Determining what is true about a significant person from long ago is challenging; creating a version of that person’s life harder still. What is real and what is speculative? What really happened and what is made-up? What was she really like and how can we know? Hopefully the following will help to clarify these and related questions about my fictionalized version of Margru’s true story.
The Amistad case was a political fireball revolving around the national debate over slavery. As a result the Amistad captives received an enormous amount of press, some sympathetic and some quite hostile depending on a particular newspaper’s position on slavery. Trying to figure out the most reliable of these is tricky. I’ve also had to keep in mind that their sympathizers were not trained anthropologists such as exist today and had a very limited knowledge about Africa; this was bound to affect their ability to understand the captives’ descriptions of Africa and how they wrote about it.
What was Margru really like?
There are eyewitness accounts of her crying during her early days in America and in the courts, there are references to her prowess as a student (especially in math), and descriptions of her work in the Kaw Mendi mission later on. We only get her own voice in the letters she wrote while a student at Oberlin and after returning to Africa as a missionary. Since these letters are to her benefactors, I suspect they may be relatively reserved and do not give us a full sense of her personality. As a result I have had to imagine the sort of person Margru truly was: a stoical, emotional, smart, and caring person. And I’ve had to imagine how she responded to the various circumstances and events of her life.
How do you know how old she was?
The various newspaper articles and court documents describe the girls as a variety of ages from seven to twelve, but none is definitive. For the purposes of this story, I’ve made Margru nine in 1839.
What was her real name?
According to Barber it was Margru and meant black snake while Gibbs wrote, “Man-ge-lu denotes a black snake…. Many of their names during their short residence here have assumed forms entirely inconsistent with the genius of the Mendi language. Thus Kali has become Car-le, Man-ge-lu has become Margru, etc.” (J. W. Gibbs “On the Names of the Captured Africans,” Emancipator, 28 Nov. 1839.) I spent several hours trying to find either Margru or one of these variations in it or “black snake” in a Mende-English dictionary without success. Then, a couple summers ago, Konrad Tuscherer, a specialist in African history at St. Johns who has been enormously helpful to me over the years with this project, while doing research in Sierra Leone, wrote me:
Margru is derived from the Mende “Magulu” or “Magalu,” which means “cherish,” “love deeply,” and “protect and embrance.” I confirmed this the day I arrived in Kenema, corroborated it later with informants in Potoru (Pujehun District), and had it confirmed by two senior Mende linguists at Njala University.
While “galu” is indeed a poisonous black snake, there is NO WAY that this would have been the name of a person, especially a little girl. Just the idea brought about laughs — it would be like naming your little girl “nasty mosquito.”
What probably happened was that Ferry or Gibbs or whoever was looking for etymologies just started asking independent informants what this or that segment of a word meant. If I ask someone what “galu” means they will indeed tell me “black snake,” just as they did over 150 years ago.
I tend to refer to her as Margru as that was how she was known in the US. Even after she took the name Sarah Kinson, Tappan insisted she use Margru since she was so well known by that name.
This comes from one of Margru’s Oberlin letters: “… Africa is my home. I long to be there. Although I am in America, yet my heart is there. The people I love and the country I admire…” (Sarah Margru to George Whipple, 12/18/1847)
How did you know how to describe Mendiland?
They are based on my Peace Corps memories substantiated by various firsthand accounts by Europeans who lived and visited Sierra Leone in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries and other secondary sources. Sierra Leone is very close to the equator and has some of the heaviest rainfall anywhere resulting in a lush year-round green tropical rainforest through much of the country. (Winterbottom, Thompson, Banbury, Goddard, Matthews, Fyfe, Vivian, and Newland.)
What did you find out about her pawning?
The only known facts of Margru’s pawning and family are in Barber’s profile of her. I made-up the rest based on my knowledge of the Mende and Sierra Leone. For example, rice is their staple food and crop failure can be for a myriad of reasons. During the recent conflict in Sierra Leone, many Mende were unable to plant or tend their farms because of the fighting and, since there were wars in Margru’s time, this could have been true for her father as well. As for the dying babies, intestinal parasites, malaria, and many other serious illnesses continue to plague the Mende resulting in a high rate of infant mortality, something that was probably also true in 1839.
As for the pawning, “In Africa it is very common for a person to take goods of another and give as a security for payment, a slave, or oftentimes an own son or daughter. And frequently the debt is never paid and the pawns remain for the pay. Again, when one owes another and refuses to pay, the creditor seizes some one of the family to compel payment; and if payment is not made, the person seized will be held or sold for the debt.” (Thompson, The Palm Land or West Africa, Illustrated, 245)
Professor Philip Misevich of St. John’s University, a specialist in this area, was very helpful in reinforcing what I imagined of Margru’s situation in this story.
Olaudah Equiano’s description of being separated from his sister was also in my mind when imagining Margru’s mother’s response to her leaving.
What did you learn about Lomboko?
While there is nothing that specifically indicates that Margru went to Lomboko, it seems probable since most of the other captives mentioned (in Barber and elsewhere) that they were there and it was the largest slave factory in the area. For that reason, I’ve taken the liberty of assuming Margru was there too. The information about how others were taken (kidnapped, snatched, pawned, etc.) is based on the Barber profiles.
Theophilus Conneau in A Slaver’s Log Book or 20 Years Residence in Africa provides a firsthand account of Lomboko. Additional information came from Adam Jones’s From Slaves to Palm Kernels: A History of the Galinhas Country (Africa), 1730-1890.
What about those white ghosts?
I am speculating that it was first in Lomboko that Margru saw white men. As for her thinking them white ghosts, I remember going to Mende villages where the younger children, having never seen whites before, thought we were white ghosts and would shriek with terror when we came near them. I have no idea if Margru worried about being eaten, but Cinque clearly expressed concern about this.
How did you decide to write about her Middle Passage?
Conneau and Jones provide horrific accounts of embarkations from which I imagined Margru’s.
There is no record of Margru’s firsthand description of her voyage from Africa to Cuba. Based on the many other accounts available I can only guess at its dreadfulness and felt it would be presumptuous of me to write about it in detail. My father, a Holocaust survivor, was not able to talk about certain things and so I imagined that Margru could not either.
Philip Misevich reinforced my own sense that the children were probably not shackled as the adults were.
What information did you have about her experience in Cuba?
The testimony, evidence, and statements by their lawyers in the trials as well as various secondary accounts about the Amistad indicate that the Africans were brought off their ship at night, as they were illegal.
Various accounts indicate that one owner purchased the four children while the men were purchased by another and arrived at the ship separately.
I imagined the children’s responses to Havana.
“We all came to Havana in same vessel, except the three little girls and Carli* — we first saw them in Havana.” (from Cinque’s testimony in the Circuit Court trial.) *Kale — their names are spelled in many different ways in the contemporary accounts.
What did you use to write about the rebellion?
I relied mostly on Cable for the details of the rebellion, but read of it in many of the primary sources (newspaper articles, court documents) as well. She quotes Kinna: “We feel bad, and we ask Cinque what to do. Cinque say, ‘Me think and by and by I tell you.’ Cinque then said, ‘ If we do nothing, we be killed. We may as well die in trying to be free as to be killed and eaten.” (Cable 53)
How did you decide to write about their exploration of the ship and recapture?
I imagined the children investigating the cargo described in a newspaper article: “Her cargo appears to consist of silks, crepes, calicoes, cotton and fancy goods of various descriptions, glass and hardware, bridles saddles, holsters, pictures, looking glasses, books, fruits, olives and olive oil, and other things ‘too numerous to mention’ which are now all mixed up in a strange and fantastic medley.” (“The Amistad Captured,” The Charleston Courier, 3 Sept. 1839.)
While I imagined their recapture from Margru’s point of view, the events are all factual.
What did you use to write about their arrival and early days in New Haven?
I tried to imagine what it must have been like for them first entering New Haven having only been briefly in Havana before. (A friend and I made our way down to the New Haven wharf to try to imagine what this was like, but it is way too changed.)
The scene of the girls trying to dress came from Tappan’s description of the captives first receiving clothes: “They are well clothed in dark striped cotton trowsers, called by some of the manufacturers ‘hard times,’ and in striped cotton shirts. The girls are in calico frocks, and have made the little shawls that were given them into turbans. The prisoners eyed the clothes some time, and laughed a good deal among themselves before they put them on.” (“To the Committee on Behalf of the African Prisoners” and “To the Marshal of the District of Connecticut.” New York Journal of Commerce 10 Sept., 1839: 2.)
The Pendletons ran the jail and the girls were soon moved to their home and stayed there until freed by the Supreme Court verdict. However, I have no information about them personally. I’ve gone with the Amistad supporters’ descriptions of them exploiting the girls and imagined Mrs. Pendleton as a woman of her time, prim as far as covering up would go.
Did they really decide to not tell much about themselves?
Cinque and the men decided to reveal little about themselves. I’m speculating that he told the children to do so as well. (Cable 113)
How did you write the scene where they look at the books with Tappan?
I based it on Tappan’s description of his visit: “I distributed some religious tracts, in the morning, to the convicts, and attempted to instruct the African prisoners, especially the children. They pronounce words in English very distinctly, and have already nearly the numerals. In showing them some books containing pictures of tropical animals, birds, &c., they seemed much pleased to recognize those with whose appearance they were acquainted, endeavoring to imitate their voices and actions.” (“To the Committee on Behalf of the African Prisoners” and “To the Marshal of the District of Connecticut.” New York Journal of Commerce 10 Sept., 1839: 2.)
Were they really so scared to go to Hartford for that trial?
Newspapers describe the men terrified about going on the canal boat. I speculated their reasons for this and for the children’s frightened behavior. “They were put on board a canal boat, via Farmington. Jinqua [Cinque] was to be removed on Monday, this day. The poor creatures, says the letter, were very averse to being removed, and doubtless were filled with awful forebodings, being entirely ignorant of their destination or the objects of their removal. The children cried bitterly, and one of the men secreted himself, and was not found until after considerable search.” (Removal of the African Prisoners.” New York Commercial Advertiser. 16 Sept. 1839.)
What is know about Margru’s experience in Hartford?
There are various newspaper accounts of this trial. I imagined Margru’s response to it. “The girls were brought into court, with the return to the habeas corpus. One of the poor little things was frightened half out of her wits, and lifted up her voice and wept stoutly. She was fully impressed, the marshal said, with idea that they were to be sold, or killed outright, and the colloquial communication between her and her keepers not being very perfect, they could not set her doubts and fears at rest. The other two looked rather sober, but their hears were not so utterly cast down as was that of their companion.” (“Correspondence of Commercial Advertiser, The Amistad,” New York Commercial Advertiser, 21 Sept. 1839.)
What is known about their schooling?
“Mr. Day has engaged to superintend their instruction, having two or three young men to assist. We think the best course of instruction will be by visible figures of things, with perhaps a black board and slates. We have Mr. Gallaudet’s Elementary work for Deaf and Dumb, which seem well adapted to the first lessons.” (“Plans to Educate Amistad Africans in English” New York Journal of Commerce, 9 Oct. 1839.)
“This gentleman has devoted considerable time to the captured Africans, and obtained much information valuable to the cause of science. Other gentlemen, connected with the College, have been unremitting in their labors, as have several clergymen and a physician at New Haven. Two gentlemen, Messrs. Griswold and Learned have performed the principal part of the labor of instruction, having between them faithfully spent five hours a day at the jail, taken from the best portion of their time. They deserve the thanks of every friend of the Africans for the extent of the self-denial they have practiced at this most interesting period of their studies. The Africans continue to be interested in the instruction they are receiving, and sometimes complain that school does not commence earlier. The instructors would be glad to have it so, but they are not permitted to commence school till 10 o’clock, A. M. and 3 P.”( “On the Native Country of the Captured Africans.” The African Repository and Colonial Journal, 15 (Nov.,1839): 317-318.)
Do you know what Margru felt when she was with the Pendletons??
I imagined Margru’s comments about missing Africa. The Pendletons did sue to keep the girls and Margru did evidently try to run when they came to take her to Farmington. I imagined the reasons why. (Lawson, The Three Sarahs, 9)
“The Amistad Girls.–We are informed that the Marshal of Connecticut, Mr. Pendleton, in releasing the Africans from prison, claimed the three little girls, as having the best right to become their guardian, they having been so long a time in his family. Mr. Townsend sued out a writ of habeas corpus against him, for their release to him, he having been appointed to their guardianship by the Court of Probate. The decision was given in favor of Mr. Townsend, and they were delivered up to his care.” (“The Amistad Girls,” Colored American, March 27, 1841.)
Evidently one of their benefactors (Baldwin) felt the Pendleton family was intimidating them. Cinque told the girls that they would be sold south, friends of the Pendletons told them Tappan wanted the sold as slaves. (Tappan to S. S. Jocelyn 3/18/1841 from Connecticut Historical Society curator’s notes)
What did you learn of their time in Farmington?
Margru stayed with the Porters, the other two girls with other families, and the men in a renovated barn outside of town. All continued their schooling. At some point during their time there, Margru took the name Sarah Kinson; I imagine that happening in Porter’s church. It is unclear if she became Christian at this time or later in Africa. She subsequently preferred her new name and reluctantly used Margru as her middle name at Tappan’s request.
What about the exhibitions and their departure?
My descriptions of the exhibitions are based on the firsthand accounts in newspapers and Sturges, A Visit to the United States in 1841.)
Their departure is described in newspaper articles. Evidently Tappan gave each a gift, but since there is no record of what they were I decided to not mention them.
What is known about their return to Africa?
There is little about the crossing and so I pretty much invented that. Evidently there was a crowd when they arrived and some of the Amistads immediately left the group. (Lawson, The Three Sarahs, 11)
At that time Freetown was the capital of the British colony of Sierra Leone, which did not then include the land of the Mendes. The group stayed at York, not far from Freetown for months while a suitable site for the Mende mission was found. There were wars and Mrs. Raymond did have emotional difficulties requiring her to return.
That it was a “wonderful” time for the girls is pure speculation on my part. There is mention of their contentment by the American missionaries in their missives back to the US.
Margru did not leave any record herself of how she felt during this time or about returning to the US.
What is known about Margru’s time at Oberlin?
There is quite a bit of information about this. There are Margru’s own letters and letters about her. She tells a friend that she wouldn’t stay in the country “for a thousand dollars if not for the education.” (Wright to Tappan, 11/11/1846) To Tappan she writes that “Sometimes I feel low spirit [ed] and cry then.” (Letter to Tappan, 2/5/1847)
What information did you have about the men coming about her father at the end of the book?
In a letter to Tappan (April 1854) Margru wrote, “I am very glad to tell you that I found my father, he is very far off from the Mission, about a weeks journey, but he heard of me, that I am yet living, only the war have hindered him from coming. But he war is now at an end so he send some men to see me and they have returned to tell him that I am alive yet.” By then Margru was married (she signed this letter Sarah M. K. Green) and head of the girls’ school at Kaw Mendi. There is no further mention of her father; I do not know if she ever saw him.