Newport, Matilda (c. 1795–1837)

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Newport, Matilda (c. 1795–1837)

American-born Liberian hero whose courage during an attack on pioneer free black settlers in 1822 came to represent the ideals of the Americo-Liberian elite in the West African republic. Born, perhaps in Philadelphia, around 1795; died in Monrovia, Liberia, in 1837; married Thomas Spencer; married Ralph Newport.

Liberia and Ethiopia are the only African countries never colonized by a European power. From the start of its national existence, Liberia was linked, for better or worse, to the United States. The end of the transatlantic slave trade in the early 19th century saw the emergence of efforts by white abolitionists and humanitarians to repatriate former slaves to their African homeland. As early as 1787, 1,500 free blacks were settled in the British colony of Sierra Leone on the west coast of Africa. Drawing on this as an example, in 1816 a group of American abolitionists organized the American Colonization Society (ACS). During this period, several organizations dedicated to repatriating former slaves to Africa had been set up by individuals of African ancestry, but the ACS was the most influential group devoted to achieving this goal. Led by wealthy white men, including political leaders James Madison and Henry Clay, the ACS brought together those who represented two diametrically opposing viewpoints, namely abolitionists who saw the end of slavery and resettlement in Africa as the only path to a restoration of the human dignity of African-Americans, and supporters of slavery who regarded the existence of free blacks on American soil as a threat to the South's "peculiar institution" and wanted to return as many as possible to their native continent.

In addition to some funds provided by the U.S. government, the ACS financed its efforts by selling memberships to free blacks, a significant number of whom had achieved economic success as farmers, professionals, and small businessmen. Lifetime membership cost $30 and did not necessarily mean that the holder planned to go to Africa. By 1825, an impressive amount, estimated as being "not less than $50,000," had been raised by this method. The first concrete effort at repatriation and colonization took place in 1820, when the ship Elizabeth, with a group of 86 men, women, and children, landed on Sherbro Island, today part of Sierra Leone. Over the next months, many succumbed to disease, and the survivors were forced to move to Freetown, the main village of Sierra Leone. After their health and morale had been restored, the settlers returned to a new settlement site named Cape Mesurado. With their numbers having been augmented by another group of free black expatriates from the States, the settlers negotiated with the local African population to achieve permanent ownership of the land they were occupying; after 1824, it would be called Liberia.

Relations between the former slaves from the United States and the African tribal chiefs were difficult and often hostile. Warfare broke out between the indigenous people and the newcomers from America, and, during Liberia's first few years of existence, the fate of the abolitionist experiment was highly precarious. Convinced that the newcomers had no right to the land they claimed as their own, hundreds of tribal warriors armed with muskets launched a vigorous attack on December 1, 1822. It appeared as if the settlers were doomed to annihilation until Matilda Newport, a veteran free black settler who had arrived on the Elizabeth, took matters into her own hands. At a desperate stage in the fighting, she dropped a hot coal from the pipe she was smoking into a nearby cannon. The cannon's explosion so frightened and demoralized the attacking forces that they panicked and dispersed, and the tide of battle shifted dramatically in favor of the Liberians. From this point on, the Liberian experiment was no longer in danger of being obliterated.

At first, little was made of Newport's deed. She survived the conflict and in 1825 married her second husband Ralph Newport, himself a survivor of the same battle. In October 1836, Ralph died when his canoe capsized while he was attempting to board the schooner Caroline in Monrovia harbor. Matilda died of pleurisy in Monrovia in 1837. By the time of Matilda Newport's death, around 3,000 Americo-Liberians had formed the nucleus of an elite group that would rule the new nation, which declared itself a Commonwealth in 1838. With the proclamation of the Republic of Liberia on July 26, 1847, the black nation became a sovereign power by formally severing its links to the American Colonization Society. Throughout the second half of the 19th century, as Liberians struggled to both defend their nation and define their nationhood, the example of Matilda Newport increasingly took on a near-mythic quality. Although contemporary sources had apparently never taken the trouble to document her bravery in the heat of battle, her deed entered national consciousness through oral testimony and nationalist literature, thus becoming part of the new nation's historical traditions.

In 1916, the Liberian Legislature declared December 1 to be Matilda Newport Day, making it a permanent national holiday. As a symbol of the Americo-Liberian ruling minority, Newport and the story of her resourcefulness served

to sum up that group's self-image of energy, advanced culture, and vision of a bright future for the black Republic. Politicians, preachers, and teachers all spoke in superlatives of the virtues of Newport, who in the words of Liberian Irene A. Gant was described in 1908 as "the heroine and deliverer of the Liberian people," her nation's equivalent of Joan of Arc . On December 1, 1947, the Republic's postal authorities issued a series of commemorative postage stamps in Newport's honor.

By the 1960s, the need to integrate the majority of Liberia's tribal peoples into the national community meant that the image of a pioneer heroine embodying the ideals of the Americo-Liberian minority might have to be sacrificed. The celebration of Matilda Newport Day began to be questioned both privately and in public forums, since it had always meant much less to the nation's tribal majority than to the Americo-Liberian elite who ruled from their virtual political and cultural enclave of Monrovia. The sudden termination of Americo-Liberian rule, which took place in a bloody 1980 military coup, brought about the end of the Matilda Newport celebration. As Liberia entered a period of disintegration and chaos in the 1980s, the decisive example of "our noble Matilda" was unable to inspire Liberians to resolve their differences in ways that might bring about the peace and reconciliation that the nation yearned for.


Cassell, C. Abayomi. Liberia: History of the First African Republic. NY: Fountainhead, 1970.

Dunn, D. Elwood, and Svend E. Holsoe. Historical Dictionary of Liberia. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1985.

Gant, Irene A. "Liberian Womanhood," in Liberia. Bulletin No. 32. February 1908, pp. 25–28.

Henries, A. Doris Banks. The Liberian Nation: A Short History. NY: Collier-Macmillan International, 1966.

"Latest From Liberia: Deaths," in The African Repository, and Colonial Journal. Vol 13, no. 2. April 1837, p. 134.

Tuttle, Kate, and Elizabeth Heath. "Liberia," in Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., eds., Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience. NY: Basic Civitas Books, 1999, pp. 1156–1160.

West, Richard. Back to Africa: A History of Sierra Leone and Liberia. London: Jonathan Cape, 1970.

Yancy, Ernest Jerome. Historical Lights of Liberia's Yesterday and Today. Tel Aviv: Around the World Publishing House, 1967.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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Newport, Matilda (c. 1795–1837)

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