A white American goes to Cameroon in search of his past.
Image courtesy of Martino via Flickr
This was where the thread first came into view, an old stone palace miles up a rutted dirt track, alone in the gum resin trees and elephant grass. We parked next to the wives’ quarters, a small village of soot-blackened walls and peaked zinc roofs. Young men in frayed clothes guided us through a twisting corridor to the king’s court. My friend Walter and I waited on benches until the eighty-year-old king, the fon, beckoned us from his wood throne in the fading gray light. We crossed the courtyard in an extended bow. The fon, wearing a black skullcap and a light blue boubou robe, sat rigidly erect in his chair, sipping a African liqueur called Marula Fruit Cream from a Baltimore Orioles mug. His face was long and stolid, thin clenched lips and cold rheumy eyes. He spoke haltingly in his language, showing teeth like weathered pickets. Walter translated that the king was welcoming us, and I nodded and smiled as the palace guard hissed at me to take my hands out of my pockets. After further formalities, I was told to kneel before the king and cup my hands at my mouth, as he poured a blessing of the liqueur so copious it streamed down my right arm under my jacket. Walter whispered to me that this was the highest honor, to show effusive gratitude. I sighed, knowing my sleeve would be stuck to my skin until my next shower, whenever that might be. As evening came, the young men, whom I had taken to be street hustlers and now realized were princes, guided me to a perch in the canopy on the high ridge. I let them walk off so I could have a moment alone.
As I listened to the dry rasp of the elephant grass, I gazed out over the Kingdom of Kom. A narrow gorge threaded through the lush terrain below, opening into a smoky blue chasm in the distance, the Valley of Too Many Bends. A cluster of white streetlights hovered on a dark crest a few miles away—Njinikom, a town to which earlier kings once banished sorcerers and foreign missionaries. The crumpled topography of these mountains had long repelled invaders, colonists, and change. Many villagers still lived in red earthen huts with grass roofs, collected firewood before dusk, and poured libations of palm wine on the ground for their ancestors. The view from this spot had not changed much in centuries. Only that tremulous constellation of electric lights broke the deepening shades of blue.
The footpath wended down into the darkness, almost two thousand feet below, where I was told a momentous baobab tree stood near the river. The story is that it fell one day, years ago, cried and cried all night, and the following morning was standing again. Villagers call it “the talking tree.”
Mythical stories abound up here, filling the void left by an unwritten history. It is said the Kom were led to this very spot by a python. But the story that no one talks about is the true story of the people removed from this land. This belt of fertile savannah in western Cameroon rested at a terrible crossroads, with no forest to hide in when the marauders arrived. The kings may have been safe in their fortified isolation, but their people were not. They were taken first by Arab invaders in the Sudan in the north, and then by the southern peoples who found that humans were the commodity Europeans most desired.
Captured and bound together, they were driven on long marches, some south across the sweltering lowlands to the mangrove estuaries of the coastal kings, some west through sheer mountain rain forest to the Cross River, where merchants loaded them onto canoes and rowed three hundred miles south to the port of Old Calabar. Those who survived had been handed from tribe to tribe, through too many hostile foreign territories to dream of escaping and returning home. And then off they went, into the sea.
This is the beginning, I said to myself. The beginning of my family’s story, the point just after which my forebears obscured the truth—and nearly buried it forever.
High on a ridge, three hundred miles by road from the Atlantic, I sat at the headwaters of that outward movement, imagining the people flowing away like the rivers below. I pictured a boy, gazing down into that blue mountain cradle, the grass dry-swishing in the breeze, the drums coming up with the night. A boy suddenly pulled into the current and scrambling to reach the bank. A boy unable to imagine the ocean and sickly white men in big wooden ships and the swampy, malarial settlement called Jamestown where he would be sold to a planter in the year of their lord 1644.
This is the beginning, I said to myself. The beginning of my family’s story, the point just after which my forebears obscured the truth—and nearly buried it forever.
A few days later, on the coast, I caught a motorcycle taxi to a ferry terminal late at night. The air was fresh and fragrant as we sputtered along the edge of an old botanical garden where the German colonials tried to find tropical medicines. At the port, the driver dropped me at a hulking stone warehouse, where I had bought my ticket that afternoon. The boat was to leave at three-thirty in the morning. Passengers milled about or slept on straw mats under high ceiling fans. Bleary and dry-eyed, I handed my passport to an officer behind a desk. He inspected it briefly, then leaned back in his chair, arched his eyebrows, and opened his palms in mock challenge. “Mozingo. That is your name?”
He smiled and shook his head. “That is not an American name.”
He turned to two women behind him and showed them my passport.
They joked in the local pidgin language, and he turned back to me. “That is a Cameroonian name. How do you have it?”
“I might have had an ancestor from here.”
“So your father came from Cameroon?” he asked, rightfully dubious.
I am white, with straight, light brown hair and blue eyes. No one has ever mistaken me for anything else.
“Not my father, an ancestor. Way, way back,” I said.
“No, long before him.”
I had already come to realize that the past here, unrecorded almost until the twentieth century, was somehow compressed. When events beyond memory were not fixed in writing, they swirled about, unmoored from linearity, and 358 years didn’t mean too much more than “a long, long time.”
“But who gave you the name?” he asked.
“Well, it’s different in America,” I said. “We just get whatever name our father has. It just goes down the line. Automatic.”
He still seemed unconvinced. Our accents muddled our points to each other, and I didn’t think explaining further was going to clear things up. But I took it as a good sign that I had come to the right region of Africa, that he, of all people, had that spark of recognition; every day he took several hundred passports, stamped them for the trip to neighboring Nigeria, then called out for the owners to take them back. He must have known the names of this region like few others.
“Let me ask you, which part of Cameroon does this name come from?” I
“That is Kribi, south province,” he said definitively.
I thanked him and wrote it down. I’d have to look that up on my map. We boarded a modern, air-conditioned ferry and took off in the dark along a desolate coast for Old Calabar, about a hundred miles west in Nigeria. As we left the port, we passed under the bulk of Mt. Cameroon, hidden in the night, rising thirteen thousand feet straight from the sea. Long before any Europeans saw the great volcanic massif, one of earth’s great migrations set off from the other side of it, peopling most of southern Africa. The Bantu Expansion.
The captain read a bit of scripture as we set off, Psalm 91:9–16, something about “crushing fee-yerce lions and sare-punts under your feet.” I fell asleep and came to after dawn to see a distant gray sliver of treetops between gray water and gray sky. This was the view that the slave captains and crews would have seen, an endless knotted line of coast where a good portion of them would meet their death.
The shore slipped in and out of view for an hour or so. At one point, an armada of fishermen in canoes sailed past for deep waters, rising and falling on loping swells. With tattered plastic tarps strung between bamboo poles, they caught a light offshore wind from the lowlands. Some were father-and-son teams, the boys mending the nets as they traveled. Other canoes had five or six people. Ahead of them lay no horizon, only a gloom of ocean vanishing into a gloom of air, with the vague outline of a thunderhead to the west. Far out in the gray murk, orange flares burned in the oil fields of the Niger Delta. The fire flickering in the vaporous abyss was dreamlike, and somehow disturbing in my sleep-deprived state, as if the fishermen were ferrying souls to Hades. I’d never had such an unsettling reaction to a seascape.
We came into the wide mouth of the Cross River, rocking sideways on a beaming sea. The engines wound down sharply as we approached a reef or shoal, and the captain turned hard left and then right to maneuver. Two sticks with red rags hanging from them apparently marked a channel. The move felt panicked, and I braced for impact, thinking of all the African ferry disasters I’d read about. The exit door was right behind me, and I thought, At least the water’s warm. But the captain threaded through the sticks and throttled the engines back up. The outgoing current was running fast, breaking white off the channel markers and crab trap buoys. This must have been a nerve-racking entry for the slavers. The Dutch sailors largely avoided Old Calabar for this very reason, but the English learned its ways, and in the mid-1600s developed a brisk trade of slaves between the Efik chiefs and the planters in Barbados.
An English captain, William Snelgrave, traded regularly in Old Calabar and left a rare account of his transactions:
Like most Europeans, Snelgrave figured he would be killed if he ventured inland and set foot ashore only on a few occasions. He knew nothing of the continent—three times the size of Europe—beyond the impervious thicket of foliage backing the beach.
The affronts, he explained, had occurred when the ships took away not just the goods and people being sold, but the sellers too. He called the natives here “barbarous and uncivilized” mainly because they had had such limited interaction with the Europeans, compared to those at points west and south, who had dealings with forts and trading depots.
The odd thing about Captain Snelgrave was that he conveyed deep objections to such scenes, even as he took a leading role in a wider atrocity. On his thirteen trips between Africa and America, including three to Virginia, he carried nearly five thousand slaves away, and over nine hundred of them died during the crossing. The paradox was particularly vexing when he sailed the Anne from London to Old Calabar in 1713. A new king, Acqua, sat on a stool under some shade trees, and the captain took the stool beside him. Ten armed sailors accompanied him, standing off to one side, while fifty of the king’s guards stood across from them with swords, bows and arrows, and barbed lances.
The captain noticed a baby boy tied by one leg to a stake in the ground, with “flies and other vermin crawling on him, and two priests standing by.” He asked the king why the child was bound there. The king said “it was to be sacrificed to his God Igbo for his prosperity.”
Appalled, Snelgrave ordered his men to remove the child. A ruckus ensued, with weapons drawn all around. The captain told the king he meant no harm, to relax, and they sat back down. The king averred that the child was his property. “This I acknowledged,” Snelgrave wrote, excusing his actions “on account of my religion, which, though it does not allow of forcibly taking away what belongs to another, yet expressly forbids so horrid a thing as the putting a poor innocent child to death. I also observed to him, that the grand law of nature was to do to others as we desired to be done unto.”
Snelgrave offered to buy the boy, and much to his delight, the king agreed to sell him for a mere bunch of sky-colored beads, worth half a crown sterling, bringing us to one of the most profoundly deranged happy endings ever written:
Snelgrave leaves his account of the trip at that, with the slaves singing happily across the sea.
The mercantile records of the voyage cast a pall on this party: he picked up more slaves before he left Africa, ultimately setting off for Antigua with 395. The chorus lost plenty of voices. Ninety-five Africans died during the crossing—one out of four. Two corpses a day on average were thrown overboard. There is no record of whether the mother or her child survived the passage.
The strange twist of history—and this story is all about strange twists of history—was that the solitary white man on board was not among the converted.
I gazed through the salt-smeared window of the ferry, half-listening to a Nigerian film about two hustlers, Silas and Titus, on a TV mounted to the ceiling in the cabin. We’d come closer to shore, which appeared as a low colorless ribbon of palms and mangrove now. Villages of thatched and clay huts dotted it here and there, and smoke unspooled from settlements hidden up the creeks that tunneled through the canopy. The river narrowed and then divided into numerous channels that joined again farther upstream. The water grew thick and brown with silt. Bottles and bags and water hyacinths swirled in foamy gyres. We passed an island where the mottled trees of an abandoned rubber plantation tilted with the prevailing wind in neat rows. Heading up a tributary to the right, we slowed before a high bluff. The closer we came through the haze the better I could make out the glinting gray-brown lines of a city. We pulled up along a wharf with little warehouses and the hulks of half-sunk ships.
“There were some very strong currents today,” the captain said on the loudspeaker. “That is why we are late. But it is better late than never. That is why we must pray to Jesus Christ.” Which he did. The strange twist of history—and this story is all about strange twists of history—was that the solitary white man on board was not among the converted.
I disembarked down the gangway to the quay. The air was wilting and smelled like diesel and pond dredge. Old Calabar was a modern city, and any glimpse of the traditional village life that Snelgrave encountered here had long been paved over. I walked past money changers and hustlers and cell phone card hawkers to a spot where I could look up the river. Silos and tanks and concrete wharves continued up to a hard bend west, and mangroves obscured the opposite bank.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the slave traders paddled here down the Cross River from the interior in fleets of twenty or more canoes, each carrying twenty or more slaves. The captives often came originally from the Grassfields and were marched to the jungle village of Mamfe, 250 miles upriver from here. Illustrations from the time show the captives’ arms tied behind their backs, with wishbone branches and ligatures binding them together by the neck. The river cut a long arching course to the coast, like a shepherd’s staff, through rain forest that is now home to some of the last gorillas in West Africa and that still boasts chimpanzees, hippopotamuses, crocodiles, forest elephants, and drill monkeys. As the canoes neared the coast, Efik traders purchased the slaves to sell, in turn, to the whites, mostly for bars of copper, iron, guns, ammunition, and liquor.
The boy whom I and every Mozingo in America appear to have descended from might have come this way to the Atlantic. Mosingas were certainly taken out of the nearby Rio del Rey, where at the moment I had heard “creek tribes” were kidnapping outsiders, putting a damper on my prospects of going there. I had set out to trace the story of that boy’s origin, but I was beginning to wonder if I would ever really know where he came from. He may have lived nowhere near here. He may have embarked from a point a thousand miles south, in Angola. After months of research, I was still left weighing mere bits of the evidence on the two sides of a balance: Old Calabar in one pan, Angola in the other.
If he had come from Angola, he had likely seen and dealt with white people before; European traders and soldiers set up their first colony there in the 1500s. He may even have been of mixed race. But arriving in Old Calabar from the interior, he would probably never have seen a white person and might have thought they were buying him to eat; slaves were said to have thought the red wine the sailors drank was Africans’ blood and that the cheese of the captain’s table was made from Africans’ brains.
The captains inspected the slaves and sorted out the infirm, the deformed, the weak and aged. Bad eyes, feeble joints, slender frames, and rotten teeth were grounds for rejection. Those purchased shuffled aboard, the men shackled together, and waited for weeks and even months until the ship was full and ready to set sail. Those rejected suffered their own terrible fates.
“The traders frequently beat those negroes which are objected to by the captains,” wrote Alexander Falconbridge, a British surgeon on slave ships to Calabar and elsewhere in the 1780s. At a nearby port, “the traders have frequently been known to put them to death. Instances have happened at that place, that the traders, when any of their negroes have been objected to, have dropped their canoes under the stern of the vessel, and instantly beheaded them in sight of the captain.”
I struggled to fathom what the kidnapped people thought as they set off into that void in a state of pure unknowing, going farther and farther into the featureless Doldrums, crammed together so tightly they struggled to breathe and could barely turn, their excretions, stench, and disease suffusing the airless swelter.
I walked along the quay to the immigration office. Two men struggled to row a canoe filled with sand, the river rising up to its gunwales. Sand was big trade all along the waterway. Merchants bought it and sold it to Chinese road contractors to be mixed with concrete.
My mind kept going back to that gray abyss with no horizon I saw from the ferry. I struggled to fathom what the kidnapped people thought as they set off into that void in a state of pure unknowing, going farther and farther into the featureless Doldrums, crammed together so tightly they struggled to breathe and could barely turn, their excretions, stench, and disease suffusing the airless swelter. They watched the bodies of those who died simply heaved into the void. Once out at sea, many actually thought this was the white men’s world, “this hollow place,” in one man’s account. They had been condemned to a sort of wandering hell, outside of space and time, where the newly dispossessed souls murmured in the minds of the barely living and perhaps only a fear of eternal exile from the soil of their ancestors, from all humanity, would steel their will to survive.
The slaves were usually kept belowdecks in shackles until the ships moved out of sight of land and the prospect of their hijacking the vessels and returning home had vanished. From Old Calabar, this may have been more than a week into the trip, as the ship first sailed a thousand miles west along the coast to Cape Palmas, before moving into the open ocean as the coast turned north. Some captives required a week or more to regain the use of their limbs after being unshackled. To try to tamp down disease, some crews let the slaves up on deck for sun and fresh air and had them clean their quarters with vinegar. Others did not. The month-long crossing killed an average of one in five, claimed by dysentery, smallpox, suicide, yaws, and all manner of unknown afflictions. On some voyages, half the captives died.
Falconbridge described compartments so cramped the slaves could only lie on their sides, and had to scramble over each other in shackles to reach overflowing waste buckets. Many just relieved themselves “as they lie.”
“The exclusion of the fresh air is among the most intolerable,” he wrote. Most ships had a half-dozen air-ports, four-by-six-inches, on each side of the ship. “But whenever the sea is rough, and the rain heavy, it becomes necessary to shut these. [The] negroes rooms very soon grow intolerably hot. The confined air, rendered noxious by the effluvia exhaled from their bodies, and by being repeatedly breathed, soon produces fevers and fluxes, which generally carries off great numbers of them.”
The ships sailing from Angola to Brazil had it relatively easy, with a shorter distance and favorable winds. Heading to the Caribbean proved to be deadlier as ships often stalled in the stagnant air over the equator. For the English, Barbados was usually the first stop, the farthest east of the Antilles. But its profile was low and easy to miss. The Dutch had to make their way another six hundred miles to their colony of Curaçao or four hundred to St. Eustatius, while the Portuguese and Spanish traveled even farther, to their ports in Cartagena, Havana, Panama, and Veracruz. The sailors usually spotted gulls, seaweed, and other ships before seeing land, then could smell wafts of grass and sun-beaten earth.
A small handful of the first slaves brought to the New World were delivered from the Caribbean to the starving, wretched outpost of Jamestown, where the story of Mozingos in America begins.
I was standing over a copy editor in the Los Angeles Times newsroom one afternoon two years before my first trip to Africa, going over an article I had written, when the managing editor, Davan Maharaj, stopped by. He was new to that position, and I had met him only briefly. “So where’s that name Mozingo from?” he asked.
“We think it’s Central African.”
“I knew it,” he shot back. He said he’d first heard my name years back, when I was an intern and he was a reporter in another bureau, and he had asked his friend Ken about me. “Is he a black guy?”
“No, he’s white.”
“Yeah. He has blue eyes.”
“He’s got to be black.”
I was asked about my name about every other day of my adult life, and reactions to my response swung widely. A black colleague scoffed. A Rotarian the color of mayonnaise winced as if I were confiding the particulars of a bad circumcision. A prize-winning colleague with a Germanic last name sidled up to tell me Bantus danced with their butts sticking out. A female Haitian American friend asked me why I couldn’t dance. Some people nodded as if I were bullshitting them. A beautiful young cashier at a coffee shop tapped her fingers, dying for me to stop talking. Soldiers of political correctness stood in uncomfortable silence, well tutored not to ask the obvious follow-up, about why a white guy bore the name. Plenty of people found it fascinating. One Times editor started calling me Mandingo.
“It’s a long story,” I told Davan, hoping he would have the patience to hear it. I had been planning to pitch an article about my lineage as a first-person feature for the paper, so that I could devote myself full time to investigating this long-buried family history I had become enthralled with.
Davan grew up in the racially split Caribbean nation of Trinidad, the descendant, I would later learn, of an Indian preacher who went there to minister to indentured servants the British had imported from India after the African slave trade was banned. He was a foreign correspondent in Central Africa for a spell before he became an editor and moved back to L.A. Surely he would be interested in the thread of European imperialism that resulted in a white man bearing this name.
He vaguely recalled having come across the name in the Caribbean, where some African names survived. I told him that most recently I had heard that the earliest known ancestor in the lineage, Edward Mozingo, had likely come from what was then the Kingdom of Kongo, which straddled the border of today’s Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo. One of Edward’s living descendants, Melicent Remy, a dogged researcher of his African origins, had tracked this down, but I wasn’t sure from where or whether her research was reliable.
“I think he married a white or light-skinned woman, and their sons married white women, and pretty soon they looked white,” I said. “But I hear there are some black Mozingos still.”
“We’re cousins, I bet,” he joked.
I laughed, not quite sure I understood, and made my final selling point on the rich tensions in this story: “There were Mozingos in the KKK.”
At that he laughed in delight.
“What does your dad think of this?” he asked.
“That’s a tough one,” I said. He laughs. “I don’t really know. I’m not sure he thinks it’s all true. I’ve wanted to write this story for years,” I added.
“You have to,” he said.
Copyright © 2012 by Joe Mozingo. From the forthcoming book The Fiddler on Pantico Run by Joe Mozingo, to be published by Free Press, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed by permission.
Joe Mozingo is a projects reporter for the Los Angeles Times. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of the earthquake in Haiti, and helped lead a Miami Herald reporting team whose investigation into the crash of the space shuttle Columbia was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. The Fiddler on Pantico Run was named a finalist for the J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award, administered by Columbia University and Harvard’s Nieman Foundation. He lives in Southern California with his wife and two children.