He was born free. Mahommah Gardo Baquaqua as many other Africans enslaved in the Americas had a hometown, a family and in some part of his youth suffered from the violence of war. He was enslaved and exported through the most important slave port in West Africa, the notorious Ouidah (Whydah), in the kingdom of Dahomey. Shipped to Brazil in a slave ship and unloaded on a beach in the northern parts of Pernambuco in 1845. At that time, the transatlantic slave trade was already prohibited in Brazil. Hence his condition as a slave was illegal.
Baquaqua was a slave, first, of a baker in Pernambuco, and after trying to take his own life he was sold to a ship’s captain in Rio de Janeiro who traveled along the Brazilian coast, especially to Rio Grande do Sul. During a trip to New York City in 1847, he was able to escape from slavery, subsequently spending two years in Haiti during a time of political turbulence. Under the protection of the American Baptist Free Mission Society he returned to the United States in late 1849 to enroll in New York Central College, in McGrawville, where he was a student from 1850–53.
As a member of a Muslim family in Africa, Baquaqua learned how to write in Arabic and Ajami. In Brazil he learned Portuguese, as likely some French and Haitian créole during the two years he spent in Haiti. In upstate New York he learned enough English to read and to write letters and in 1854 published his autobiography in Detroit, with the help of his editor Samuel Moore.
At the time of writing his biography, Baquaqua was living in Chatham, Canada West (Ontario), which at the time was one of the main termini of the Underground Railroad from the U.S.A. In early 1855, six months after publishing “An Interesting Narrative. Biography of Mahommah G. Baquaqua”, he moved to Britain, where he remained until at least 1857. We do not know what happened with Baquaqua after that year. In some letters he had revealed his plans to go back to Africa, and it seems possible that he returned to Lagos or the Niger delta.
M. G. Baquaqua’s memories are a particularly important narrative of the African Diaspora. As with other biographical accounts, it permits us to see the individual beyond the slave and the slavery context. The Project Baquaqua provides a chance to imagine, understand and learn from the sense of otherness through empathy and projection.
Bruno Véras and Paul Lovejoy