Abolitionist and slave-narrative author, he was born in the commercial center of Djougou, West Africa, inland from the Bight of Benin in what would later be the republic of Benin. He was a younger son of a Muslim merchant from Borgu and his wife, who was from Katsina, the Hausa city in northern Nigeria— then known as the Sokoto Caliphate; his parents’ names are now unknown. His home town, Djougou, was located on one of the most important caravan routes in West Africa in the nineteenth century, connecting Asante, the indigenous African state that controlled much of the territory that would become Ghana, and the Sokoto Caliphate. After a childhood in which he attended a Koranic school and learned a craft from his uncle, who was also a merchant and a Muslim scholar, Baquaqua followed his brother to Dagomba, a province of Asante. There he was captured in war in the early 1840s, but he was released when his ransom was paid. However, back home in Djougou, he was again taken captive, apparently kidnapped, in 1845, at about age twenty or twenty-one. Baquaqua was then sold south to Dahomey and eventually to a Portuguese ship trading at Ouidah and Popo and taken to Brazil.
In Brazil, Baquaqua was initially sold to a baker in Pernambuco. When he refused to comply, he was sent south to Rio de Janeiro and sold to a ship’s captain. Baquaqua served as the cabin steward on the Lembrança, a ship that made two trips to southern Brazil before sailing from Rio to deliver a consignment of coffee in New York. There, Baquaqua became the object of a legal dispute between local abolitionists who helped him jump ship, and his Brazilian master who attempted to recover him. When two judges refused to free Baquaqua, his abolitionist supporters helped him to escape from jail and make his way to Boston via the Underground Railroad. From Boston he was sent to Haiti to avoid being arrested again.
In the free black republic of Haiti, Baquaqua once again faced the difficulty of adapting to another culture and language. The Reverend William Judd and his wife Nancy of the American Baptist Free Mission Society soon took him into their home. There, he worked as their cook and learned English, becoming proficient enough to read the Bible and write letters. He also converted to Christianity and was baptized in 1848.
After two years in Haiti, Baquaqua was in danger of being drafted into the Haitian army. He returned instead to New York to continue his education, hoping to work as a missionary in Africa. With the support of abolitionists, he secured funding and studied for three years at New York Central College in upstate New York. After leaving school in 1853, he traveled throughout New York and Pennsylvania, fundraising for the Free Baptist missions. Baquaqua drew on his own experiences as a slave to become an effective abolitionist speaker in spite of his heavily accented English.
Racist attacks and threats prompted Baquaqua to move to Chatham, Ontario, Canada in 1854. He crossed the border to nearby Detroit in order to arrange publication of his biography under his own copyright. Shortly thereafter, Baquaqua left for Liverpool, England, planning to return to West Africa. However, he encountered many difficulties in securing funding and was still in England as of 1857, the last date in which he appears in the historical record. How and where he died, and whether he married and had a family are unknown today.
Although he may never have reached Africa, Baquaqua’s biography ” Biography of Mahommah Gardo Baquaqua” survives to document his resistance to enslavement, as well as his unique journey from bondage in Africa and Brazil to freedom in New York and England. His biography is valuable as one of the most detailed and fully authenticated accounts of Africa and the Atlantic crossing on a slave ship. Baquaqua is also notable for making the cultural transition from being a Dendi-speaking Muslim, who had studied at a Qur’anic school and knew some Arabic, to a Portuguese-speaking slave in Brazil, then to a free Baptist convert in Creole-speaking Haiti, and finally to an English-speaking abolitionist in North America and England.
LINES SPOKEN BY MAHOMMAH.
You can’t expect one of my race,
With woolly hair and sable face,
And scarce a ray of knowledge
To interest his friends at college.
But, I will do the best I can,
To prove I mean to be a man.
‘Tis true, my limbs have fetters worn,
‘Tis true my back the scourge has borne,
But ’tis not true that tyrant’s power
E’er made my heart within me cower.
No ! that was free as when I played,
Beneath my native palm trees’ shade.
Oh! Africa, my native land,
When shall I see thee, meekly stand,
Beneath the banner of my God,
And governed by His Holy word?
When shall I see the oppressor’s rod
Plucked from his hand, my gracious God?
Oh! when shall I my brethren see,
Enjoy the sweets of LIBERTY?
Friends of the crushed and bleeding slave,
Ask God to pity! God to save!!
For all the help of man is vain,
Since man for man has forged the chain.
Oh Righteous Father, thou art just,
To thee I look, to thee I trust;
Oh may thy gracious spirit bear
The Afric’s groan, the Afric’s prayer,
Up to thy spotless throne above,
Where all is joy and peace and love,
For Jesus’ sake, Oh! save the oppressed,
And let their souls in heaven find rest.