Mongo: Mulatto Chief of the River, 1854

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Mongo: Mulatto Chief of the River, 1854

sourceFrom Capt. Theodore Canot, Adventurers of an African Slaver: An Account of the Life of Captain Theodore Canot, Trader in Gold, Ivory and Slaves on the Coast of Guinea. Written out and edited from the Captain's Journals, Memoranda and Conversations by Brantz Mayer [1857] (Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 2002), pp. 76-78, 94.

introductionTheodore Canot was a French-Italian slave trader whose vivid memoirs, Adventures of an African Slaver (1857), record the Atlantic slave trade as it was practiced during the early to mid-nineteenth century. One of his African associates in the slave trade was known as Mongo, or "Chief of the River." Mongo was, in fact, a man named Jack Ormond, the son of an English slave trader and an African woman. He had been educated in England, but returned to Africa to claim his father's property and pursue his father's business. Canot describes Mongo as "a type of his peculiar class in Africa," and Mongo's political machinations as he positions himself as a powerful slave trader illustrate the serious implications that the slave trade had on politics and society within Africa.

It is time I should make the reader acquainted with the individual who was the presiding genius of the scene, and, in some degree, a type of his peculiar class in Africa.

Mr. Ormond was the son of an opulent slave-trader from Liverpool, and owed his birth to the daughter of a native chief on the Rio Pongo. His father seems to have been rather proud of his mulatto stripling and dispatched him to England to be educated. But Master John had make little progress in belleslettes, when news of the trader's death was brought to the British agent, who refused the youth further supplies of money. The poor boy soon became an outcast in a land which had not yet become fashionably addicted to philanthropy; and, after drifting about awhile in England, he shipped on board a merchantman. The press-gang soon got possession of the likely mulatto for the service of his Britannic Majesty. Sometimes he played the part of dandy waiter in the cabin; sometimes he swung a hammock with the hands in the forecastle. Thus, five years slipped by, during which the wanderer visited most of the West Indian and Mediterranean stations.

At length the prolonged cruise was terminated, and Ormond paid off. He immediately determined to employ his hoarded cash in a voyage to Africa, where he might claim his father's property. The project was executed; his mother was still found alive; and, fortunately for the manly youth, she recognized him at once as her first born.

The reader will recollect that these things occurred on the west coast ofAfrica in the early part of the present century, and that the tenure of property, and the interests of foreign traders, were controlled entirely by such customary laws as prevailed on the spot. Accordingly, a 'grand palaver' was appointed, and all Mr. Ormond's brothers, sisters, uncles, and cousins,—many of whom were in possession of his father's slaves or their descendants,—were summoned to attend. The 'talk' took place at the appointed time. The African mother stood forth staunchly to assert the identity and rights of her firstborn, and, in the end, all of the Liverpool trader's property, in houses, lands, and negroes, that could be ascertained, was handed over, according to coast-law, to the returned heir.

When the mulatto youth was thus suddenly elevated into comfort, if not opulence, in his own country, he resolved to augment his wealth by pursuing his father's business. But the whole country was then desolated by a civil war, occasioned, as most of them are, by family disputes, which is was necessary to terminate before trade could be comfortably established.

To this task Ormond steadfastly devoted his first year. His efforts were seconded by the opportune death of one of the warring chiefs. A tame opponent,—a brother of Ormond's mother,—was quickly brought to terms by a trifling present; so that the sailor boy soon concentrated the family influence, and declared himself 'Mongo,' or Chief of the River.

Bangalang had long been a noted factory among the English traders. When war was over, Ormond selected this post as his permanent residence, while he sent runners to Sierra Leone and Goree with notice that he would shortly be prepared with ample cargoes. Trade, which had been so long interrupted by hostilies, poured from the interior. Vessels from Goree and Sierra Leone were seen in the offing, responding to his invitation. His stores were packed with British, French, and American fabrics; while hides, wax, palm-oil, ivory, gold, and slaves were the native products for which Spaniards and Portuguese hurried to proffer their doubloons and bills.

It will be readily conjectured that a very few years sufficed to make Jack Ormond not only a wealthy merchant, but a popular Mongo among the great interior tributes of Foulahs and Mandingoes. The petty chiefs, whose territory bordered the sea, flattered him with the title of king; and, knowing his Mormon taste, stocked his harem with their choicest children as the most valuable tokens of friendship and fidelity….

I was a close watcher of Mongo John whenever he engaged in the purchaseof slaves. As each negro was brought before him, 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, forgers and toes were not forgotten; so that when the negro passed from the Mongo's hands without censure, he might have been readily adopted as a good 'life' by an insurance company.

Upon one occasion, to my great astonishment, I saw a stout and apparently powerful man discarded by Ormond as utterly worthless. His full muscles and sleek skin, to my unpractised eye, denoted the height of robust health. Still, I was told that he had been medicated for the market with bloating drugs, and sweated with powder and lemon juice to impart a gloss to his skin. Ormond remarked that these jockey-tricks are as common in Africa as among horse-traders in Christian lands; and desiring me to feel the negro's pulse, I immediately detected disease or excessive excitement. In a few days I found the poor wretch abandoned by his owner, a paralyzed wreck in the hut of a villager at Bangalang.