Steven Spielberg's dramatic and historically controversial film Amistad has informed (and misinformed) many Americans about a famous chapter in African American history. But there is another story, virtually unknown, which was deeply imbedded in the Amistad events and touched the small abolitionist town of Oberlin in northeast Ohio—and the Oberlin Collegiate Institute (later Oberlin College), located in its midst. The story is about a captive named "Margru," one of four children who were part of Amistad's slave cargo. In Margru's language her name meant "black snake," but in the United States she became "the child of many prayers," for she was the only Amistad captive to later return to America. Her story, though still being studied, reveals something of what it was like to be part of two very different worlds.
The Nightmare Begins
Margru was born in about 1832 in Bendembu, Mandingo country, a region of West Africa called "Mende," some 100 miles southeast of Freetown, the capital of what is now Sierra Leone and 40-60 miles from the Atlantic coast. One of seven children, she lived and played with her siblings in a lush countryside until she was between six and seven years old. Then her world abruptly changed, for she was sold to Spanish slave traders to repay a family debt. Within a brief time, fifty-two others from the same area were either purchased or kidnapped by the traders. They were all forced to walk 100 miles to the West African coast, where they were herded into the notorious Dunbomo slave pens on Lomboko Island. Margru was one of only a few children among the hundreds who were jammed into these pens awaiting slave ships to carry them across the Atlantic.
Eventually she and three other children—Kali, a boy, and two girls, Tehme and Kagne—along with an unknown number of adults, were forced aboard the Portuguese cargo ship Tecora, which then sailed toward Cuba. During their seemingly endless voyage, which lasted nearly three months, the adult captives were crammed, naked, into the ship's hold and chained together in a half-sitting, half-lying position. The children, apparently, were allowed more freedom and were not shackled, but they were undoubtedly forced to remain in the hold.
Aboard La Amistad
In Havana the slaves were auctioned off, and fifty-three of them, including the four children, were purchased by two "Spanish gentlemen." Records show that all but three of the slaves were males: Margru, Tehme, and Kagne were the three "young females." A small, two-masted clipper ship, ironically named La Amistad (Spanish for "friendship"), was chartered for a trip to the other side of the island of Cuba, where the accompanying new owners lived. After four days at sea the Africans staged a revolt under the leadership of Sengbe Pieh (popularly "Cinque"), a powerful Mendian who was about twenty-six years old. The captives seized control of the schooner, killed the captain and the cook, and drove the two other members of the crew overboard. The two new Cuban slave owners were then ordered to sail the boat back to Africa.
In August 1839, after sixty-three days at sea, La Amistad was sighted off Long Island Sound by alarmed Americans, who believed that it was a pirate ship because of its tattered sails and aimless course. U.S. maritime vessels investigated and eventually seized and towed it to New London, Connecticut.
Chaos before the Trial
News of the captives spread like wildfire, and they were featured on the front pages of U.S. and international newspapers. After several days they were transferred to a county jail in New Haven, Connecticut, which overlooked the village green. Word traveled fast, and in a few days all of New Haven took on a circus-like atmosphere. Between 3,000 and 5,000 people a day were reported to have crowded onto the green in the hope of seeing one or more of the captives. Some paid an admission fee to gawk at the Africans inside the jail. Souvenirs of all kinds were sold on the streets, and a few advertisers featured images of the captives as attention-getting devices for selling their products. A New Haven wax-museum owner even made wax life masks of the captives' faces, then arranged an exhibit for people who were turned away from the jail: For a fee they could view black wax masks of the captives. The captives were also examined by a phrenologist, who recorded that Margru was 4 feet 3 inches tall and had a large, high forehead.
Fortunately for history, a New Haven artist preserved the likenesses of the captives in the form of penciled portrait sketches. Margru's portrait reveals a dark-skinned, slightly smiling girl with close-cropped hair, wide-spaced eyes, and a penetrating gaze.
All of the Amistad publicity and its resulting uproar alarmed Lewis Tappan, a New York philanthropist and ardent abolitionist who also happened to be a chief benefactor of Oberlin College. It was Tappan, in fact, who had pressured Oberlin trustees, in 1835, to adopt an official policy admitting African American students, both male and female—the first college in the country to do so.
Making a hurried trip to New Haven, Tappan was outraged at the way the captives were being treated, and he quickly helped organize other abolitionists into an Amistad Committee to raise money for the captives' legal defense. (This committee later became the American Missionary Association.) Tappan also became an advocate for the children, and over time he would become Margru's greatest benefactor. Recognizing how traumatic the situation was for the children, Tappan arranged for them to reside in the home of the jailer, a Col. Pendleton, and his wife. Although the children enjoyed more comforts and privacy there, they also served as domestic servants and were most certainly not treated kindly.
The Trial and Its Aftermath
The Amistad trials, which determined whether the captives were still the property of their Cuban purchasers or were free and could return to Africa, took place in Hartford and New Haven. The case was not settled until former President John Quincy Adams eloquently and successfully defended the captives before the U.S. Supreme Court in March 1841—two and one-half years after their capture. The announcement that they were legally free led to much rejoicing, not only by the former captives, referred to now as "the Mendians," but also by abolitionists both in the United States and abroad.
The Mendians were promptly removed from jail and taken to the abolitionist community of Farmington, Connecticut, where they were housed, fed, and tutored by residents while awaiting funds to pay for their passage back to Africa. Here, also, they were given anglicized names. Tehme was renamed "Maria" and Kagne, "Charlotte." Lewis Tappan probably bestowed the name "Sarah Kinson" upon Margru. "Sarah" was undoubtedly derived from the biblical Sarah, who had long been associated with freedom.par Sarah joined the other Mendians on abolitionist-sponsored tours up and down the East Coast, including Boston and New York City, where they presented programs to large audiences. They read from the New Testament, performed dramatic enactments of the Amistad story, and sang both African songs and Christian hymns. Newspaper accounts of Sarah's part in these performances often noted her intelligence and educational attainments.
Finally, in November 1841, arrangements were made for several missionaries to accompany the former captives back to Africa. Sarah, by then more than ten years old, joined the thirty-five surviving Mendians to once again cross the Atlantic. In New York, while the Mendians were boarding a 280-ton ship named The Gentleman, members of the Amistad Committee and other abolitionists cheered from the pier, sang hymns such as "From Greenland's Icy Mountains," and prayed. Many in the crowd, both on and off the ship, were moved to tears. Describing this send-off, Mary Cable, author of Black Odyssey (1971), wrote, "[T]here would surely have been toasts drunk if all present hadn't been such strict teetotalers."
On this transatlantic passage Sarah did not remain in the ship's hold. Instead, she stayed in a large but crowded stateroom with the other three children, along with five missionaries who had agreed to build a new mission station for the Mendians somewhere in Sierra Leone. Two of the missionaries were from Oberlin. William Raymond had studied at the institute, and James Steele had just graduated from the Theological Department. Steele was a recent widower without children who knew how to operate a printing press. Because the Amistad Committee wanted publications from its new mission and planned to purchase a press for it, Steele could serve two important functions. Raymond, on the other hand, had actual missionary experience in Canadian fugitive-slave settlements and had tutored the Mendians while they were in Farmington. His wife, Eliza, and their new baby accompanied him.
Back in Africa
Seven long weeks later, on an unbearably hot and humid day in early January 1842, the ship dropped anchor just outside Freetown. More than 100 welcoming Mendi friends and relatives were waiting on the docks as a tender brought the former captives close enough to shore for them to wade toward it through shallow water. Dressed in suits and ties, and carefully rehearsed, they were singing a hymn when suddenly, in a split second, all decorum vanished amid shouts and wild rejoicing. Sengbe Pieh and his companions began to throw off their constrictive clothes, exposing their tribal markings, and in a matter of seconds they were being embraced by their families, friends, and welcoming countrymen. Brothers Raymond and Steele watched all of this in total disbelief—and surely recognized the enormity of the task that lay ahead of them.
Seasoned British missionaries in Freetown cautioned Raymond and Steele against building their mission anywhere near coastal waters. Malaria, they reported, as well as many other tropical diseases, had already killed most of the white missionaries who had gone to those areas. The British missionaries also warned of the difficulties of working and living in areas with virtually impenetrable mangrove swamps and violent seasonal winds, not to mention recurring tribal warfare. Steele, however, seemed determined to make up his own mind and ventured off, at first with Sengbe Pieh but later by himself, to find a location for the mission.
More than a year later, Steele returned to Freetown and heard disheartening news. Only ten adults and the four children remained out of the thirty-five returning Mendians. Those who left had tired of their American sponsors and wanted to return to their families and friends or to familiar landscapes. While he was away the Raymonds' baby had died. To make things even worse, Steele himself was so sick with malaria that he nearly succumbed to it. Unable to regain his strength, he soon returned to the United States and to Oberlin.
In the meantime, Raymond and a few still-loyal former captives first headed for Sherbro Island and then north and inland up the Jong River where they began building their new mission station, leaving Sarah and the two other girls with Mrs. Raymond in Freetown. Eventually they were all reunited at the station that they called the Komende Mission (or Kaw Mendi), and the children were finally able to settle into their first real home in more than three years.
The Komende Mission
Once his missionary work was under way, Raymond began to send personal letters to Lewis Tappan, often with news of Sarah. In one of his early letters he wrote that she had been converted to Christianity. Later he commented that she was becoming like a daughter to him. In a May 1845 letter, subsequently published in the long-running biweekly Oberlin Evangelist, Raymond reported, "I am happy to say we are doing well. Sarah I have made my housekeeper, Charlotte is cook, and Maria waits upon my wife and does the housework. . . . Sarah is almost continually singing." By November 1845 he wrote that another Oberlin missionary admitted he had never seen any other African girl "equal" to Sarah. Raymond was beginning to think that "[s]he ought to go to America to be educated, then she could be qualified to be at the head of the female department of [our] school."
Efforts then began in earnest to bring about Sarah's further education, and in the summer of 1846, just seven years after the capture of La Amistad, the fourteen-year-old former captive embarked on her second transatlantic voyage to the United States. Once again she was accompanied by Eliza Raymond, who was close to a total mental and physical breakdown, the result of yet another child's death and her own demanding labors at the mission.
Life as an Oberlin Student
Somehow Sarah traveled from the East Coast to Oberlin, where Lewis Tappan had arranged for Marianne Parker Dascomb, principal of the Female Department at the institute, to oversee her care and education. Mrs. Dascomb first placed Sarah in the home of Prof. George Whipple, former principal of Oberlin's Preparatory Department, and his wife. In late August 1846 Sarah began her formal education, probably at Oberlin's Little Red Schoolhouse, a one-room structure then located just north of Oberlin's First Church, at the corner of what are now Main and Lorain Streets. Her teacher, Lauretta Branch, kept careful track of her development and made sure that Tappan received regular reports of her academic progress.
Sarah must have been bewildered during her first year in Oberlin. On May 2, 1847 she wrote Tappan a letter saying:
I received your letter with much pleasure. I will now write and let you know how I am getting along. I am now studying very diligently so as to be qualified to do good in the world as this was my object in coming to Oberlin. . . . I am now rooming all alone. This makes me think about home. Sometimes I feel low spirit[ed] and cry then. . . . Mr. Tappan, don't forget me for I look to you as a Father and if you forget me I don't know what I shall do. Will you please send me a little present that will cheer me up?
Your servant, Miss S. Kinson
Sarah continued to excel in her studies, and in late October 1847 both Mrs. Branch and Mrs. Dascomb sent very positive reports about her to Lewis Tappan. Mrs. Branch wrote:
It is now about fourteen months since [Sarah] became a member of our school. She could then read and spell very well, but that was all. She commenced the study of Mental Arithmetic, Geography and writing, and found no difficulty in pursuing them. She always has her lesson and seldom fails in recitation. She had practiced writing but seven weeks when she wrote and read a very pretty composition—not a short one, but one which covered a page of foolscap [paper about the length of today's legal-size paper].—[It was] a narrative of a little boy who was stolen in Africa and then rescued by Mr. Raymond. Some of her compositions are exceedingly interesting. Sarah is now studying Adam's Arithmetic, Grammar, Geography, and Mental Algebra, and is one of the best scholars in her class. Whatever study she undertakes she seems to find no difficulty in mastering it thoroughly—indeed, I have never had a more thorough and successful Scholar. She has gained the love and esteem of all her schoolmates—her conduct seems to be regulated by strictly religious principles.Often when I look upon her curly head and shining face lit up with the glow of intelligence and thought, I think "Shame on the man who will say a Negro cannot learn" and [I] wish that such a one could hear Sarah as she goes through with the explanation of a hard sum in Arithmetic or Mental Algebra for he would surely be obliged to say that one [at] least of Africa's Sable Daughters can and does learn as rapidly as any of fairer skin. And if one, why not more?
Mrs. Dascomb's letter to Tappan reported on the costs of Sarah's tuition, boarding, and so forth, but she confessed to having "become much attached to her." She also was recommending that Sarah "had better join the institution this winter, as she seems prepared and anxious to do so." At the conclusion of her letter, almost as an afterthought, she penned: "She is a good girl, although not faultless."
Perhaps Mrs. Dascomb was referring to the fact that Sarah had a mind of her own. For instance, she had already refused Tappan's advice to retain her African name and be known as "Sarah Margru." Tappan contended that it was important for those people who remembered her as "Margru" to know that she had been converted and was now being successfully educated in a Christian college. Sarah, on the other hand, regarded "Margru" as her heathen name. Eventually she compromised and sometimes identified herself as "Sarah Margru Kinson." However, in school, according to Mrs. Dascomb, she was always called "Sarah Kinson."
A considerable amount of correspondence exists from Sarah's time in Oberlin. It is clear that her three years there were not particularly happy ones for her. She often complained about the cold weather and her loneliness. Yet there were good times, too. She enjoyed the year during which she roomed with Lucy Stanton, the daughter of a Cleveland abolitionist. Stanton became the first African American to graduate from the Female Department, which was equivalent to earning a bachelor's degree except that Hebrew and advanced courses in mathematics and the sciences were not required. Antoinette Brown Blackwell, who became the first woman ordained as a Protestant minister, recalled Sarah preaching about her country in First Church, probably at all-women prayer meetings.
In December 1847 Sarah wrote a letter to George Whipple, who had just moved from Oberlin to become secretary of the American Missionary Association. In it, she described her great sorrow on learning that both William Raymond and her sister Amistad captive and missionary friend, Charlotte, had recently died of malaria. They were her dearest friends, she said. Sarah admitted that she was beginning to dread receiving letters from Africa because they always brought "either sorrow or sadness in my heart."
She went on to describe her studies, which included "Algebra, history of Rome, and Physiology besides writing and drawing." She stated her willingness to return to Africa whenever she was needed, saying, "Africa is my home. I long to be there. Although I am in America, yet my heart is there [with] the people I love and the country I admire." She thanked Mr. Whipple for the dictionary and Bible he had sent, saying, "I always love to get a new book."
As Sarah concluded her letter she finally gathered enough courage to ask him for a very special gift: "It's an accordian [sic]. Mr. Whipple, I know you will laugh when I tell what it is. You know that people often say that African people like music. I do not know what [makes] this [so]." She closed by saying, "When you get my letter I want you to answer it. You often say, ‘Why don't you write Sarah?' and I often answered. Why don't you write a long letter?" She ended her letter not with her usual deferential closing of "Your servant" but with a simple, "good-bye, Sarah Margru."
By the winter of 1848 Sarah had progressed far enough in her preparatory classes to be admitted to the institute's Female Department, where she began taking college-level courses. A year later, in January 1849, she wrote Whipple again and confessed, "I am so glad that I am going home next fall. I can hardly [wait] for the time to come. Will you write and let me know when I shall go home?" She was then studying the history of England and Comstock's philosophy, in addition to reading and composition. "Among all my studies," she wrote, "I like mathematics best." Finally, she reported, "I have learned to play on my accordion considerable, but for the want of a [music] book I have not practiced a great deal."
Returning to Africa a Second Time
Sarah returned to Africa in November 1849 as the "schoolmistress" of the Komende Mission's new girls' school. She made special preparations to dress appropriately for her new position, for she returned with gloves, hose, shoes, and bonnets. She brought her cherished accordion, too. Once again stories about her began to appear in missionary reports and periodicals and in the Oberlin Evangelist. Her correspondence with Lewis Tappan and George Whipple also resumed.
In September 1852 she married Edward Green, an African who had been educated in Freetown at British missionary schools. Green had converted to Christianity shortly before joining Sarah at the mission to teach at the new boys' school.
Sarah(s marriage and teaching duties appear to have resulted in a happy and productive time for her. She was also able to report good news about her family to Whipple, saying, "I am rejoiced to tell you that I have found my old father. He is living a good distance from the Mission." The Greens were becoming a good team at the mission, so good that on New Year's Day in 1855 they headed farther into Sherbro's interior to start their own mission station.
Then, suddenly, the bubble burst. Soon after the Greens began working at their new station, Edward was summarily dismissed, for alleged intemperance and for seducing girls at the mission school. Whether Sarah left the station with her husband is as yet unknown, but her name suddenly stopped appearing in mission publications, and no further letters from her have been located.
The Search Continues . . .
Most of this account of Sarah Margru Kinson is based on research I did with Dr. Ellen N. Lawson in the late 1970s and early 1980s as part of a larger project that involved identifying and learning more about the African American women who studied at Oberlin, the first coeducational college in the United States, before the Civil War. Our work took us to many research libraries and archives. Learning about Sarah Kinson was especially challenging. Only when we began working at the Amistad Research Center in New Orleans did we discover the rich trove of American Missionary Association records there that provided us with some of our most important information. What we learned about Kinson (including published transcriptions of a number of her letters and related documents) appeared in Lawson's book, The Three Sarahs: Documents of Antebellum Black College Women, published in 1984.
Since then, new pieces of information about Kinson's life have slowly begun to surface, though a number of false leads have set back the ongoing research. For instance, there is little agreement about the date and cause of Kinson's death, even though Sierra Leonians have a rich tradition of communicating history in the form of storytelling. According to one story, Kinson was murdered in the United States later in her life. Another story says she was murdered in Africa. Still others say she lived a long life, much of it spent as a teacher. These accounts can now be found in a small but growing literature on Kinson. Unfortunately, tracking down public or missionary records to verify these stories has been delayed by the recent devastating civil wars in Sierra Leone.
For a time there was hope that the explanation of what happened to Kinson which Mary Cable offered in Black Odyssey might provide the needed information about her later life. Cable claimed that Kinson had remarried after leaving Edward Green and had a son from this later marriage. This son came to the United States, graduated from Fisk University, and attended Yale Divinity School, but he died before he could return to Africa. Although a young man from Kinson's mission station fits this description, there is no evidence yet that he was the son of Sarah Margru Kinson.
But exciting new research possibilities are presenting themselves as the Amistad story is becoming more widely known. For instance, through correspondence with two British scholars, information came to light about a grammar school in Sierra Leone that was named for Kinson. Until very recently it was unclear whether the school still existed, but thanks to a fortuitous meeting with a Sierra Leonian who is a crew member aboard the Freedom Schooner Amistad—a reconstruction of La Amistad—I learned not only that the school indeed exists but also that it is located in Bonthe, on Sherbro Island. John Kamara, who performs many of the ship's duties, is a warm and ebullient young man who cares deeply about helping create the greater international understanding that Freedom Schooner Amistad's sponsors and developers, AMISTAD America, Inc. and the United Church of Christ, promote.
Kamara has become a link between Sarah Kinson's nineteenth-century world, centering on Oberlin and Sierra Leone, and his own. When he joined the schooner's crew he was already caught up in stories about Kinson. He knew about the countryside where she was born and lived until her capture, and he had seen the school named for her. Not long before the publication of this narrative, John came to Oberlin for the first time and explored the college campus, visited the Little Red Schoolhouse, and spent time in First Church—all places that were important parts of Kinson's Oberlin world. When he returns to Sierra Leone late in the summer of 2003, Kamara wants to take photographs of the school named for Kinson and send them to Oberlin. He also hopes to investigate Sierra Leone's public records and find information about her later life and death.
So the quest goes on. But now there is an almost palpable possibility that more will be discovered about Sarah Margru Kinson. And the continuing linkage between Oberlin and Sierra Leone makes the world seem a little smaller, just as it continues to touch the minds and hearts of people on both sides of the Atlantic.
The production of this narrative has been a team effort, most of all involving the staffs of the Oberlin Historical and Improvement Organization, in Oberlin, Ohio, and of AMISTAD America, Inc., in New Haven, Connecticut.
My greatest gratitude goes to Patricia Murphy, the executive director of O.H.I.O., who provided enthusiasm and support for this project in ways too numerous to mention. Sarah Kerr, who undertook the editing and production of this work, responded energetically and creatively to every problem I encountered. She also made innumerable contributions of her own to the text and to the project as a whole. Richard Holsworth magically created images utilizing both his camera and his computer. Hans Peterson assisted me with the speedy retrieval of books, articles, and illustrations.
The staff at AMISTAD America, Inc. provided me with generous and gracious assistance whenever called upon. I wish to especially thank Marge Kuhlmann, director of public relations and marketing, Kathryn Gloor-Wacowska, development assistant, and Andrea Leiser, director of education. They also arranged for me to cruise on the Freedom Schooner Amistad when it was docked in New London, Connecticut, and to meet John Kamara, a member of the ship(s crew. I learned a great deal from John about Sierra Leone and about his interest in Sarah Margru Kinson during this first visit with him. I am also grateful for his later visits to Oberlin, arranged by the United Church of Christ, and to all those who provided him with transportation, meals, and entertainment, especially A. G. Miller, Gilmer D. Fauber Jr., David and Ricky Clark, Herbert Henke, and Bruce Erwin.
Oberlin College Archivist Roland M. Baumann made available, on short notice, a number of photographs and engravings to accompany the narrative.
Jane Blodgett provided the photograph of the First Church in Oberlin, United Church of Christ, taken by her late husband, Geoffrey Blodgett, along with her permission to publish it.
Thanks also go to George Miles, curator at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University, and Jennifer White, director of education at the New Haven Colony Historical Society, for assistance with images.
Thelma Roush, of Oberlin College(s Center for Informational Technology, and Steve and Nancy Merrill helped me surmount several computer problems.
Dan Merrill, of course, provided me with his all-encompassing support and enthusiasm.
Cable, Mary. Black Odyssey: The Case of the Slave Ship Amistad. 1971 (paperback in 1998).
Conteh, Jean and Sylvia L. Collicott. Sarah Margru Kinson. From a reading series for African Primary School children, "Reading Worlds".
Fletcher, Robert S. A History of Oberlin College from Its Foundation through the Civil War. 2 vols. 1943.
Jackson, Donald Dale. Mutiny on the Amistad. Smithsonian. December 1997, 114-124.
Jones, Howard. All We Want Is Make Us Free. American History. January-February 1998, 22-28, 71.
Jones, Howard. Mutiny on the Amistad: The Saga of the Slave Revolt and Its Impact on American Abolition, Law, and Diplomacy. 1997.
Kromer, Helen. Amistad: The Slave Uprising aboard the Spanish Schooner. 1997.
Lawson, Ellen N., with Marlene D. Merrill. The Three Sarahs: Documents of Antebellum Black College Women. 1984.
Osagie, Lyunolu Folayan. The Amistad Revolt: Memory, Slavery, and the Politics of Identity in the United States and Sierra Leone. 2003.
Owens, William A. Black Mutiny: The Revolt on the Schooner Amistad. 1997.
Thompson, George. The Palm Land; or, West Africa, Illustrated. 3d ed. 1859.
Thompson, George. Thompson in Africa. 2d ed. 1859.
Amistad History on the Internet
AMISTAD America, Inc. has a number of illustrated articles
about La Amistad, its captives, their subsequent trial,
<http://www.amistadamerica.org/content/blogcategory/177/201/> Arthur Abraham's excellent overview of Amistad history, The Amistad Revolt: An Historical Legacy of Sierra Leone and the United States.
National Archives and Records Administration documents concerning
the Amistad case.