MENDE PEOPLE: SIERRA LEONE`S EDUCATED AND HIGHLY POLITICALLY-ORIENTED PEOPLE
Njaa ngla leweni wכ ndoma lכ woma. (Mende)
The dog was beaten by the rain because of love. (Literal English Translation)
Love is blind. (Figurative English Translation)
Mende (Sierra Leone) Proverb"Background, Explanation, Meaning and Everyday Use
A dog will not worry about going after his or her lover in the rain, however heavy that rain might be. This is seen more in the mating season. Among the Mende people in Sierra Leone this expression is used to tease someone who is deeply in love. Such a person will sacrifice personal liberties including one's livelihood just to keep a relationship to a lover.
Love between a man and a woman when intense can be seen in serious dimensions. A woman would not mind becoming pregnant if that is what sex with a husband-lover would imply. A direct parallel proverb to the above proverb can be rendered in English like this: "A woman will not mind becoming pregnant in the course of pleasing her lover." Our chosen proverb is a deeper version of this thought."
Mende people from Sierra Leone
Mende people are a sub-set of Mande-ethnolinguistic group which belong to the larger Niger-Congo phylum living mainly in Sierra Leone with a small representation in the neighbouring Liberia. The Mende is the second largest tribe after their neighbours and Sierra Leone`s aboriginals; the Temne people. Some people believe that both Mende and Temne have same population and together form the two largest tribes in Sierra Leone.
The Mende are predominantly found in the Southern Province and the Eastern Province, while the Temne are found primarily in the Northern Province and the Western Area, including the capital city of Freetown. Some of the major cities with significant Mende populations include Bo, Kenema, Kailahun and Moyamba.
The Mende are divided into two groups: The halemo are members of the hale or secret societies, and kpowa are people who have never been initiated into the hale. The Mende believe that all humanistic and scientific power is passed down through the secret societies.
Mende Man, Julius Maada Bio, former Head of State of Sierra Leone
The Mende people have a very interesting historical past. During the height of the slave trade, several Mende people groups were sold first to a Portuguese trader and later to the joint owners of a Cuban plantation. The Cuban slave owners tried to transport the Mende people to another part of Cuba aboard a slave ship called the Amistad. En route the Mende and other slaves mutinied and took control of the ship in hopes of being able to sail her back to Africa and freedom. Hampered by the remaining sailors, the Mende were captured by a U.S. Coast Guard vessel off of Long Island, New York. While the Cuban slave owners asserted that the Mende men were slaves and thus property, a Connecticut court pronounced them free and helped assist the Mende in getting back to their homeland.
Statue of Sengbe Pieh,hero of Amistad ship rebellion at New Haven,CT,USA
Sierra Leone's politics have been dominated by the Mende, on the one hand, and the Temne and their long-time political allies, the Limba, on the other. The Mende support the Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP), while the Temnes and Limbas support the All People's Congress party (APC).
The Vai people refer to Mende people as Huro or Wuro. Mende-speaking people occupy southern and eastern Sierra Leone, and there is a small group in Liberia. Their territory falls within the rain forest belt that spans West Africa. The terrain consists of fertile hills to the north; in the south and coastal areas there are plains and swamps. The narrow strip of coastland forms the western and southwestern boundary between the Mende and the Sherbro-Bullom, the Krim, and the Vai. The easternmost part of Sierra Leone and the northeast are populated by the Kissi and the Kron peoples, respectively. The Jong, Sewa, and Moa rivers flowing from the more hilly northern region of Sierra Leone intersect Mende territory in the west, center, and east.
Mende people. © by Chad Finer
Mende people speak Mende language. Mende (ˈmɛndi/ (Mɛnde yia) is a major language of Sierra Leone, with some speakers in neighboring Liberia. It is spoken by the Mende people and by other ethnic groups as a regional lingua franca in southern Sierra Leone.
Mende is a tonal language belonging to the Mande branch of the Niger–Congo language family. Early systematic descriptions of Mende were by F. W. Migeod and Kenneth Crosby.
Beautiful Mende lady from Sierra Leone
In 1921, Kisimi Kamara invented a syllabary for Mende he called Kikakui (Kikaku). The script achieved widespread use for a time, but has largely been replaced with an alphabet based on the Latin script, and the Mende script is considered a "failed script". The Bible was translated into Mende and published in 1959, in Latin script. Within Mende, three major dialect groups are distinguished: Kpa-Mende in the west, Sewa-Mende in the center, and Ko-Mende in the east.
It was used extensively in the movies Amistad and Blood Diamond.
The Mende people are descendants of the thirteenth-century Mali eipre that migrated from the Sudan (Mali empire) to settle in Sierra Leone. The oral traditions of the Mende tell of a peaceful migration into the area that may have spanned the period from 200 to 1500 AD. Linguistic and cultural traits suggest that the Mende are descendants of the thirteenth-century Mali Empire. Before the eighteenth century Mende territory did not extend to its present coastal areas, and territorial increase resulted from wars.
Mende man, Sir Milton Margai, Sierra Leone's first prime minister from 1961 to 1964.
Through wars and raids and subjugation and enslavement of other peoples, the Mende assimilated other groups, such as the Sherbro and the Vai. Mende cultural expansion and domination, referred to as "mendenization," continued through the colonial era, although more peacefully as Mende settlements spread in the trading areas. This geographic mobility explains aspects of Mende cultural diversity, particularly dialectic differences.
Cultural and physical differences among the Mende suggest that immigrants may have originated from more than one source. This could also be a result of intermarriage with the peoples who had already lived in the area. Artistic traditions link them closely to the coastal Bullom peoples, a phenomenon which most likely resulted from the Mende borrowing ideas they found to be useful in their own way as understood by the 'Mende People' website.
Ethnologists identify three different sub-groups. The Kpa-Mende live to the west in the coastal bush, while the Sewa Mende are in the central forests. The Ko-Mende (or Kolo Mende) also live in the forests but generally to the north of the Sewa. (Olson, 1996).
Mende people,Sierra Leone
Occupational activities as hunting, fishing, and agriculture favored the original settlements of small groups that eventually became villages and towns. A chiefdom consists of sections, with each section made up of a group of villages and towns. The ever-present possibility of attack favored placing houses close together behind a stockade. Traditional houses, usually with one story, were round or rectangular and were strongly built of wattle and mud daub with a palm thatch roof. A rectangular house usually has a veranda and two or three rooms. With the availability of cement and corrugated sheeting since the 1900s, most new houses in towns and some in remote villages have cement block walls and "pan" roof covering.
Mende people in Sierra Leone
Subsistence. The Mende are an agricultural people who engage in gardening around their homes and rice farming in the outer lands. Rice is the staple crop, and community life is organized around its production, storage, and distribution. Supplementary food crops include cassava, yams, sesame, and millet. Palm nuts are harvested for vegetable oil, and raffia palms are tapped for wine. Garden crops include chili peppers, eggplant, and tomatoes. Families raise some poultry and keep domestic animals for meat. Fishing is done mainly in the three large rivers that intersect the Mende territory.
Mende women making palm oil
In the local markets families sell excess food products and buy those they lack. Traders buy salt, cocoa, coffee, ginger, groundnuts, and kola nuts. Other market products are palm oil, palm kernels, palm wine, and raffia. Commercial activities have increased as towns and urban markets have grown, and a variety of new products, including imported materials, have become available. Some trading towns originated with the development of railroads and motor roads. The hawking of food and a variety of small items at the parks and stations has become a popular commercial practice to supplement family income.
Mende elder in Mende village
Craft products include various forms of earthenware, clothes, mats, twine, and brooms. Blacksmiths produce hoes, machetes, and other iron implements. Implements associated with fishing are nets, hooks, and dugout canoes. Sculpted objects include masks used for initiation ceremonies, ritual objects such as icons of spiritual entities, and "medicine" objects. There are various musical instruments, including drums, wooden xylophones, other stringed instruments, and decorated gourd rattlers. Stringed beads and shell rattlers are worn by dancers.
Traditonally, the commodities traded were essentially agricultural products: rice, coffee, and palm oil. Other important items of trade were implements and objects used for farming and fishing. These products were exported to northern neighbors, who supplied beef and beef products and salt to the Mende. Before the introduction of a cash economy, trade was local and was carried out by the simple exchange of products. Trading activities later expanded to involve most of the neighboring areas and farther regions and to include salt, gold, and diamonds.
Division of Labor
Rice farming is central in the economy, and men, women, and children contribute labor to the family farm. Clearing the land of vegetation in preparation for farming is typically "men's work." In a large household the senior wife organizes the junior women for rice planting and cooking food for the work group. It is women's job to thresh, clean, and parboil rice.
Mende woman tossing rice
Young men also engage in rice planting and build fences to protect the farm from rats. Children help with weeding. Men climb palms to cut the fruit and tap wine, and women collect the fruit and press the oil. Women fish the inland rivers and spin thread, and men engage in weaving and blacksmithing. Today many men leave the village to work in mines. Both men and women engage in clerical, professional, and trading activities, but most domestic chores are still done by women.
Coretta Scott King, has Mende ancestry:http://www.africanancestry.com/blog/category/reveals/
The paramount chief is the principal custodian of all the land in the chiefdom. He is assisted in administering it by elders who are the descendants of the settlers who first cultivated the land. A first land cultivator gained the right of occupation, which was inherited by his descendants after his death. The paramount chief, the chiefs, and the subchiefs exercise land ownership authority; the rest of the people in the community are landholders with only temporary rights of personal occupation and use of land. When his need for it ceases, the land used by a landholder reverts to the community.
Kin Groups and Descent. The basic kinship institution is the household mawe. A man and his wives and children constitute a small household. A large household may have two or more adults with consanguinous kinship, their wives and children, and relatives such as mothers and sisters.
A household is patrilineal as well as patrilocal, and wives become members of the household through marriage. Male siblings and their wives and children settle in compounds (kuwui). Leadership of a compound is inherited by the oldest male in the lineage. Several compounds and the households of slaves constitute a village, and an aggregation of villages makes up a town. Towns and villages make up a section of a chiefdom.
Mende people. © by Chad Finer
Kinship Terminology. Mende kinship involves a bifurcated merging pattern with Iroquois patrilineal cousin terminology. Parents have the same kin terms as some uncles and aunts, and other relatives are terminologically distinguished from parents. Collateral uncles and aunts are well distinguished, whereas parallel cousins are classed together.
Mende Kamajors tribal hunters
Marriage and Family
Marriage. Marriage is usually exogamous and patrilocal. Young men who have reached maturity and can provide bride-wealth and women past adolescence are eligible for marriage. Marriage is a sign of social progress, and celibacy is considered an anomaly. Marriage can be contracted at a very early age, but its consummation requires initiation into the poro society for a man and the sande society for a woman. Polygyny is a popular practice that enhances a man's social prestige. It enables the man to take care of his sexual needs when one wife is breast-feeding a baby and sexual intercourse with her is forbidden. Economically, polygyny provides labor for rice farming and other "women's work," such as domestic chores, running cottage industries, and participating in trading. The senior wife, who enjoys respect from the junior wives and is her husband's confidant, is responsible for organizing the other wives for work. Thus, marriage is an agricultural asset as well as a capital investment. Divorce traditionally was not common, but exceptional circumstances could lead the husband to dissolve the marriage and demand a refund of the bride-wealth. These circumstances included desertion, compulsive infidelity, insulting the husband's parents, and practicing witchcraft or sorcery. Persistent abuse by a husband could lead to divorce when the relatives of the woman demanded her return to their family. After a divorce children usually remain with their father if they are past the age of breast-feeding.
The mawe, consisting of a husband, his wives, their children, and the husband's parents, constitutes a basic domestic, social, and farming unit. The numerical composition of the household can vary to include more older men and grandchildren, and the smaller conjugal unit of a man and his wife and children is not considered typical. The domestic unit provides food and shelter for the members, and serves as the primary institution of education, bringing up children and teaching them the values and techniques of Mende culture.
In traditional Mende society land is the principal item of inheritance, and since land holding is house-hold-based, the patrilineal form of inheritance is prevalent. After a man's death the immediate heirs to his land are his brothers in order of age. His sons come next and then his daughters. In the absence of brothers, sons, and daughters, a matrilinial nephew becomes the heir.
Kamajor Tribal Hunters
In the civil war prior to the 1992 coup, the Kamajors organised themselves into self defence units and protected villages and towns against attack by the rebels and rogue units of the nation's army. They often provided the only reliable defence. | Location: Kamajors, Sierra Leone.01 April 1996,Jon Spaull
After the nephew's death the land reverts to the descendants of the original owners. Since the introduction of a Western legal system, this practice has been challenged, and sometimes sons claim their father's land from their paternal uncles.
Mothers are the principal agents in child rearing, beginning with breast-feeding. If the mother becomes very sick, any other relative with milk can take over. Usually tied to the back with lappa, a large piece of cloth, children are carried by the mother as she works.
Older siblings act as baby-sitters. Through imitation children learn the names and proper addresses and titles of their relatives. There is a popular practice of sending children of about the age of six to distant relatives, who are more strict than parents in teaching them about household chores, general responsibilities, and good behavior. At about age thirteen girls and boys are ready to be initiated into the sande and poro societies. The initiation process is the traditional place where young people learn cultural mores and prepare for adult life as wives and husbands. In spite of Western education, initiation is still carried out, sometimes in modified forms.
Social Organization. At the apex of Mende social institutions is the ruling class, which consists of the paramount chief, a descendant of the founder of the territory. The paramount chief enjoys the highest social recognition, and the section chiefs are subordinate to him. Village and town heads are respected for their age and leadership in their lineages.
Mende Sande initiate
Secret, ritual, and medical societies such as humui, Njayei, poro and sande play vital roles in the maintenance and transmission of societal norms and values. Initiation and marriage confer special status and recognition. The family or household is the basic social and productive unit and plays the primary group role. The individual also relates to the kindred, lineage, village, and town in graded order of rights and obligations. Men who have wealth through successful rice cultivation and are married to several women have a distinguished recognition as "big men" and represent a distinct social stratum.
A section, consisting of a town and villages, is the basic political unit. Political leadership resides with the section chief or sub-chief, who usually is the oldest person and the most suitable in the male line, the descendant of a victorious warrior and founder of the settlement. Women also can be chiefs. A paramount chief rules over several sections.
Mende Chief and his sub-chiefs
Political claims are also based on being a descendant of the founder of the territory or chiefdom. The paramount chief governs with the assistance of a council consisting of a speaker, subchiefs, title holders, and village heads. The chief and the council exercise political and judicial powers. They make decisions on matters of public interest, adjudicate land disputes, and punish lawbreakers. The social duty of the poro society traditionally included the maintenance of law and order in the chiefdom. Since the late nineteenth century Mende political culture has been influenced by Western systems, as in the institution of the "bench," whose members serve as jurors.
Accusations of witchcraft are a major source of conflict and social tension in traditional Mende society. Other accusations may derive from medical malpractice or sorcery, sexual offences, dispute over inheritance, and other situations likely to endanger communal values.
Mende girl with a baby. © by Chad Finer
To maintain communal values or assure conformity and to guarantee that tendencies toward dangerous forms of individualism and aggressive behavior are brought under control, Mende culture has customs, rules, standards, morals, and sanctions. The family and the secret societies are schools where young people learn these cultural values. Mechanism of social control is exemplified in heads of groups entrusted with authority to deal with domestic disputes, the native court under the chief, and religious specialists who prescribe and supervise rituals for redressing individual or group violations.
Mende woman and her baby
For much of their history from the sixteenth until the early eighteenth century the Mende were aggressors against their neighbors: the Bullom-Sherbro, Vai, and Gola. Mende fighters participated in the wars and revolts of the colonial period, which ended in 1961 with the independence of Sierra Leone. The civil war in Liberia in early 1990 brought many Liberian Mende into Sierra Leone as refugees, and many of their settlements were in Mende territory.
In the Sierra Leone civil war, after the overthrow of Ahmed Tejan Kabbah's government by Major Jonny Paul Koroma in May 1997, Mende involvement was pronounced. The civil war, besides having colonial roots, also resulted from diverse group interests, especially in controlling the diamond business. Kamajors, the reputed traditional hunters, who are mostly Mende, made up the major part of the Revolutionary United Front's army that fought against government forces. With the intervention of Nigerian-led international troops and British and United Nations forces, fighting subsided in 2001. Pockets of anti-government forces still exist in the forests and continue to threaten the fragile cease-fire.
Mende girl drinking water from a bore-hole tap
Religious Beliefs. Ngewo, the supreme being in Mende religion, is the creator of the universe and everything in it. After creating the world, Ngewo went up to heaven and rarely intervenes directly in human affairs, although nothing good or evil can happen without his permission.
'Sehgura players, Sierra Leone - The Sehgura is a small hollow gourd covered loosely by a netting of country-grown cotton, upon which are strung split hard shells of seeds. The long end of the netting is held in the left hand and the short neck of the gourd in the right. The sound is caused by the hard seeds striking the gourd, and can be modulated at will by the netting being relaxed or tightened'
Ancestral spirits are venerated, and prayers to Ngewo are channeled through them. Other categories of natural, occupational, and evil spirits (Ngafanga) exist. Through sacrifices and other rituals, often conducted by specialists, people propitiate the spirits and ask for their protection and blessings. Mende traditional religion has declined since the advent of Western Christianity. A current religious feature is an eclectic tendency to mix elements of traditional religion with those of Christianity.
Mende Bondo devil
In a variety of functions and situations individuals and groups relate to halei (power), which is connected with Ngewo. Most religious functions are hereditary, but the spirit that superintends any function must establish through signs that the individual has a calling. Priests of the various nature and occupational deities offer sacrifices to them and through them to Ngewo. Diviners are traditional diagnosticians of illness and misfortune and see beyond the present and interpret omens. The healing doctor also exercises priestly functions in ritual healing. He prepares protective charms against the harmful activities of angry or malevolent spirits and their agents. Other ritual societies conduct special rituals for the healing of particular types of wounds and to cleanse the land of defilements. Among the religious specialists are the leaders of secret societies, who exercise some religious roles during the initiation of their members.
Birth ceremonies, which take several forms, announce the arrival of new members of the community. They often require sacrifices to the deity through whose benevolence the child is born. The poro and sande initiation ceremonies are educational and are arranged in stages for the ordered maturing of young people.
Mende Sande secret society initiates
Marriage ceremonies involve community participation and are essential for conjugal prosperity and stability. Rituals of farm work procure blessings of fertility and prosperity for the crops and purify the farm of any defilements resulting from the violation of taboos. There are ceremonies for the installation of chiefs and for judicial procedures in the courts. Other ceremonies pertain to initiation of the members of "medicine societies" and the efficacy of their work. The rite of "crossing the water" is part of the final rite of passage, performed as a funerary rite to ensure ancestral status for the deceased. Ancestors are remembered with ceremonies involving prayers and sacrifices; the "red rice" ceremony is used to appease their anger.
The greatest sins a Mende man can commit is to give away the secrets of their tribe. The Poro society is the male equivalent to the Sande society. When inducted into this society, Mende boys are initiated into manhood. Many of their rituals parallel those of the Sande society.
Poro secret society
The Poro prepares men for leadership in the community, so they might attain wisdom, accept responsibility, and gain power. It begins with the child's grade of discovery, followed by extensive training and service. During the seven-year initiation period, the young men converse with each other using a secret language and passwords, known only to other Poro members. The member always knows and understands what is being said. This is part of the mystery of this secret society.
Mende poro devil
At the beginning, young men aged 20 are called into the society and are trained by the group above them, along with a few elders. There is much work to be done during the initiation process. Dancing the masks is part of this work, but not the most important part. Only through work does the dance of the mask become meaningful.
All Mende women when they reach puberty begin the initiation process into the Sande society. The goals of this secret society are to teach young Mende women the responsibilities of adulthood. The girls are taught to be hard working and modest in their behavior, especially towards their elders. Sande influences every aspect of a Mende woman's life; it is present before birth and still present after.
Black and white photographic print showing four young women, initiated into the Sande society, wearing traditional hair styles which bare resemblance to those depicted on many Sowei masks. One girl has her face painted, two other girls have scarification marks over their forehead and stomach. All the girls also bear similar body adornment, or jewellery, across the chest and round the neck. Written in pencil on the back of the image is Fig. 63, p.211 / Bundu [Sande] girls, Vassa Country . Published as Figure 63 in T. J. Alldridge, 1901, The Sherbro and Its Hinterland )
Sande is the guardian of women; their protector and guide through life. It is Sande that grants a woman with an identity and a personality. The Sande society is concerned with defining what it is to be human and of discovering the ways of promoting love, justice, and harmony. It is a moral philosophy that focuses on the perpetual refinement of the individual.
Mende Sande initiate, Sierra Leone
Sande leaders serve as models to women in the community. They exemplify the highest of Mende ideals, and they have the duty of enforcing positive social relationships and of removing any harm that might come to women in their community. "This is Sande; women together in their womanhood, in a free exchange of words and actions among sisters. Where ever two or three women are gathered together, there is the spirit of Sande."
A young Mende Sande (Bondu) girl all dressed in white and with clay dried on her skin. © by Chad Finer
Sande groups conduct masked performances that embody the Sande guardian spirit, who is associated with water and rivers. Descriptions of the society and its masquerade events have been made by visitors since the seventeenth century.
Mende Sande (Bondo) initiates and Mende Devil. © by Chad Finer
The Sande society is organized by a hierarchy a number of positions all around. The sowie are the highest-ranking leaders of the group. It is their job to model to the Mende women the most important of Mende social values. It is also their duty to enforce proper social relationships and to remove anything that might be harmful to the women in their community.
Bondo Leader (in Mende Sowei) Mama Hokey (on right) with Bondo Devil. Mama Hawa is on left. Moiyatu is behind and partially obscured by Mama Hokey. This photo was taken in the back of #55 Dama Road in 1970. © by Chad Finer
The sowie have control over certain sacred knowledge that is essential to the development of success and happiness in an individual, and also to the well-being of the community. They are the experts of the Sande women and have access to spirit ancestors and forces of nature.
Mende Sande (Bondu) elders following Bondo devil. © by Chad Finer
The rank below sowie is ligba. There are two grades within ligba; Ligba Wa (senior) and Ligba Wulo (junior). In any group there is only one Ligba Wa, she is an executive officer in Sande. Before a woman can take a leadership role in artistic activities she must be eligible at least as a Ligba Wulo.
Mama Hokey on the left in the red docket (blouse) and green head dress leading as the Kendwi Devil is paraded around Tokpombu.
© by Chad Finer
An ordinary member is referred to as nyaha. The word indicates that the Sande initiation makes a woman of a child, and every woman into a wife. An initiate in training is called mbogdoni. A non-member is kpowa. As a noun kpowa means "an ignoramus, stupid, retarded, a fool" as a verb it means "to become insane or deranged.
Mama Hokey on the left in the red docket (blouse) and green head dress leading as the Kendwi Devil is paraded around Tokpombu.
© by Chad Finer
Much Mandé art is in the form of jewelry and carvings. The masks associated with the fraternal and sorority associations of the Marka and the Mendé are probably the best-known, and finely crafted in the region. The Mandé also produce beautifully woven fabrics which are popular throughout western Africa, and gold and silver necklaces, bracelets, armlets, and earrings.
Nomali figure of Mende people
The bells on the necklaces are of the type believed capable of being heard by spirits, ringing in both worlds, that of the ancestors and the living.
Mandé hunters often wear a single bell that can be easily silenced when stealth is necessary. Women, on the other hand, often wear multiple bells, referring to concepts of community, since the bells ring harmoniously together.
Mende female figure
Masks are the collective Mind of Mende community; viewed as one body, they are the Spirit of the Mende people.
The Mende masked figures are a reminder that human beings have a dual existence; they live in the concrete world of flesh and material things and the spirit world of dreams, faith, aspirations and imagination.
The features of a Mende mask convey Mende ideals of female morality and physical beauty.
They are unusual because the masks are worn by women. The bird on top of the head represents a woman's natural intuition that lets her see and know things that others can't. The high or broad forehead represents good luck or the sharp, contemplative mind of the ideal Mende woman. Downcast eyes symbolize a spiritual nature and it is through these small slits that a woman wearing the mask would look out of. The small mouth signifies the ideal woman's quiet and humble character.
Mende helmet mask
The markings on the cheeks are representative of the decorative scars girls receive as they step into womanhood. The scars are a symbol of her new, harder life. The neck rolls are an indication of the health of an ideal women. They have also been called symbols of the pattern of concentric, circular ripples the Mende spirit makes when emerging from the water. In the Mende culture full-figured women are beautiful.
Mende mask showing intricate hairstyle
The intricate hairstyles reveal the close ties within a community of women. The holes at the base of the mask are where the rest of the costume is attached. A woman who wears these masks must not expose any part of her body or a vengeful spirit may take possession of her. Women often cover their bodies with masses of raffia or black cloth.
When a girl becomes initiated into the Sande society, the village's master woodcarver creates a special mask just for her. Helmet masks are made from a section of tree trunk, often of the kpole (cotton) tree, and then carved and hollowed to fit over the wearer’s head and face. The woodcarver must wait until he has a dream that guides him to make the mask a certain way for the recipient. A mask must be kept hidden in a secret place when no one is wearing it.
Mende sowei mask
These masks appear not only in initiation rituals but also at important events such as funerals, arbitrations and the installation of chiefs. Examples of these masks appear in museums.Various Mende masks, specifically Sowei Masks, were the focus of a 2013 exhibition in the British Museum, exploring the Sowei traditions.
Sande secret society mask
Learning dance is a harsh discipline that every Mende girl must tackle. Girls practice for hours at a time until they drop from exhaustion. Ndoli jowei, the expert in dancing, is in charge of teaching young Mende girls to dance.
Mende Girls performing traditional dance. Source michaelwuitchik
When girls make a mistake in the steps, they are whipped with a switch until they get it right. Often girls are awoken in the middle of the night to practice the dance; sometimes they are forced to stay awake for nearly 48 hours dancing almost the entire time. By the end of their brutal training, the girls have transformed into young woman who are tough and confident even in the harshest of conditions. They are in great physical shape and have endurance and stamina.
The Mende Bondo initiation Danceat Foindu Nongowa. © by Chad Finer
Gonde is also a Ndoli jowei, but rather than the harsh enforcer she is the comic relief. Gonde becomes a friend to the initiates, amusing them to help them forget the hard ordeals they are going through. She coaches the girls who are slow in dancing, encouraging the girls to work hard. "Gonde is a funny, lovable character who lightens the gloom and reminds everyone that Sande is not always so deadly serious."
The Sande (Bondo) spirit or devil dances with a few women from the village as others watch, Tokpombu in the Nongowa Chiefdom,Sierra Leone. 1969 © by Chad Finer
Ndoli jowei is the principal spirit for celebration, although she also appears on other occasions besides celebrations. In Sande initiation there are three major events in which the ndoli jowei appear publicly. The first occurs 1–3 days after the initiates have been taken into the bush to be circumcised. This event is known as yaya gbegbi. At this time the ndoli jowei comes into town with a group of Sande women while the initiates stay in the bush recovering from their operations. The women come into town to tell men they have initiated people into Sande. They go through the town waving leaves and gathering food and other supplies that they need. Ndoli jowei does not dance on this occasion because it is not yet time for celebration. She is there only as a reminder of the powerful medicine which has been summoned by the Sande session. This validates the unruly behavior of the Sande women. The next time ndoli jowei appears is at a minor feast called Kpete gbula yombo le or Sowo mba yili gbi. At this occasion, an announcement is made to inform people of the date for the gani celebration; which is the last event of the Sande initiation that ndoli jowei appears at. At this time, the new initiates are brought into town for the first time since the initiation process began; accompanied by ndoli jowei. This is a happy occasion where dances are performed by both the maskers and the initiates.
Mende Sande Secret Society initiates dancing. Courtesy michaelwuitchik
Hojo is a white clay that Mende women use to mark their territory. The clay comes from the water like many other aspects of Sande. Its smooth, shiny surface reflects light, making it eye-catching. Hojo is found in a scale of colors from beige to pure white. The pure white Hojo is more rare, found only deep beneath the surface of the water. Hojo and Sande are parallel in that they are both well hidden and secretive in its purest form.
Sande (Bondo) initiates. agustinosrecoletos.
White is the color of Sande. To the Mende, the pureness of white signifies the cleanliness and absence of imperfections. "It shows a 'harmlessness'; it is void of all things satanic and is thus 'a positive and helpful color. White is symbolic of the spirit world and also of the secret parts of society where people aim for the highest standards.
Newly initiated Sande (Bondo) Secret society girl with her body painted with white clay.© by Chad Finer
Objects and people who are marked with Hojo are under Sande protection and control. They are subject to authority of Sande law and punishment. Initiates are colored with this white clay to show that they are property of Sande. This signifies that they are under the protection of Sande and should not be fooled with. Sowei, the judge of women, wears white to represent clear thinking and justice.
Throwing cowries to determine the name of the mask
A woman's hair is a sign of femininity. Both thickness and length are elements that are admired by the Mende. Thickness means the woman has more individual strands of hair and the length is proof of strength. It takes time, care and patience to grow a beautiful, full head of hair. Ideas about hair root women to nature, the way hair grows is compared to the way forests grow.
School girl with her Mende hairstyle. © by Chad Finer
The vegetation on earth is the "hair" on the head of Mother Nature in the same way the hair on the head of a woman is her "foliage." (Boone) A woman with long, thick hair illustrates a life force, she may be blessed with a green thumb giving her the ability to have a promising farm and many healthy children.
Mende woman with her beautiful hairstyle
Hairstyles are very important in Mende society. A Mende woman's hair must be well groomed, clean, and oiled. Hair must be tied down under strict control and shaped into intricate, elegant styles for the sake of beauty and sex appeal. Dirty, disheveled hair is a sign of insanity. A woman who does not groom and maintain her hair has neglected the community's standards of behavior. Only a woman in mourning can let her hair loose. The Mende finds unarranged "wild" hair immoral and connects it to wild behavior.
Sande (bondo) Devil. Girl with Sande society hairstyle. © by Chad Finer
A key element of Sande initiation is the clitoridectomy, or female circumcision. This surgery is supposed to foreshadow the pain a Mende woman experiences during childbirth. The shock of this experience also tests a Mende woman's physical endurance. The shared pain of the clitoridectomy creates permanent bonds among the initiates. Vows that express a social bond are taken after the operation; these vows are a metaphor for the support the women will have during the pains of childbirth.
Girls for initiation. agustinosrecoletos.
This procedure is considered necessary to change Mende children, who are considered to be of neutral sex before the procedure, to heterosexual, gendered adults. Circumcision is thought to remove the female's residue of maleness.
The neck rings at the base of the mask are an exaggeration of actual neck creases. Mende people consider a beautiful neck to be one with rings: they are a sign of beauty because they suggest wealth, high status, and are sexually attractive. The rings indicate prosperity and wholesome living, and are given by God to show his affection for a fortunate few. As well, the rings indicate a relationship with the divine: the Sowo itself is a deity from the waters, and the neck rings represent the concentric waves that are formed on still water by Sowo's head breaking through the surface. The spirit comes from the water, and what the human eye sees on the necks of women "is human in form, but divine in essence", as portrayed in the mask.
Mende Sande secret society women showing necklace
Medicine. The halei (medicine man) and several "medicine societies" deal with illness, which can have physical or spiritual causes. The spiritual causes include individual moral deficiencies and the malevolent activities of spirits and their agents. The diviner discovers the cause of an illness or misfortune. The medicine man or healing doctor prepares medicines and administers them. Medicines are prepared from herbs and other natural substances. Protective medicine can consist of charms and inoculation with "power substances." When medicine is prepared and consecrated, it is believed to be impregnated with efficacy. Since the advent of scientific medicine and Christianity in Mende society, the use of traditional medicine has been on the decline, especially in towns and cities.
Death and Afterlife
Death is often imputed to witchcraft or activities of spirits and their agents. However, death in old age is accepted as natural, and inquiries into other causes are not necessary. Natural death is not considered a calamity, but the death of a young person is considered a "bad death."
Based on the status of the deceased and the gender, different funerary rites apply. The rites of passage ensure that a dead person who has the moral qualifications "crosses the river" and becomes an ancestor. Ancestors continue to live as spirits and their earthly relatives keep their memory alive in rituals.
The Mende are a well-documented example of a non-western, pre-industrial society in which, at least historically, women were not politically subordinate to men. In the pre-colonial era, the Mende had female chiefs and war leaders.
Mende Bondo secret society women of Sierra Leone. Circa 1970. © by Chad Finer
One such female chief, Madam Yoko (1849–1906), was the leader of the vast Kpa Mende Confederacy. She was formally recognized by the British as a Paramount Chief in 1894, ruling an area that was eventually divided into fourteen chiefdoms. Although it is impossible to know the extent to which other Mende women rose to leadership positions comparable to Madam Yoko's, historians believe that perhaps fifteen to twenty percent of the local leaders with whom the British negotiated at the time of colonial consolidation were women. The pattern continues to this day. According to MacCormack, "Contemporary women paramount chiefs are equally prominent, and their political influence now extends into national and international arenas. In 1988, thirteen of the 146 paramount chiefs were female."
The Yassi Society (1900)- The Yassi is a society professedly for women, but it does not object to giving "medicinal treatment" to men of the Poro order. The Minseri images through which the spells are worked are kept in the Yassi hut, which is not in the bush but in the town or village. With them is kept the special Yassi medicine, in the presence of which the prophetess of the society has to be uncovered. In the centre of the above illustration the Yassi drum can be seen, and on the left three Kambehs, or members of the second degree'
MacCormack further notes, "There is a tendency in Western culture to define women as weak and needing protection, since they bear children. In West Africa the same biological facts are given a different cultural interpretation. The bearing of children demonstrates that women are strong and active agents in a society, capable of holding political office." Lynda Rose Day, another authority on Mende female chiefs, writes that "Women rise naturally to leadership positions when they are senior wives in large polygynous households, when they are the oldest living relatives of a large landholding descent group, or when they are heads of local Sande chapters. Mothers with many children are seen as strong, capable authority figures."
It is well known in Sierra Leone that the Mendes, along with the Krios and Sherbros, are educationists. They are considered to favor learning than doing business. To them, education comes first. They are also known to command respect and possess leadership qualities. The politics of Sierra Leone have traditionally been dominated by the Mende. The Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP), which is one of the two major political party in the country, is predominantly based among the Mende people. The SLPP gets most of its support in Mende- predominate south-east region of Sierra Leone. Most of the country's top government positions have been held by the Mende. Sierra Leone's first Prime minister Sir Milton Margai, who led the country to independence from the United Kingdom on April 27, 1961 was a prominent member of the Mende ethnic group.
Mende man, Sir Milton Margai, Sierra Leone's first prime minister from 1961 to 1964, dancing with Queen Elizabeth in Freetown,Sierra Leone in 1961 when the Queen visited
Other prominent Sierra Leonean politicians from the Mende ethnic group include the country's second prime minister Sir Albert Margai, who was also the younger brother of Milton Margai; former commander of the Republic of Sierra Leone Armed Forces and former Sierra Leone's head of state Brigadier David Lansana; former Head of State of Sierra Leone Brigadier General Julius Maada Bio; former Sierra Leone's vice president Albert Joe Demby; former Sierra Leone's vice president and attorney general Solomon Berewa; former Sierra Leone's vice president minister of Justice and Attorney General Francis Minah; former Sierra Leone's attorney general and one of the founding members of the Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP) Banja Tejan-Sie. Samuel Hinga Norman, who was Sierra Leone's minister of Defense and former leader of the militant group the Civil Defense Forces (commonly known as the Kamajors). Sierra Leonean politician Charles Margai, who is the leader of one of the country's main opposition party the People's Movement for Democratic Change (PMDC). He is also the son of former prime minister Albert Margai and the nephew of Milton Margai; and former Sierra Leone's minister of finance John Oponjo Benjamin, who is currently the National Leader of the Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP)
(Story of a Mende Song)
Producer/Directors: Alvaro Toepke and Angel Serrano
Spain, 1998, 52 minutes
In English and Mende with subtitles
The story begins in the early 1930s with Lorenzo Turner, an African American linguist who cataloged more than 3,000 names and words of African origin among the Gullah people of coastal South Carolina and Georgia. Turner also made the spectacular discovery that some Gullahs could recite texts in African languages handed down for generations. Among these linguistic gems, Turner’s widow recalls, he especially cherished a five-line song that he learned from Amelia Dawley, a woman from a remote Georgia fishing village. Although Amelia did not know which language the song was in, a Sierra Leonean graduate student in the United States recognized it as Mende, his native tongue. Amelia’s song is almost certainly the longest text in an African language known to have been preserved by a black family in the United States.
These dramatic clues were taken up again in the 1980s by Joseph Opala, an American anthropologist lecturing at Sierra Leone’s Fourah Bay College. Studying Bunce Island, an 18th century British slave castle in Sierra Leone, Opala discovered that it sent many of its African captives to South Carolina and Georgia where American rice planters were willing to pay high prices for slaves from the African “Rice Coast,” including Sierra Leone. The modern Gullah people, the descendants of those rice-growing slaves, have preserved more of their African culture than any other black community in the United States. In 1989, Opala helped organize a gala Homecoming by a Gullah group anxious to meet their long-lost brothers and sisters in Sierra Leone. That moving journey was documented in an earlier California newsreel release, Family Across the Sea.
Realizing history and linguistics were pointing the same way — toward a link between Sierra Leone and the Gullah — Opala turned to American ethnomusicologist Cynthia Schmidt to help him find Turner’s recording of Dawley’s song. Obtaining it from a music archive in the United States, they presented a copy to a Sierra Leone music group that performed it for the Homecoming group and their African hosts. Both were astonished that a song in Mende had come from coastal Georgia. Then, after the Homecoming, Opala, Schmidt and Sierra Leonean linguist Tazieff Koroma set out to find Amelia’s song in Sierra Leone. “If it came from Mende country 200 years ago,” Opala says, “then the question was: Would it still exist there today? Would we be able to find it in Mende country today?”
Their task was formidable. The Mende are the largest ethnic group in Sierra Leone, numbering in the millions, but fortunately Koroma recognized a dialect word in the song, pointing to a specific area. The researchers played the recording in village after village, but after no one recognized it, they were at the point of giving up. Then, Schmidt found a woman named Baindu Jabati in the remote interior village of Senehun Ngola. Jabati knew a song with strikingly similar lyrics, an ancient Mende funeral dirge performed during a graveside ceremony called teijami, or “crossing the river.” “Her grandmother taught her the song,” she said, “a women’s song, as birth and death rites are women’s responsibilities in Mende culture.” Jabati’s grandmother had made the uncanny prediction that there would be a homecoming in their village one day, a return of lost family, and that the old funeral song would link them to their returned kinsmen.
Recognizing that the song “could mean a great deal to someone in America,” as Schmidt says, she and Opala traveled to Georgia in 1990 where, with the help of a member of the Homecoming group, they found Amelia’s daughter, Mary Moran, then 69. To their relief, Mary still knew the old song that, in the context of American plantation life, had become a play song mothers sang for their small children. Thus, there was change, but also continuity — the song had passed down through women on both sides. A second Homecoming was planned, but had to be postponed because of Sierra Leone’s devastating rebel war that left millions homeless, including Baindu, herself. Finally, Mary and her family arrived in Sierra Leone in 1997, and after a painful visit to Bunce Island, were received with jubilation in Senehun Ngola.
To mark the occasion, Baindu and the other village women recreated the ancient teijami ceremony, which had not been performed in Senehun Ngola since about 1920, when Islam and Christianity took root in the area. Although Baindu knew the old song, she relied on 90-year-old blind chief Nabi Jah to show her how the funeral ceremony, of which the song was a part, was originally performed. Mary’s homecoming was, thus, a catalyst for Mende people to rediscover their own past. When Opala asked Nabi Jah why a Mende woman exiled 200 years ago would have taken that particular song to America, and not another, he said the answer was obvious. “It was the most valuable thing she could take,” he said. “Just by singing it, it would connect her to all her ancestors who were buried with it in Africa and to their continued blessings.” Then he quoted a Mende proverb: “You know who a person really is by the language they cry in.”
The Language You Cry In shows the great benefits of multi-disciplinary research, in this case involving history, linguistics, anthropology, and ethnomusicology. It is also a striking example of scholars working with their informants as colleagues. The “research subjects,” African and American, were not just observed, but actively recruited into researching and interpreting their own history as a “usable past.” Meaning, thus, emerged from the deliberate clash of present and past. As we watch Mary and Baindu reunited in a tearful rendition of the ancient song they share, we realize what 20th century scholarship and media technology can contribute to restoring family bonds seemingly shattered forever by the Middle Passage and African Diaspora.
Ah wakuh muh monuh kambay yah lee luh lay kah
Ha suh wileego seehai yuh gbangah lilly
Ha suh wileego dwelin duh kwen
Ha suh willeego seehi yuh kwendaiyah
the grave is not yet finished; let his heart be perfectly at peace.
Everyone come together, let us work hard;
the grave is not yet finished; let his heart be at peace at once.
Sudden death commands everyone’s attention,
like a firing gun.
Sudden death commands everyone’s attention,
oh elders, oh heads of the family.
Sudden death commands everyone’s attention,
like a distant drum beat.
Mende woman, Mariama Elaiza Webby, Sierra Leonean model
Madam Yoko or Mammy Yoko (ca. 1849–1906was a leader of the Mende people in Sierra Leone. Combining advantageous lineage, shrewd marriage choices and the power afforded her from the secret Sande society, Yoko became a leader of considerable influence. She expanded the Mende Kingdom and at the time of her death, she was the ruler of the vast Kpa Mende Confederacy.
Madam Yoko, originally called Soma, was born around 1849 in the Gbo Chiefdom. She changed her name to Yoko at her Sande initiation ceremony, during which time she became known for her graceful dancing. Yoko's first marriage, which was unsuccessful, was to a man named Gongoima. After leaving Gongoima, Yoko's second husband was Gbenjei, Chief of Taiama. Although Yoko remained childless, Gbenjei made her his great wife, giving her economic power within her household.
Following Gbenjei's death, Yoko married Gbanya Lango. In 1875, Gbanya was detained by British colonial officials in Taiamawaro. Yoko went directly to Governor Rowe to appeal for her husband's release. Rowe was impressed with Yoko's appeal and Gbanya was flogged, and then released. Following this incident, Gbanya made Yoko his great wife and began sending her on diplomatic missions. With the Sande, Yoko was able to wield significant power, not only amongst women, but Mende society as a whole. As a leader in this women's secret society, she made political alliances and took younger initiates as "wards" — later marrying them into other aristocratic lineages in an imitation of the trajectory of her own rise to power. In 1878, following her third husband's death, Yoko became the chief of Senehun. By 1884 she was officially recognised as "Queen of Senehun". This recognition came not only from her own people, but also from the British. She died in 1906, rumoured to have committed suicide. Having no descendants of her own, she was succeeded by her brother Lamboi
THE AMISTAD REVOLT (CASE OF SENGBE PIEH AND OTHERS)
In 1839, slaves aboard a ship called the Amistad revolted to secure their freedom while being transported from one Cuban port to another. Their leader was Sengbe Pieh, a young Mende man, but popularly known in United States history as Joseph Cinque. The slaves had been kidnapped mostly from the neighborhood of the Colony of Sierra Leone and sold to Spanish slavers. They eventually received their freedom in 1841, after two years’ internment in the United States awaiting the verdict of the courts regarding their “revolt.” This was the celebrated Amistad Case, an episode far better known in the United States than on the other side of the Atlantic. But the incident had a far-reaching impact on both sides, influencing the course of American history and especially the development of Afro-American culture, while, in Sierra Leone, leading to the inauguration of American missionary activity that trained many of the elite group that led the
nationalist movement to achieve independence from colonial rule.
CAPTURE AND ENSLAVEMENT
Sengbe Pieh, the hero in this episode, was born about 1813 in the town of Mani in Upper Mende country, a distance of ten days’ march from the Vai or Gallinas coast. Said to have been the son of a local chief, he was married with a son and two daughters. Sengbe, a farmer, was going to his field one day in late January 1839 when he was captured in a surprise attack by four men, his right hand tied to his neck. He was taken to a nearby village where he passed three days with a man called Mayagilalo, apparently the boss of his captors. Indebted to the son of the Vai King Manna Siaka, Mayagilalo gave over Sengbe to him in settlement. After staying in Siaka’s town for a month, Sengbe was marched to Lomboko, a notorious slave-trading island near Sulima on the Gallinas coast, and sold to the richest slaver there, the Spaniard Pedro Blanco, whose activities had helped to make King Siaka wealthy as well.
At Lomboko, Sengbe was imprisoned with other slaves, while fresh ones joined them for the two months they were there, waiting to be transported across the Atlantic. Most of the captives came from Mende country, but others were Kono, Sherbro, Temne, Kissi, Gbandi (in present-day Liberia), and Loma (in present-day Liberia and in Guinea, where they are known as Guerze). Some, who did not speak Mende, learned the language during their forced journey through Mende country to the coast. Most were farmers, but it is said that others were hunters and blacksmiths. This is surprising, because all over West Africa blacksmiths held a sacred place in society and could neither be enslaved nor killed even in war. All these people were shipped from Lomboko in March aboard the schooner Tecora, which arrived at Havana in the
Spanish colony of Cuba in June. At a slave auction following advertisement, Jose Ruiz, a Spanish plantation owner, bought Sengbe and forty-eight others for $450 each to work on his sugar plantation at Puerto Principe, another Cuban port three hundred miles from Havana. Pedro Montez, another Spaniard bound for the same port, bought four children, three girls and a boy. On June 26, the fifty-three Africans were herded on board an American-built schooner, originally called Friendship, but changed to the Spanish La Amistad when the vessel changed ownership and registration to a Spanish subject. Although Spain had prohibited the importation of new slaves into her territories since 1820, the two Spanish planters were able to obtain
official permits to transport their slaves. They chartered the Amistad from Ramon Ferrer, who was both owner and captain. Apart from the fifty-three Africans and their Spanish owners, the schooner carried a crew comprising the master, Ferrer; his two black slaves, Antonio (the cabin boy) and Celestino (the cook); and two white seamen. The ship also carried a cargo of dishes, cloth, jewelry, and various luxury items and staples. The cargo was insured for $40,000. Ruiz insured his forty-nine slaves for $20,000, while Montez
insured the four children for $1,300.
The trip to Puerto Principe usually took three days, but the winds were adverse. Three days out at sea, on June 30, Sengbe used a loose spike he had removed from the deck to unshackle himself and his fellow slaves. They had been whipped and maltreated and, at one point, made to believe that they would be killed for supper on arrival. Sengbe armed himself and the others with cane knives found in the cargo hold. He then led them on deck, where they killed Captain Ferrer and the cook Celestino and wounded the Spaniard Montez. But Sengbe spared Montez’ life together with those of Ruiz and Antonio, the cabin boy. The mutineers lost two of their own party, killed by Captain Ferrer. The two white seamen managed to escape from the Amistad in a small boat.
Sengbe then ordered the Spaniards to sail in the direction of the rising of the sun, or eastward towards Africa. At night, however, Montez, who had some experience as a sailor, navigated by the stars and sailed westward, hoping to remain in Cuban waters. But a gale drove the ship northeast along the United States coastline. The schooner followed a zigzag course for two months, during which eight more slaves died of thirst and exposure. Sengbe held command the whole time, forcing the others to conserve food and water,
and allotting a full ration only to the four children. He took the smallest portion for himself.
The Amistad drifted off Long Island, New York, in late August 1839. Sengbe and others went ashore to trade for food and supplies and to negotiate with local seamen to take them back to Africa. News soon got around about a mysterious ship in the neighborhood with her “sails nearly all blown to pieces.” It was the
“long, low, black schooner,” the story of which had been appearing in newspapers in previous weeks as the ship cruised northeast along the U.S. coastline. Reports said that Cuban slaves had revolted and killed the crew of a Spanish ship and were roaming the Atlantic as buccaneers.
On August 26, the United States survey brig Washington, under command of Lt. Commander Thomas R. Gedney, sighted the battered schooner near Culloden Point on the eastern tip of Long Island. The United States Navy and the Customs Service had previously issued orders for the capture of the ship; and Commander Gedney seized the Amistad and took her in tow to New London, Connecticut, arriving there the following day. Gedney sent a message at once to the United States Marshall at New Haven who, in turn, notified United States District Judge Andrew Judson. The latter was certainly no friend of the black man, for in 1833 he had prosecuted a Miss Prudence Crandall for admitting Negroes into her school in Canterbury, Connecticut.
Judge Judson held court on board the Washington on August 29, in New London harbor, examining the ship’s documents and hearing the testimony of Ruiz and Montez, as well as their urgent request that the ship and all its cargo, including the Africans, be surrendered to the Spanish Consul in Boston. Judson immediately released Ruiz and Montez and ordered that Sengbe and the others be tried for murder and piracy at the next session of the Circuit Court, due to open on September 17 at Hartford, Connecticut. The Africans were consigned to the county jail in New Haven.
Meanwhile, Ruiz had renamed Sengbe Pieh “Jose Cinque” in order to show that Sengbe was not a recent importee and that he, Ruiz, was therefore not guilty of violating the prohibition law of 1820. Cinque, being a Spanish approximation of Sengbe, soon found further distortion in the press as “Cinquez,” “Sinko,” “Jinqua,” etc. When the Amistad was captured off Long Island, a reporter from the New York Sun witnessed Sengbe’s defiance of his captors and repeated attempts to escape. Sengbe jumped overboard and had to be dragged back onto the ship: he urged his fellow slaves to fight against hopeless odds, and was taken away to the American vessel and separated from his men; he made such violent protest that the naval officers allowed him to remain on the Washington’s deck, where he stood and stared fixedly at the Amistad throughout the night. The New York Sun reported:
"He evinces no emotion...and
had he lived in the days of Greece
or Rome, his name would have
been handed down to posterity as
one who had practiced those most
sublime of all virtues — disinterested
patriotism and unshrinking courage."
THE ABOLITIONISTS STEP IN
At this time, the U.S. anti-slavery movement was in disarray, with divergent views on several issues— political action, women’s rights, American churches and slavery, and the basic nature of American government. The Amistad Case provided a focal point for rallying the dispersed ranks of the abolitionists, as they all came out in defense of the captives, fully convinced of their innocence. This was put forth in the Herald of Freedom:
"Cinques is no pirate, no
murderer, no felon. His homicide is
justifiable. Had a white man done
it, it would have been glorious.
It would have immortalized him.
Joseph Cinques ought not to be
tried. Everybody knows he is
innocent. He could not be guilty.
The paper added that Lt. Commander
Gedney had no authority to capture the
Amistad, she being “the lawful prize of
Commandant Joseph Cinques....
That she was ‘suspicious’ looking, is no
This strong conviction was, however, not enough. The abolitionists had to get the Africans’ version of events and to obtain counsel to prove their innocence before the Circuit Court. They held no illusions about the difficulties. The day following Judge Judson’s orders, the abolitionists of New Haven met and wrote to fellow abolitionists in New York to check on the validity of the ship’s documents, find an African who could speak the language of the captives and record their own version, and, finally, obtain qualified counsel.
A committee formed to defend the hapless Africans formally became the “Amistad Committee” on
September 4, comprised, inter alia, of Joshua Leavitt, editor of the Emancipator, the official organ of the
American Anti-Slavery Society; Rev. Simeon S. Jocelyn, a white pastor of a black church in New York; and Lewis Tappan, a wealthy New York merchant and prominent abolitionist. Tappan launched the campaign for the defense of the Amistad Africans and issued an “Appeal to the Friends of Liberty”:
Thirty-eight fellow men from
Africa, having been piratically
kidnapped from their native land,
transported across the seas, and
subjected to atrocious cruelties,
have been thrown upon our shores,
and are now incarcerated in jail to
await their trial for crimes alleged to
have been committed by them.
They are ignorant of our language,
of the usages of civilized society,
and the obligations of Christianity.
Under these circumstances, several
friends of human rights have met to
consult upon the case of these
unfortunate men, and have appointed
the undersigned a Committee to
employ interpreters and able counsel
and take all the necessary
means to secure the rights of the
accused. It is intended to employ
three legal gentlemen of distinguished
abilities, and to incur other
needful expenses. The poor prisoners
being destitute of clothing, and
several having scarcely a rag to
cover them, immediate steps will be
taken to provide what may be necessary.
The undersigned therefore
make this appeal to the friends of
humanity to contribute for the
above objects. Donations may be
sent to either of the Committee, who
will acknowledge the same and
make a public report of all their disbursement,"
Defense counsel comprised the formidable team of Roger Baldwin, Seth Staple, and Theodore Sedgwick, among the best legal minds of the day. But the lawyers recognized a serious limitation to any case they might present if an interpreter were not found to tell the story of the captives. A desperate search began that was only partially successful before the trial. Lewis Tappan brought from New York three Africans, one of whom was a Kissi (a neighboring ethnic group of the Mende) who could converse very limitedly with some of the captives. But the interpreter was able to corroborate the opinion of the abolitionists that the Amistad captives had been kidnapped in Africa and sold illegally into slavery.
The issue before the Amistad Committee was a delicate and sensitive one. The abolitionist movement had
been deeply divided before the Amistad incident, and this incident restored unity to the movement. But there were some people who sympathized with the captives, but were in no sense abolitionists. To have pegged the Amistad Case to a general campaign for the abolition of slavery would have alienated their sympathy, thus weakening the financial and moral base of the Committee. One respondent to the “Appeal,” for instance, stated clearly that he was “a friend of human rights, but not an abolitionist
In September 14, all the prisoners, except one who was too ill to travel, were removed from New Haven to Hartford, the capital of Connecticut, where the trial opened on September 17, with Judge Smith Thompson presiding. After three days of legal battling, the judge rendered his opinion: the Circuit Court had no jurisdiction over the charges of murder and piracy, since the alleged crimes were committed on a Spanish ship and in Spanish waters; the various property claims, including Ruiz’ and Montez’ claims to the African “slaves,” should be decided in a District Court; and the writ of habeas corpus for the release of the small girls was rejected.
As soon as the Circuit Court adjourned, Judge Judson convened a District Court in the same room. He
decreed that the property claims needed more investigation, but that the captives could be released on bail, based on their appraised value as slaves on the Cuban market. The defense lawyers rejected this bail formula, which implied that the Amistad Africans were slaves, and the captives were returned to prison.
The interpreter had not been effective during the trial, and the Amistad Committee intensified the search for
another who could speak Mende fluently. J.W. Gibbs, Professor of Theology and Sacred Literature at Yale Divinity School, took a great interest in the Amistad captives. He learned to count from one to ten in Mende and, armed with this new knowledge, proceeded to the New York docks, counting to every African sailor he met. His efforts paid dividends when, in early October, he found James Covey, a seaman on the British warship Buzzard, who could understand him. Covey, a Mende, had been captured and sold as a child, but was recaptured by British squadrons and brought to Freetown where he was released. He learned to speak English fluently and joined the British Navy. Professor Gibbs took Covey to see the Amistad captives in
the New Haven jail, and the Africans shouted for joy when they heard Covey speak in Mende. They could now relate their version of the events.
Meanwhile, the Amistad Committee was not happy with treatment of the captives, and began efforts to provide for their physical well-being and their intellectual and religious instruction. Rev. George Day, a former professor at the New York Institution for the Deaf and Dumb, was employed to supervise the instruction of the Mende captives by Yale Divinity School students. The teachers began their instruction with
simple pictures and sign language. By this time, several captives had already died in custody from the lingering effects of exposure, hunger, and dehydration suffered aboard the Amistad.
DEMANDS OF THE SPANISH GOVERNMENT
The Spanish government had put forward certain demands to the United States even before the Hartford trial. The Spanish Minister, de la Barca, wrote to the Secretary of State, John Forsyth, a former Minister to Spain and a known defender of Negro slavery, that when the Amistad was “ rescued,” she should have been set free to return to Cuba so that the Africans on board could have been “tried by the proper tribunal, and by the violated laws of the country of which they are subjects.” This had not been done, and so he put forward a further set of demands. He claimed the vessel and cargo, including the Africans, in the name of the Spanish
Monarch, demanding that they be sent back to Havana for adjudication, since “no tribunal in the United States has the right to institute proceedings against, or to impose penalties upon, the subjects of Spain, for crimes committed on board a Spanish vessel, and in waters of the Spanish territory.” He cited articles of existing treaties between the United States and Spain to buttress his case.
The U.S. President, Martin Van Buren, had no strong views on the slavery question, but he depended on the support of the Southern pro-slavery Democrats, whose goodwill he wished to maintain for the upcoming presidential election in 1840. He, therefore, told Forsyth on September 11 to instruct District Attorney William S. Holabird to “take care that no proceedings of your Circuit Court, or any other judicial tribunal, place the vessel, cargo, or slaves beyond the control of the Federal Executive.” The President hoped that the courts would order the Amistad captives returned to Cuba, thus relieving him of political pressure from both the Southern Democrats and the Spanish government; but he was prepared to return the captives on his own
authority, if necessary. To bolster support for such a potential move and to placate the Spanish, he requested an opinion from U.S. Attorney General Felix Grundy, who declared that the Africans were to be considered the property of those for whom the Spanish Minister was claiming them, and that the ship should be returned with all its contents to Cuba. The Cabinet endorsed this view.
DEFENSE STRATEGY OF THE ABOLITIONISTS
The Amistad Committee was painfully aware that the President’s policy aimed at condemning the African captives to permanent slavery, or possibly death, and the abolitionists worked out a defense strategy to ensure that the verdict did not go against them. They built up a case around the argument that the Africans were not legally slaves, as they had been brought to Havana and sold there contrary to the Anglo-Spanish
Treaty of 1820, which prohibited the transatlantic slave trade. This treaty had been re-affirmed in 1835 and followed by a Royal Order from the Queen of Spain in 1838 directing the CaptainGeneral of Cuba to enforce the law with “the strongest zeal.”
This line of defense was strengthened by a deposition made by Dr. R.R. Madden, a native of Ireland, who had served the British government in the Gold Coast (Ghana) and in Havana, Cuba, as a Commissioner on the Court of Mixed Commission for suppressing the slave trade. Dr. Madden revealed that flagrant violations of treaty stipulations regarding the slave trade were openly sanctioned by the Spanish Captain-General and other government officials in Cuba, and that the American Consul there, Nicholas Trist, was a collaborator who reaped huge financial benefits from the slave trade. Dr. Madden came to New York in November and met with Lewis Tappan. He went to see the captives at New Haven and proceeded to Hartford to give evidence at the trial. Since the trial had been deferred, he had to give testimony to Judge Judson in chambers.
Dr. Madden argued that the Amistad captives were recent importees. On the licenses for transporting them
from Havana to Puerto Principe, they had been entered as Ladinos, i.e., slaves brought to Cuba before 1820. But Madden pointed out that this type of forgery was common practice in Cuba and that Ruiz’ and Montez’ papers of ownership were not legally valid.
About this time, Ruiz and Montez were arrested in New York on charges of assault, kidnapping, and false imprisonment, brought against them on behalf of two of the Africans. Lewis Tappan, the real leader of the Amistad Committee, was blamed for this action, which horrified political conservatives. Bail was fixed at $1,000 each. Montez paid immediately and departed for Cuba. Ruiz chose to enlist sympathy by staying in jail. The Spanish Minister immediately protested to the State Department that for alleged offenses committed in Cuba, the U.S. Courts had no jurisdiction. The Secretary of State, Forsyth, instructed the District Attorney to render every possible assistance to the Spaniards. The abolitionists were accused of “making sport of the law....” It was a tactical error on the part of the abolitionists, and it cost them some support from moderates. But Ruiz finally got tired of confinement, paid the bail, and returned to Cuba. Ruiz and Montez were both absent at the final hearing.
The U.S. District Court opened at Hartford, Connecticut, on November 19, 1839, to hear the case, but it adjourned to January because of the absence of certain cardinal witnesses. In the interim, the Spanish Minister pressed his claims once again, and Forsyth promised that he would get a ship ready to transport the captives to Cuba, should the verdict go against them, so that the abolitionists would have no time to appeal.
When the Court resumed hearings on January 8, the U.S. Navy schooner Grampus was in the New Haven harbor on instructions of the President, who, many felt, “went to disgraceful extremes in his persistent attempts to thwart justice as promulgated by the courts.” The three defense counsels urged the President not to have the case decided outside the courts “in the recesses of Cabinet, where these unfriended men can have no counsel and can produce no proof....” The abolitionists stood watch in shifts over the New Haven jail. They were afraid that the President might send men to seize the Amistad Africans even before the trial had concluded, and they were prepared to hide the captives, if necessary.
On January 13, 1840, Judge Judson finally rendered his verdict: the Amistad captives had been kidnapped and sold into slavery in violation of Spanish law; they were legally free and should, therefore, be transported back to Africa, whence they had been taken against their will. During the trial, Sengbe had made a favorable impression by giving detailed testimony through the interpreter, showing how he and his fellow Africans were kidnapped, bound, and mistreated. Emotion overcame him at one point, and Sengbe rose and shouted in English: “Give us free! Give us free!” But many people were against this freedom verdict, among them
President Van Buren. He ordered District Attorney Holabird to appeal immediately against the decision.
Meanwhile, the Amistad captives were continuing with their classes in reading and writing and in the doctrines of Christianity. Despite their bitter disappointment at remaining in custody even after a favorable court decision, they still approached their studies with enthusiasm. The days began with James Covey translating Christian prayers into Mende, followed by a short sermon, and then instruction in the English language. The best pupil was eleven-year-old Kali, one of the four Amistad children, who learned to read
and write with surprising speed. But all of the Amistad captives were keen to learn, and at times they grasped their Yale Divinity School teachers at the end of the day, pleading with them to stay just a bit longer. During this period little Kali wrote:
We talk American language a little, not very good.
"We write everyday; we write plenty letters; we
read most all time; we read all
Matthew and Mark and Luke and
John, and plenty of little books. We
love books very much."
EX-PRESIDENT ADAMS AND THE THIRD TRIAL
The Amistad Committee recognized the need for a public figure of the highest standing to plead the cause of the African captives before the United States Supreme Court. The abolitionists persuaded former President John Quincy Adams to lead the defense. At seventy-three, and thirty years out of legal practice, the ex-President was reluctant to accept the case, lest he should jeopardize the lives of the Africans by failing to win.
He wrote in his diary:
"The world, the flesh, and all the
devils in hell are arrayed against
any man who now in this North
American Union shall dare to join
the standard of Almighty God to
put down the African slave trade;
and what can I, upon the verge of
my 74th birthday, with a shaken
hand, a darkening eye, a drowsy
brain, and with my faculties dropping
from me one by one as the
teeth are dropping from my head —
what can I do for the cause of God
and man, for the progress of human
emancipation, for the suppression of
the African slave-trade? Yet my
conscience presses me on; let me
but die upon the breach."
Thus, Adams accepted the sensational case that came to be called “the trial of one President by another.”
Attorney Baldwin prepared an elaborate defense and opened the case, but on February 24, “Old Man Eloquent,” as Adams came to be called thereafter, addressed the Court for a total of four and a half hours. On March 9, 1841, the United States Supreme Court issued its final verdict in the Amistad Case — the captives were free! Adams sent word at once to Lewis Tappan, the principal leader of the Amistad
Committee: “Thanks — Thanks in the name of humanity and of justice, to YOU.”
THE RETURN HOME
The Africans were released from custody and taken to Farmington, an early abolitionist town in Connecticut, where they received more formal education for the rest of 1841. As President Van Buren refused to provide a ship to repatriate them, the Amistad Committee assumed complete responsibility for the Africans. To raise funds to charter a ship, the abolitionists organized a speaking tour in the Northern states, and the “Amistads” went from town to town, appearing before sympathetic audiences, telling the story of their ordeal, and displaying their knowledge of written and spoken English. By this time Sengbe Pieh, or Joseph Cinque, had
become a public figure in the United States, and many were anxious to see the man whom Northern newspapers compared to the heroes of ancient Greece and Rome.
Towards the end of the year enough funds had been raised, and the barque Gentleman was chartered for $1,840. The thirty-five surviving Africans would travel to the Colony of Sierra Leone, accompanied by five American missionaries. Among the five were two black Americans, Mr. and Mrs. Henry Wilson, who had taught at Farmington, and three whites, Rev. and Mrs. William Raymond and Rev. James Steele. The Amistad Committee instructed the Americans to start a “Mendi Mission” in Sierra Leone. Before the ship left, Lewis Tappan addressed the passengers, and Sengbe replied on behalf of his fellow Africans. The newspapers reported a deeply moving scene in which many of those present openly wept.
As the Gentleman left, the plan of the passengers was “for all to keep together and somewhere in the vicinity of Cinque’s town to settle down and commence a new town and then persuade their friends to come and join them, and then to adopt the American dress and manners.” The ship arrived in Freetown in mid-January 1842 amid great excitement. Many of the new arrivals were able to find friends and, in some cases, family members. Sengbe soon learned from Mende Recaptives that his own home had been ravaged by war and most of his family wiped out.
Thus, the hope to locate the Mendi Mission near Sengbe’s town never materialized. Having unrestricted association with many of their countrymen in the Colony, some of the Amistad Africans lost the desire to remain with their American patrons. Anxious to get to their homes and their families, they drifted away, leaving only ten adults and the four children. Sengbe, himself, procured an investment of goods with which he proceeded to Sherbro country to purchase produce for the Freetown market.
THE MENDI MISSION
It was not easy to find a location for establishing a mission station, as the original hope of building one near Sengbe’s town was not feasible. After several attempts, Rev. Raymond finally secured a place at Komende in the Sherbro region in 1844. Raymond attributed his success partly to Sengbe’s influence; and he interpreted the dispersal of the former captives as an advantage, because they would spread news of the Mission far and wide.
The establishment of the Mendi Mission was, in fact, due in no small measure to the efforts of Rev. Raymond, to whom every credit should be given. In the course of time, the Mission opened stations in several places, one of which was named “Mo Tappan” in gratitude for the selfless assistance of Lewis Tappan. In 1846, the Amistad Committee evolved into the American Missionary Association, and in that year the Association took over full financial responsibility for the Mendi Mission.
IMPACT IN SIERRA LEONE
The Amistad Case gave rise to American missionary activity in Sierra Leone, with all its positive consequences. The American Missionary Association ultimately turned over its mission stations in Sierra
Leone to the United Brethren in Christ (UBC). Apart from evangelization work, the UBC was responsible for establishing an expansive system of mission schools in the southern part of the country, especially among the Mende and Sherbro peoples. Many schools were established and many new technological skills introduced as part of vocational training. The most celebrated of these schools are the Harford School for Girls at Moyamba and Albert Academy in Freetown. It should be remembered that Albert Academy,
founded in 1904, was the first secondary school for upcountry boys (predating the government Bo School in
that capacity by many years), and that many of the early students were promising boys on scholarship. The
long-term impact of these developments was to help create an elite group that excelled not only in Sierra Leone, but in the United States as well.
Some of the students who had their early education in American mission schools in Sierra Leone proceeded to the United States for further studies, and left a mark in America. Two important examples are Barnabas Root and Thomas Tucker. Root and Tucker attended the original Mendi Mission school and, after completing further studies in the United States, were employed by the American Missionary Association — Tucker in 1862 as a teacher in a school for freedmen in Virginia, and Root in 1873 as pastor for a Congregational Mission Church for freedmen in Alabama. While Root later returned to Sierra Leone, Tucker stayed on in America and founded the State Normal College (for blacks) at Tallahassee, Florida, together with Thomas Van Gibbs, in 1887. Tucker was the first President of the College, which grew into the present-day Florida A&M University.
In the 20th century, American missionary activity helped give rise to a nationalist elite which pressed for independence. Significantly, the first Prime Minister of Sierra Leone, Dr. (later Sir) Milton Margai, and the first Executive President of Sierra Leone, Siaka Stevens, were both products of American mission primary schools in the Southern part of the country and, later, graduates of Albert Academy.
IMPACT IN THE UNITED STATES
By the time the Amistad Case came to an end, it had so embittered feelings between the antislavery North and the slave-holding South that it must be counted as one of the events leading to the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1860. Although the Supreme Court’s decision in the Amistad Case was not an attack on slavery, it drew the abolitionists together and prevented their movement from breaking up.
Moreover, the missionary work that began with the freedom of the Amistad Africans led to the foundation of the American Missionary Association in 1846, which was the largest and best organized abolitionist society in the United States before the outbreak of the Civil War. After the War, the Association established more than five hundred schools and colleges in the South and in the border states for the education of newly liberated blacks. These schools evolved into Atlanta, Howard, Fisk, and Dillard Universities; Hampton University; Talladega College; etc, to which countless black Americans owe their higher education.
The Amistad Case, thus, gave rise to this tremendous network of institutions in the South that educated the leaders of the modern-day Civil Rights Movement, including the venerable Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The Amistad Rebellion, which began with the determination of Sengbe Pieh and fifty-two other Sierra Leoneans not to accept enforced slavery, has had far reaching consequences on two continents. Although the origins are mostly forgotten today, the processes set in motion by this revolt will continue to influence the course of historical development in both the United States and Sierra Leone — thanks, in large measure, to the courage of Sengbe Pieh.
Addendum: A Letter from Little Kali to John Quincy Adams
Kali was one of the four Mende children, and the only little boy, among the Amistad captives. He had been kidnapped from the streets of his own village, taken to the slave-trading base at Lomboko, and then sent across the Atlantic to Havana, Cuba. Later, aboard the Amistad, ten-year-old Kali was of some help to Sengbe Pieh. He sat with the three little girls and kept them quiet while Sengbe and the others, armed and unshackled, waited for their opportunity to climb up to the deck and surprise their captors.
In the United States, little Kali, at his young and adaptable age, was able to learn to speak and read English much faster than the Amistad adults. In 1840, while awaiting the final decision of the United States Supreme Court on the issue of his freedom, young Kali wrote this thoughtful letter to former President John Quincy Adams, his lawyer. Kali’s feelings come through clearly — he is angry at his arrest and imprisonment; thankful to those who, like Mr. Adams, have helped him and his fellow captives; and deeply homesick.
When the Amistad captives gained their freedom and went on a speaking tour to raise money for their return passage to Sierra Leone, Kali was a star performer. He impressed audiences with his ability, after less than two years of instruction, to write correctly any sentence read to him from the Christian gospels. Kali returned with the others to Sierra Leone in 1842. He stayed with the American missionaries and was ultimately employed by the Mendi Mission. Kali married, but, while still young, contracted a disease that crippled him for the remaining years of his life.
Dear Friend Mr. Adams:
"I want to write a letter to you
because you love Mendi people, and
you talk to the grand court. We want to
tell you one thing. Jose Ruiz say we
born in Havana, he tell lie....We all born
We want you to ask the Court what
we have done wrong. What for
Americans keep us in prison? Some
people say Mendi people crazy; Mendi
people dolt; because we no talk
American language. Merica people no
talk Mendi language; Merica
They tell bad things about Mendi
people, and we no understand. Some
men say Mendi people very happy
because they laugh and have plenty to
eat. Mr. Pendleton come, and Mendi
people all look sorry because they think
about Mendi land and friends we no see
now. Mr. Pendleton say Mendi people
angry; white men afraid of Mendi
people. The Mendi people no look sorry
again — that why we laugh. But
Mendi people feel sorry; O, we can’t tell
how sorry. Some people say Mendi
people no got souls. Why we feel bad,
[if] we no got souls...?
Dear friend Mr. Adams, you have
children, you have friends, you love
them, you feel sorry if Mendi people
come and carry them all to Africa. We
feel bad for our friends, and our friends
all feel bad for us. If American people
give us free we glad, if they no give us
free we sorry — we sorry for Mendi
people little, we sorry for American people
great deal, because God punish liars.
We want you to tell court that Mendi
people no want to go back to Havana,
we no want to be killed. Dear Friend,
we want you to know how we feel.
Mendi people think, think, think.
Nobody know what we think, the
teacher he know, we tell him some.
Mendi people have got souls....All we
want is make us free."