Were There ‘Mulatto’ Slave Traders?

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

Illustration from Your History (1940), by John A. Rogers
Illustration from Your History (1940), by John A. Rogers

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Yet at the same time, John Ormond Sr. ingratiated himself with the most powerful African families and political units. Not only was he aligned with Fula traders, Mouser explains in “Trade, Coasters, and Conflict in the Rio Pongo From 1780 to 1808,” but he eventually “married the daughters of several Susu and Baga chiefs from the Bangalan and Fatala rivers, among them the daughter of the Susu paramount-chief of Bangalan.”  “Paramount-chief”? Here, Rogers was onto something. By wedding the Susu chief’s daughter, a white man in an African world, Ormond Sr. replicated a pattern among other white Europeans, who, as Barry explains, “[i]n time … produced several generations of European and Euro-African slave traders perfectly integrated into local political and social life.” The stage was set for a slave-trading dynasty. 

But Sr.’s own enjoyment of his power would not last long or descend in predictable ways, Mouser informed me in an email exchange last week. In 1791, while still in his early 40s, John Ormond Sr. traveled to Iles de Los over concerns for his health (and a recent Jihad in Moria). While away, he left his son William in charge, a move that panicked his slaves in Baga. Would they be sold? Would their families be split apart? Their fears sparked a revolt, Mouser writes, with Ormond’s slaves destroying his property, seizing 1,500 of his slaves — and killing William, according to Mouser. Not long after, fate — whether illness, a broken heart or poisoning — took Sr.’s life as well.

John Ormond Jr.

Here’s where the story — and lash — passed to the son who lived, the mulatto slave trader John Ormond Jr. As Mouser explained to me, after the headmen of Baga quelled the slaves’ uprising, there was no obvious heir. John Ormond Sr. was a white European without local siblings (only brothers in Britain). He did have wives, however, and the senior one of them — the daughter of the “paramount chief,” who fled “to her father’s protection in Bangalan” — asserted her authority. “Mothers are powerful people in Africa,” Mouser reminded me, and, however loosely at times, she held Sr.’s estate together until “the new Mongo” appeared to resume his father’s trade “at the head of the Pongo River.”

That “new Mongo” was John Ormond Jr., who, at a young age, had been sent by his father to England to receive an education (a fact Rogers partially got right and Brooks and Mouser confirm). If Sr. had lived, who knows where John Jr.’s life might have led?  Because he died, Sr.’s “agent in England refused to extend additional credit” to cover his mulatto son’s schooling, leaving Jr. a “poor boy … an outcast,” recalled Théophile Conneau, a contemporary business associate (more on their relationship later).

After five years of impressed service in the British Royal Navy, John Ormond Jr. returned to West Africa in 1805, Mouser writes in “Trade, Coasters and Conflict in the Rio Pongo From 1780 to 1808.” While the amount of property Sr. left remains unclear, his widow, the African chief’s daughter, turned over everything she had been safekeeping to Jr. after accepting him as her son — and persuaded other family members to do the same. “Soon thereafter,” Mouser adds, Jr.’s mother intervened again in support of his efforts to “bribe[] his opponent” to become the “elected chief” when “the Susu chief of Bangalan died.”

A Trans-Atlantic Slave Trader

In American Colony, Mouser locates Ormond Jr.’s “center of power … at Bangalan and the neighboring town of Gambia, but he also claimed the factory at Bashia by right of firstcomer” (by then it had become a missionary school). Adding to Jr.’s power was his leverage over “a large network of family relatives” — relatives by blood, not just marriage like his European father — including “a large number of wives and concubines.” Picking up where his father had left off, Jr. charged an estimated factor markup of $25-$30 per slave shipped out of Rio Pongo in 1826, Eltis writes — an increase also suggested by Rogers (though with different figures). Think of it this way: For every African bought and sold from his factory into the wider trans-Atlantic slave trade, Mongo John the second, half-African himself, took a cut.

And when other factors gave up or were seized after the British government banned the international slave trade in 1807, Ormond Jr. consolidated his power as head of a coalition of slavers, making him one of the dominant factors in the Pongo region, according to Mouser in “Landlords-Strangers: A Process of Accommodation and Assimilation” (1975) in The International Journal of African Historical Studies.