A PAGE FROM HISTORY REMEMBERING SLAVERY: DANIEL BACON AND THE CONGO PEOPLE

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In December 1845, Monrovia’s tiny population of 1,000 people was noisy about an event that had nothing to do with Christmas. News had circulated that boats were transporting slaves captured from a slave ship called The Pons. Onlookers huddled at the dock on River Street (today’s Waterside) and watched as mostly naked and undernourished 10-20 year-old youths were led ashore. A total of 756 disembarked, although more than 900 had been aboard when The Pons was seized near modern-day DR Congo. One hundred and fifty died during the two-week voyage to Monrovia, and thirty more perished shortly after disembarkation; those figures brought the mortality to 180. Daniel Bacon was one of the survivors. His story is my second remembrance of the evils of the transatlantic slave trade, an episode that the UN memorializes March 14. See Daily Observer 2/25.

Daniel and his fellow sufferers were en route to the New World—i.e., North America, South America, and the West Indies or Caribbean. Their final stop was to be probably the plantations and mines of Brazil, the most popular destinations for slaves. Daniel would have been a worthy investment in Brazil. For his $300 price tag (originally purchased for under $20), the Brazilian buyer stood to exploit the youth’s labor forever. Throughout the 300-plus history of the transatlantic slave trade, New World planters had accumulated huge profits by exploiting approximately 10.6 million Africans.

But Daniel’s fortune changed when the American Navy intercepted The Pons. The interception was part of an international effort led by Britain and the US to suppress the human traffic. Scholars have, however, argued that the motives of these former slave traders were not entirely benevolent.

Britain resettled the majority of its freed slaves in Sierra Leone, while the US normally transported them to Liberia. Though there were already liberated slaves in Liberia, the 756 captives from The Pons were the largest to date. Daniel and most of these liberated Africans claimed to come from Congo, the vast inland region of northern Angola and present-day DR Congo. So, all the re-captives or recaptured Africans, as those freed at sea were called, became Congos.

Daniel and the other Congo youths, including the 47 girls, were distributed as wards and apprentices to missionaries and mostly families of Americo-Liberians, the ruling class of descendants of erstwhile American slaves. Some youths landed in the homes of prominent Liberians, such as that of Liberia’s founding president Joseph J. Roberts; in 1861, ex-president Roberts was the custodian of a Congo boy named Benjamin Coates.

Daniel’s foster parents remain unknown. But as with Benjamin Coates and the majority Congo youths, Daniel’s name was assigned by his guardian, and it replaced whatever his original African name was. The new Western appellation symbolized the transition from a supposed “heathen” African culture to “enlightened” Western Civilization. Daniel’s guardian must have treated him well, for he attended school and was later described as “a bright and intelligent boy” and an upright Christian. Some guardians, however, have been accused of misappropriating the estimated $100 allocated by the US government per Congo.

In 1858 when Daniel was probably between 18 and 21 years old, he was happily reunited with his younger brother who coincidently had also been freed from a slave ship and resettled in Liberia. That lucky encounter took place at the shelter for re-captives on Crown Hill, Monrovia, where the 298 captives of mostly teen age boys, 40 females, and 2 infants were recovering. Enslaved babies were hardly exceptional, since for instance, breast-feeding mothers tended to be defenseless against slave-catchers during wars and slave raids. There is no further account of Daniel Bacon or his brother, and my search for a Liberian Bacon family was fruitless.

Since it appears that Daniel received a liberal education of sorts, he may have found a career in politics/the church, all standard choices. But first, he (and all Congos for that matter) took the oath of allegiance and was qualified to vote and to enjoy the same rights and privileges as the Americo-Liberians. The alliance between the two, the descendants of slaves and the would-have-been slaves, did endure as they lorded over the vastly majority indigenous population.

But the relationship had its tensions, one of which occurred in 1861, and may have affected Daniel if he still resided in Monrovia. That year, according to the late Representative J. C. N. Howard, Sr., Congos were removed from Monrovia and its outskirts. The removal was triggered apparently by resentment following the arrival of more than 4,000 Congos in barely six months; that number equaled three-quarters of the entire 5,722 that eventually landed in Liberia. Many relocated deep inside the forest (site of the current German Embassy) and joined other Congos who for decades had lived here by hunting and farming. The original group was led by Matadi. Unlike Daniel, Matadi retained his Congo name perhaps because as an adult he was never a protégé of an Americo-Liberian family.

Later, some fanned out from “Matadi Village,” or Oldest Congotown, as it became known. Around 1865 they founded what turned out to be the largest Congo settlement in Liberia. It was named Paynesville because James S. Payne (later president) supported Congos during their banishment.

Today Paynesville is situated on either side of the Monrovia-Kakata Highway.

Remembering Daniel and the transatlantic slave trade reveals deep inter-relationships in Liberian history, in this case one between Americo-Liberians and Congos. For example, in the skin color-sensitive presidential election of 1869, the choice for the poor, dark-skinned Congo immigrants was simple. They joined one group of Americo-Liberians, i.e., the new True Whig Party (the party of the dark-skinned true Africans), and tilted the balance of power. The incumbent Republican Party was scorned not only for being the party of rich merchants and politicians, but it also represented mulattos, a group generally viewed as un-African. The alliance of Americo-Liberians and Congos ruled Liberia consecutively for over a century. This lengthy relationship partly explains why today the public sees both groups simply as the same: Congo people.
(Sources available upon request: [email protected])

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