Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani: My Great-Grandfather, the Nigerian Slave Trader

A very interesting family history, and it's at the New Yorker, of all places. Snippet:

My great-grandfather was given the nickname Nwaubani, which means “from the Bonny port region,” because he had the bright skin and healthy appearance associated at the time with people who lived near the coast and had access to rich foreign foods. (This became our family name.) In the late nineteenth century, he carried a slave-trading license from the Royal Niger Company, an English corporation that ruled southern Nigeria. His agents captured slaves across the region and passed them to middlemen, who brought them to the ports of Bonny and Calabar and sold them to white merchants. Slavery had already been abolished in the United States and the United Kingdom, but his slaves were legally shipped to Cuba and Brazil. To win his favor, local leaders gave him their daughters in marriage. (By his death, he had dozens of wives.) His influence drew the attention of colonial officials, who appointed him chief of Umujieze and several other towns. He presided over court cases and set up churches and schools. He built a guesthouse on the land where my parents’ home now stands, and hosted British dignitaries. To inform him of their impending arrival and verify their identities, guests sent him envelopes containing locks of their Caucasian hair.


Gringo said...

If you will pardon the expression, history is not as black and white as some like to present it. The African slave trader would be one example.

I am reminded of some of our contemporaries finding out that via their Louisiana Creole ancestors, some of their mixed race ancestors were slave owners.

In some cases, it was a surprise to discover black ancestors.One Drop: My Father's Hidden Life--A Story of Race and Family Secrets. The slaveowning mixed race ancestors constituted just one more surprise.

In other examples, those discoveries about slaveowning mixed race ancestors were made by blacks. See Michael Bowen, the blogger known as Cobb.

In my family, the surprise was to discover some ancestors living on the Pennsylvania frontier, an American Indian-European couple, who posted a notice about an escaped slave.

There are the families who find out their New England ancestors were involved in the slave trade.

Some prominent diarists of the slaveowning South, such as Fanny Kemble or Mary Chesnut show that there were a fair number of Northerners or Europeans who married into slaveowning families in the South. Fanny Kemble herself or Mary Chesnut's mother, for example.

The more we look at it, the simple dichotomy of free North versus slaveowning South does not hold up- especially in the 18th century.

My ancestors include both yeomen farmers and slaveowners. There was also a family member who fought on the side of John Brown, killed at Harper's Ferry.

Grim said...

It's interesting how 'family lore' is changing on the point. It used to be that, like Elizabeth Warren, everybody's family lore around here said they were a little bit Cherokee. DNA testing has put the lie to many of those claims, although so far the gov't doesn't require you to prove that you have Native American DNA if you have the other documentation.

Similarly, family lore excluded any black relations if they could; the one drop rule was the reason for that. But now it's tending to come out, and I get the sense that some people really like the idea of having a little bit of it in their backgrounds. It's certainly not considered shameful like it would have been even a generation or two ago.

David Foster said...

Gringo...Harriet Martineau, a Brit who visited the US in the 1830, observed in Boston that anti-slavery activists were attacked and almost lynched. Apparently there was big money then being made from the slave trade in that city.

I thought both Martineau and Fanny Kemble were very interesting observers of America. I excerpted some of Fanny's works here:

sykes.1 said...

Early Boston was a key center of the Triangular Trade: rum to Africa for slaves; slaves to the Caribbean for molasses/sugar; molasses/sugar to Boston for rum.

When I was a boy in Boston, the Triangular Trade was told to us in school without any moralizing.

There was still a lot of molasses processing in Boston in the early 20th Century. There was the infamous Great Molasses Flood in the Northend (Little Italy) in 1919 in which a very tank storage tank burst and flooded a neighborhood with molasses. Some people died.

douglas said...

There is a commercial for one of the DNA testing companies going around right now that features a woman speaking about finding out her great-great-grandmother or something was some African tribal ruler. She goes on and on about how her relative was a powerful woman and all the contemporary talking points about powerful women you'd expect. I wondered the fist time I saw it if it occurred to anyone that she also almost certainly traded in slaves, if she was a powerful as she's made out to be. Somehow I doubt it.