Were There 'Mulatto' Slave Traders?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: A father-son story illustrates dynamics of the trade in humans.

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If African elites controlled the capture of the slaves in the interior, who controlled these factories and trading places along the coasts? Europeans, right? Here's where things get interesting. Surprisingly, some of the largest traders in slaves were actually "mulattos," the offspring of European traders and the daughters of African rulers. They were connected to both the European merchants and the African elites by marriage, clientage and trade alliances.

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As Eltis explained to me, "from very soon after the start of the slave trade, there would have been traders on the coast with mixed African and European origins. Thornton and Heywood have identified several Afro-Brazilians and Afro-Portuguese mulatto traders, including Joaquim d'Almeida, Francisco Olympia da Silva, Ambrosio Gomes in Guinea-Bissau, Isidoro Felix de Sousa in Dahomey and Anna Joaquina dos Santos Silva in Luanda, and Afro-British traders in Sierra Leone such as James Cleveland, Thomas Gaffery Curtis, John Pearce (the "King of Rio Nunez") and  William Skelton Jr., among many others. Historian Bruce Mouser also has compiled charts distinguishing slave traders by location and background, including Africans, in his current book, American Colony on the Rio Pongo. The most prominent of a group of about half a dozen mulatto traders in Sierra Leone in the early 19th century was a man named John Ormond Jr., whose life helps to explain how this curious mixed-race caste of slave traders came to be.

Meet John Ormond  

John Ormond Jr. is the black slave trader that our old friend Joel A. Rogers found (or thought he'd found) in his book, Your History (1940), published just 16 years after the founding of Black History Week by "the father of black history," Carter G. Woodson. Amid his pages and pages of black heroes and firsts, Rogers slipped in a brief but explosive profile of one "Mongo John" (real name: John Ormond), beneath a sketch of him with dark eyes and cheeks, a searching brow and Safari hat, even palm trees in the background. Ormond was "a Negro," Rogers claimed, and a "'Mulatto Trader,'" to be more precise -- actually, "the principal slave trader in West Africa in the late 1700s," which was something of an exaggeration. A man, he went on, who strangely "was educated in England" and "inherited vast territory from his African mother, a paramount chief" and "at once raised the price of slaves from $50 to $60 a head wholesale." Mongo John was swift and merciless, Rogers wrote, a slave trader who "on the slightest pretext would send his soldiers to raid native villages" and, as a demonstration of his reach and power, had as "one of his employes [sic]," "Rezin Bowie," "the father of the celebrated Col. James Bowie, hero of Alamo and inventor of the Bowie knife." 

In other words, Rogers, in painful detail, was telling his readers in 1940 -- seven years before Jackie Robinson broke into the major leagues -- that there were fewer leagues white men had inhabited all to themselves than many assumed; that, like the slave trade itself, some of them had had pull from Africa all the way to the American frontier; that they hadn't just been objects of trade, but factors in it.

But a mulatto man was "the principal slave trader in West Africa" (notice the double entendre with the homophone "traitor")? The son of an "African mother, a paramount chief"? When I saw this sketch of Mongo John in Rogers' Your History, I knew I had to track him down. To my amazement, what I actually found was that there were two Mongo Johns -- Sr. and Jr. -- and, while Rogers may have conflated them, the distinction mattered.

John Ormond Sr.

Though his exact origins are a matter of debate, John Ormond Sr. was a white European likely born in Liverpool, England, around 1750, who, at an early age, "sailed to West Africa … as a cabin-boy aboard a British slave ship," writes expert historian Bruce Mouser in his 1973 article, "Trade, Coasters, and Conflict in the Rio Pongo from 1780 to 1808" in The Journal of African History. In his 2003 book Eurafricans in Western Africa, George E. Brooks has Ormond Sr. landing in Sierra Leone in 1759 (Rogers said 1758), where he worked for slavers on Bunce Island, a major trading post, before relocating to Boké along the Nunez River. Ormond Sr. broke off on his own in 1763, Brooks writes, in order to capitalize on the market for buying and selling slaves from the Fula-Susu war near the Pongo River, where, Mouser writes, Ormond Sr. eventually distinguished himself as "the most notorious slave trader of the late 18th century."

The Pongo and Nunez river regions (in present-day Guinea-Conakry) had a natural deterrent against which only "more adventurous fortune-hunters" gambled their lives: an "unhealthy climate," as Boubacar Barry explains in his 1988 book Senegambia and the Atlantic Slave Trade. Ormond Sr. was one of those mavericks, controlling a host of slave factories at Rio Nunez, at Bashia in the Rio Pongo and on the Rio Grande (not the Rio Grande in Texas but in Senegambia).

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