There are relatively few detailed, firsthand accounts of the 12 million Africans captured and forcibly transported to the Americas in the 400 years of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Of the 10 million survivors of that journey, only a very small number, like Olaudah Equiano and Venture Smith lived long enough—or had the time or opportunity—to write about their experiences. Others like Job Ben Solomon were the subjects of biographies during their lifetimes.
To date, though, we know of only one African who wrote an account of his capture and enslavement in Brazil, the destination for 40 percent of all slaves who made that perilous Atlantic crossing between 1519 and 1867, when the slave trade finally ended in fact as well as in law.
For that reason alone, Mahommah Gardo Baquaqua’s Biography and description of the notorious Middle Passage would be worth exploring. But Baquaqua’s 1854 narrative also reveals a remarkable journey that took him to Haiti, upstate New York, Canada and England. In these places he was legally free but not at peace, because he was not at home. According to the Irish abolitionist Samuel Moore, who assisted him in writing and publishing his work, Baquaqua talked “much of Africa” and prayed ardently that he would one day return.
Home, according to Baquaqua’s Biography, was the city of Zoogoo, now known as Djougou, a large city in the interior of the present-day West African nation of Benin. The Bight of Benin was one of the major ports of slave departures, responsible for the transportation of over 2 million Africans to the Western Hemisphere—a quarter of them, like Baquaqua, after the official ending of the slave trade in 1807.
As his first name, “Mahommah,” indicates, he was born a Muslim. His father, a Nigerian-born merchant, was “not very dark complexioned,” according to his description, and was said to be of “Arabian” descent. His mother, “entirely black,” came from Katsina in northern Nigeria, which was on a major caravan trade route in West Africa. Exactly how or why she traversed the 700 miles from Katsina to Djougou, where her husband made his home, is a reminder that 19th-century Africa was a very mobile society, shaped not only by the slave trade but by internal changes as well.
Baquaqua devotes much of the early part of his narrative to a description of the Islamic faith practiced by his devout family in Djougou, including the observance of Ramadan. He attended a Quranic school run by his uncle, but he proved to be a poor student and, so, apprenticed as a blacksmith. Again he chafed at the discipline needed to succeed, so around the age of 15, he found work as a porter on the 350-mile trade route to Dagomba, a province of the Asante Kingdom in Ghana.
There, he was captured during a war in the early 1840s but released when his ransom was paid. He then returned to Djougou and worked in the palace of a local nobleman as a tkiriku (bodyguard). He also looted and plundered local properties to provision the palace.
Perhaps significantly, Baquaqua’s narrative does not state that he was a slave, even though most tkiriku at that time were. He may have been ashamed of that fact (and of the role of his fellow Africans in his enslavement). He certainly regretted abandoning his strict Muslim faith for a position in which he stole and drank alcohol, for which he was to pay the ultimate price with the loss of his freedom. Drunk after taking part in a raid on a nearby village, he fell asleep and was kidnapped into slavery.
Baquaqua was then sold south, across 300 miles, by several traders and through three owners before arriving in the busy port of Ouidah, on Benin’s Atlantic coast, around 1845. To evade British naval patrols seeking to enforce the global ban on the slave trade, Baquaqua and his fellow slaves were moved to a nearby lagoon, where they were “all put into a pen … and to insure obedience, a man was placed in front with a whip in his hand ready to strike the first who should dare to disobey orders; another man then went round with a hot iron, and branded us the same as they would the heads of barrels or any other inanimate goods or merchandize.”