Editor's note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these "amazing facts" are an homage.
(The Root) — Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 50: What's behind the legend of the mixed-race slave trader Joel A. Rogers called "Mongo John"?
The trans-Atlantic slave trade, as the historian David Eltis writes, "was the largest long-distance coerced movement of people in history and, prior to the mid-19th century, formed the major demographic well-spring for the re-peopling of the Americas following the collapse of the Amerindian population." In fact, we now know, thanks to Eltis' Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, that some 12.5 million Africans were captured, traded and shipped to the New World between 1501 and 1867. But what most of us don't know is how all of these Africans were captured, moved to the coast of West and Central Africa, traded and then boarded on ships destined for the New World.
A Diabolical System
No family wants to find skeletons in its closet, and no people wants to discover lives being bought and sold, especially by their own, in the past. This is especially true for people of African descent regarding the trans-Atlantic slave trade, a system of capture and trade in black human beings that was, we might say, diabolically ingenious, involving African elites, European merchants and even a class of prosperous mulatto slave traders. There's more than enough blame and guilt to be shared by all parties.
First, slaves were captured in wars that African leaders waged for a variety of reasons, some specifically for the purpose of generating bodies to be sold to market for the New World slave trade. As the historians John Thornton and Linda Heywood state, a significant number of the slaves shipped across the Atlantic began their horrific journey as by-products of capture in these wars.
Others were captured illicitly "by African bandits and gangs who operated in hard-to-control areas, forests and so on, and hit as people were going to market or sailing on the rivers," as Thornton and Heywood wrote in an email.
Still others were enslaved by judicial means. Overall, some 90 percent of all of the Africans destined for the nightmare of slavery in North and South America and the Caribbean began their journeys in one of these three ways, and, Thornton and Heywood estimate, one-third of the Africans were captured by other Africans.
The African elites brought their victims to the coast and sold them to slave traders who operated through a variety of trading places, as David Eltis explained to me by email. Some were sold at "factories," the residence of a European or African trading agent or agents (or factors) of a slaving company, established in strategic locations along the African coast. Some were sold at coastal forts, in Senegal, the Gambia and Guinea-Bissau. "South of the latter (Guinea-Bissau) to the Gold Coast (Ghana), there was a large number of small, but fortified, trading posts." Then from Ghana east to the Togo boundary today there were about 40 castles of varying size.
Further east, from Little Popo in Dahomey [Benin] to Lagos, Nigeria, "the flow of slaves was controlled by African polities, and the Europeans had agents and storehouses under the protection of an African ruler," Eltis continued. "From the Niger Delta to Northern Angola, there were no permanent European posts at all, so each slave ship would negotiate with the African polity, and Europeans would not have had a permanent land-based presence, though the Congo River had a lot of European-controlled barracoons [enclosures to hold the enslaved] in the last 25 years of the trade." The exception to all of this was Luanda, in Angola. It was "the biggest trading site of all, which was Portuguese-controlled, as was Mozambique island," where there would be warehouses and holding yards.
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.
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).
As a slave factor, Ormond Sr. bought low from his "African supplier[s]" and sold high to his European "ship[pers]," what Eltis calls "the factor markup" in his 1987 book Economic Growth and the Ending of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Ormond Sr. also earned a sales commission — "2 per cent," Stephen Behrendt writes in his essay, "Human Capital in the British Slave Trade" (in Liverpool and Transatlantic Slavery). Behrendt identifies "John Ormond" by name as "the Pongo River factor who supplied the human cargo."
With the nickname "Mongo John," or Chief John, Ormond Sr. was "renowned for his ruthlessness and his capricious and sadistic depravities," Brooks reveals. Even "Europeans trading along the river reported that Ormond treated his slaves harshly," Mouser observes in a separate essay, "Insurrection as Socioeconomic Change" (in The Powerful Presence of the Past). And in American Colony on the Rio Pongo, Mouser adds that Ormond Sr.'s "critics characterized him as a 'savage beast' for having burned a wife, thrown unsalable slaves overboard and given 400 lashes to one of his own servants." If anything, he did more than raid neighboring villages, as Rogers claimed; this Mongo John stopped at nothing to get his price.
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.
To be profitable, Ormond Jr.'s operation had to exploit a flow of embarkation and dis-embarkation points, origins in Africa and destinations in the New World — the hallmarks of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Ormond concentrated his operation mainly in Cuba, Brazil and the French West Indies, especially after the abolition of the slave trade (but not slavery itself) in England and the U.S in 1807 — a business constraint and opportunity his father hadn't faced.
In a forthcoming essay, Marial Iglesias Utset and Jorge Felipe tell a fascinating story about a trip that Ormond took to Cuba. In 1814, Ormond provided most of the slaves onboard a Spanish slave ship, La Isabela, bound for Havana. When more than half of the crew got sick and died, the Spanish captain scrambled to hire free black African sailors to replace them. A week later, when La Isabela was still close to the African coast, a rebellion broke out. (Forty percent of the documented slave rebellions during the Middle Passage occurred on ships carrying slaves from this region called Upper Guinea.)
Aided by the black free sailors, the slaves onboard killed what was left of the Spanish crew, seized control of the ship and directed it back to Pongo. There, the same free black sailors who had fought along with them now betrayed them, returning the slaves to Ormond Jr. and keeping some as "reward for their services." Fortunately, a few days later, when Ormond's slaves were being transported to the Northern factories of Rio Nunez to be sold again, a detachment of a British squadron rescued them. Most of the survivors ended up living in a community of liberated Africans in Freetown, Sierra Leone.
A few months later, on the other side of the Atlantic, the owners of La Isabela and its cargo in Havana learned of the failed expedition and accused Ormond Jr. of complicity in the rebellion — of having hired the free black sailors with the purpose of reselling the slaves. To confront these claims, Ormond Jr., incredibly, traveled to Havana, probably in one of the slave ships. According to one witness, he moved freely in the city and socialized with the members of the white elite. Through a legal representative, he addressed the charges against him at the Tribunal of Commerce of Havana. The plaintiff, the Cuban trader Antonio Escoto (the owner of La Isabela who had received several substantial loans from Ormond Jr.) alleged that Ormond Jr. lacked the judicial standing, since he was a "black savage" living in the heart of Africa. Ormond Jr.'s attorney replied by arguing that his client was not black, but mulatto and that if he was good enough to lend money to Escoto, then he was certainly good enough to have the loan repaid. Surprisingly, Escoto withdrew all charges and the two settled, remarkably in Ormond's favor.
Our best single source on Ormond Jr.'s later years is Théophile Conneau (mentioned above), a French traveler who entered the slave trade himself, and in retirement, published a memoir (with the help of Brantz Mayer), titled Adventures of an African Slaver (1854), using the name Canot. Fortunately for us, Malcolm Cowley, one of the Lost Generation of writers with Hemingway and Fitzgerald, reissued it in 1928 (my guess: Rogers read him, too).
In her book Sweet Water and Bitter: The Ships That Stopped the Slave Trade, Siân Rees describes African Slaver as "typical of a sailor: in turns sentimental, technical, lascivious and chilling, with much dashing action in which Captain Canot, as [Conneau] styled himself, is always the best and the bravest." Nevertheless, Rees finds it a generally trustworthy source, because "much of it is corroborated by more reliable Admiralty papers and," perhaps unwittingly, "gives an entirely credible description of a ruthless young man's introduction to the illegal slave trade." (To learn more about Conneau, check out Mouser's profile in History in Africa [pdf] and a second rendering of his experiences, Conneau, A Slaver's Log Book: Or, 20 Years' Residence in Africa, with an introduction by Mabel M. Smythe.)
In 1826, Conneau, then a 19-year-old living in Havana, convinced a friend to secure him a spot on a slave ship to Africa, the Aerostatico, which eventually made its way up the Rio Pongo, docking at Ormond's factory. His first night there, Conneau wandered through Ormond's harem, describing it later as "the sanctuary where Ormond confined his motley group of black, mulatto and quarteronne wives." Seeing the way Ormond had his slaves crammed inside the ship the next day — "the eldest of whom did not exceed fifteen" — was an altogether different matter: "As I crawled between decks," Conneau wrote, "I could not imagine how this little army was to be packed or draw breath in a hold but twenty-two inches high!… but we made them lie down in each other's laps, like sardines in a can, and in this way obtained space for the entire cargo."
None of this stopped Conneau from accepting Ormond's offer to become his secretary in the trade, however, and from this vantage point, he marveled at how Ormond conducted his business. "As each negro was brought before him," Conneau wrote, "Ormond examined the subject, without regard to sex, from head to foot. A careful manipulation of the chief muscles, joints, arm-pits, and groins was made, to assure soundness. The mouth, too, was inspected, and if a tooth was missing, it was noted as a defect liable to deduction. Eyes, voice, lungs, fingers, and toes were not forgotten." Apparently, Ormond even noticed when a sick or elderly slave "had been medicated for the market with bloating drugs, and sweated with powder and lemon juice to impart a gloss to his skin."
Personal matters were more complicated, however. When Conneau took up with one of Ormond Jr.'s wives, Esther, suspicion won out, and the two men "parted with coolness." For all his profits and power, Ormond Jr. was not the man he used to be, Conneau observed. "In early life and during his gorged prosperity," Jr. had been the "stout, burly, black-eyed, broad-shouldered, short-necked man" who had "ruled his harem with the rigid decorum of the East." Now, with "age and misfortunes st[ealing] over the sensual voluptuary, his mental and bodily vigour bec[oming] impaired, not only by excessive drink, but by the narcotics to which he habitually resorted for excitement[,] [h]is wives ridiculed him, or amused themselves as they pleased."
When the two men re-encountered each other a few years later, Conneau, by then a prosperous slaver, realized Ormond Jr. was trying to poison him, and when Esther revealed the details of their affair to Ormond, he "felled the girl to the earth with his fist." Jr.'s violent rampage only escalated after he returned, threatening to shoot Esther and another of his wives. When the two women managed to escape, Jr. turned his gun on himself. There "in the garden … lay Jack Ormond the mulatto!" Conneau wrote. "His left breast … pierced by a ball, the wad of which still clung to his flesh."
Whereas the first Mongo John had succumbed to illness following a slave revolt, the second ended his life after a revolt of the heart. Some 20 years later, Captain Conneau's memoir would cause a stir when it was published, just two years after Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), but with the economic order soon to be reordered by Civil War and emancipation, both Mongo Johns faded — skeletons of the slave-trade past awaiting that dreaded rediscovery.
Those of you grading Joel Rogers might be wondering, was Ormond the biggest slave trader in West Africa? No way, says David Eltis: "The Pongo River, though of some importance in the first third of the 19th century, was a minor embarkation point overall, accounting for just of fifth of one percent of all slaves embarked from known ports." As a matter of fact, between 1776 and 1850, there were approximately 260,000 slaves shipped from Sierra Leone, compared to 827,000 from the Bight of Benin, 814,000 for the Bight of Biafra and almost two and a half million from Central Africa. It's not even close!
And what about Rogers' hint of a Bowie family connection? As provocative as Rogers was, in none of the scholarly accounts did I find any evidence of a direct relationship, though as William C. Davis writes in Three Roads to the Alamo, James Bowie and his brother Rezin did enrich themselves in a slave-smuggling scheme in Louisiana after Congress had banned the importation of slaves, a starkly different piracy tale than the one opening in theaters this coming weekend.
You never know what skeletons a family or a people are going to find when they return to the shores of history, especially the history of the slave trade.
As always, you can find more "Amazing Facts About the Negro" on The Root, and check back each week as we count to 100.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. He is also the editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.