never have become a free man and we would never have had the benefit of his tales.
As it was, he eventually returned to London before being drawn back to the sea where he travelled widely through the Mediterranean, the Atlantic and the Arctic, finally making London his permanent home where he married an Englishwoman, Susanna Cullen and had two daughters Joanna and Anna Maria Vassa.
It’s hardly surprising that he became an ardent anti-slavery campaigner and probably instinctively knew that the most powerful arguments against slavery would be the telling of his own life story. Such is the power and energy of his writing that it is hard to believe that it was penned over two hundred years ago. Part adventure story, part indictment of the horrors of slavery, its words and images, as they say today, ‘jump off the page’. There are, of course, gaps. We never knew what happened to his sister. And, as it is an autobiography, can we be sure of the accuracy of everything he writes? For instance, there is apparently ongoing discussion among historians as to his actual place of birth, some suggesting it was in America and not Africa. If that proves to be true, then he should be applauded for his vivid descriptions of kidnapping and slave trading in Africa.
There is a City of Westminster Blue Plaque dedicated to him at 73 Riding House Street, London, which reads:
OLAUDAH EQUIANO (1745-1797) “The African”
Lived and published here in 1789 his autobiography on suffering the barbarity of slavery, which paved the way for its abolition
I wonder if Dr. Martin Luther King was thinking of him when he cried ‘let freedom ring’ at his rally in Washington in 1963. I like to think so.