Brazilian Slave Memoir Translated into Portuguese
Mahommah Baquaqua’s story of being kidnapped in Africa and sold into slavery in Brazil in 1845 isn’t unique. However, eventually, he escaped to freedom in New York, and his story is the only known account of its kind – an in-depth, firsthand written account of slavery in Brazil. Amazingly, Baquaqua’s story is being published in Portuguese this year for the first time.
Baquaqua dictated the story of his life, speaking in English, while living in Canada in 1854. He’d been born to a merchant family around 1824 in West Africa, in what is now Benin. While acting as a messenger and assistant for a local chieftain, he was captured in 1845 and shipped to a beach near Recife. He was sold to a baker, whom he said would beat him even during church services. Later, he was sold in Rio de Janeiro to the captain of a merchant ship, which sailed in 1847 to New York, where slavery had been abolished.
A Truth Commission was established this year to investigate Brazil’s 350-year period of slavery. Next year, tourists coming for the Olympic Games will be able to walk a pathway marking historical sites such as a mass grave for slaves who died en route from Africa. “Slavery was cruel just like anywhere else. But it’s largely unknown to the population, especially to our black population, our youth,” said Marcelo Dias, president of the Rio de Janeiro Bar Association, which set up the Truth Commission.
Many scholars believe the lack of slave narratives in Brazil kept the country from understanding its true history. The so-called Baquaqua Project, the drive to spread his story and further research his life, is part of a wide effort involving historians, artists, and lawyers working to uncover the country’s past.
The Truth Commission led by Dias could seek reparations from the state for what he said is a “historical obligation.” Black and Brown people today count for half the population of Brazil. Through partnerships with universities in the US and Angola, the Commission and others hope to access even more archives kept abroad that could help quantify how much the government gained by taxing slave traders.
A website about Baquaqua’s life will launch next month; work on a children’s book is under way; and school teachers are being coached on how to incorporate him into their lessons. “We are seeing a lot of interest from the public to know about this story,” said Bruno Veras, one of the researchers and translators working to bring Baquaqua’s story to a Brazilian audience.
Before abolishing slavery in 1888, becoming the last country in the Americas to do so, Brazil was the world’s largest slave market. Unlike in the United States, where thousands of slaves recorded their stories of bondage and freedom during the campaign for abolition, Baquaqua’s extensive account is the only one known to exist from Brazil.
As he recounted, “The first word in English that my two companions (from the ship) and myself ever learned was ‘free.’ ” Baquaqua tried to escape as soon as the vessel arrived in New York, but he was jailed. He broke free with the help of abolitionists and fled to Boston, then Haiti. Baquaqua later traveled to Great Britain, intending to travel to Africa as a Christian missionary. However, any record of him after 1857 has yet to be found, and it’s unclear what became of him.
The Biography of Mahommah G. Baquaqua was printed in Detroit in 1854 and the former slave went on speaking tours to promote the book, said Paul Lovejoy, an expert in African diaspora history at York University in Toronto who helped resurrect the biography for a 2007 edition.
It’s not clear how many copies were printed, but the story circulated primarily among abolitionists in the United States, Lovejoy said. It never was distributed in Brazil or translated into Portuguese.
The idea to publish Baquaqua’s life story in Brazil came last year from Lovejoy, who knew Veras from their mutual work on a project to build an international database of slave biographies. Baquaqua’s story, Lovejoy said, “Allows teachers to have an example they can talk about at a level kids can understand. It’s no longer an abstract concept.”
The book will be released in Portuguese later this year. In August, Veras will launch a website to share information about Baquaqua, and he currently is leading workshops in Pernambuco state to help teachers incorporate the tale in their curricula. An artist in Bahia is helping illustrate a version of the story for children. Since 2003, Brazilian schools have been required by law to teach African studies, but scholars say there still isn’t enough material and expertise.
[This article was written for the Associated Press and edited by CIE.]