Hidden Histories

An English slave trader, An African Prince & The Pennsylvania Gazette

Thursday, 9/11/08

The history of African enslavement, as portrayed by scholars and interpreted by the general public, has been represented, discussed and defined, in far too often simplistic generalizations, without recognizing the intriguing 'exceptions to the rule' that exist in primary source materials.

One prime example is that concerning an English slaver trader, an African Prince and the contemporary records of the period reporting their activities, from Africa, to England and as far West as Philadelphia.

For many years I was fascinated by an individual named Bulfinche Lambe, a 'Factor' or commercial agent for the 'Royal African Company,' a slaving enterprise which began in London as early as 1660. During the rule of King George I, or the early 18th century, Lambe resided within 'Agaja,' or the west African kingdom of Dahomey, where he also spent time in captivity as a 'guest' of its local chief, known as the 'Emperor of PawPaw' or 'Trudo Audati,' styled as the conqueror "of the great Kingdoms of Ardah & Whidah," neighboring chiefdoms also located in West Africa.

After three years of residency with the 'Emperor,' Lambe was permitted to return to England, but only under certain conditions. He brought a letter from the African chieftain, asking for an alliance to be made between King George & himself, requesting the possession of "Fire-Arms" and the "Secret of making Powder," {gun powder} for which he he would then permit "other white Men and Women... {to} live in my Country; and they shall have as many of my Subjects as they desire," meaning 'slaves,' which he continually obtained through multiple battles with enemy tribal nations.

Thus, Bulfinche Lambe did indeed return to England in September of 1731, but along with Adomo Tomo, also known as Robert Whidah, an African Prince, who, through the direct command from the administrators of the 'African Company,' and by an "Order from the Treasury," was to be personally cared for & maintained, to be "handsomely provided for during his Stay here...all his Debts to be paid, and all other Expences defray'd..."

Having researched the above individuals & incidents for quite sometime, as found within editions of the Pennsylvania Gazette and elsewhere, I had the distinct opportunity to discover and correspond with Dr. Robin Law, of the University of Sterling in Scotland & Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who surprisingly had simultaneously been investigating the above affair and individuals and had published articles relative to the same subject matter.

By comparing the accounts recorded within Dr. Law's British texts, and those found in Franklin's Pennsylvania Gazette, it became evident that the Philadelphia versions, in a number of cases, contained significant details which were for some reason were left 'unrecorded' or non-extant in the English sources from which they derived.

Through our mutual investigation, Dr. Law & myself discovered some interesting details, information which revealed surprising data, not normally associated with slavery and the 'stereotypical' race-relations believed to have exclusively existed at that time, between Africans & Europeans.

Information contained within the Pennsylvania Gazette, revealed that Adomo Tomo & Robert Whidah, were in actuality one and the same person, a fact not previously known. Also, the 'African Prince' was baptized into the Christian faith while in England, in May of 1731. The Gazette then emphatically declares:

"The said Adomo Tomo being christened, married Mrs. Johnson an English woman, on the 4th of Jan. 1732, who proposes to go with him when he returns to his own Country."


Image from THE PENNSYLVANIA GAZETTE,
June 15 - June19, 1732

The Gentleman's Magazine, printed in London in 1731 had mentioned a "Mrs. Johnson" marrying a man named Robert Whidah, but it was believed that he was someone other than Adomo Tomo, the African Prince. As Dr. Law states, "whether she did in fact accompany him back to Dahomey is not (or at least, not yet) known."

Thus, as has occurred in so many cases, records here at 'The Historical Society of Pennsylvania,' continue to shed light on well-known, as well as obscure events in history, and in this particular case, from African involvement in the slave trade, to race relations and social interaction between African 'nobility' and English society.

As had been acutely revealed over a century earlier at Jamestown (in relation to Pocahontas and her Native American cousins' reception by the Crown and British aristocracy); it was 'social class & status,' not one's race nor ethnicity, which at times determined how one was received and treated in Europe, and in America, as revealed by many recorded primary sources of that period of Western history.

Both Africans & Europeans during the 18th-century, were heavily involved in the 'slave-trade,' and neither seemed particulary concerned on occasion, as to what the 'race' of the other may be, in connection with their social or cultural interactions.

***

For information relative to the above account, consult the following:

Robin Law, "King Agaja of Dahomey, the Slave Trade and the Question of West African Plantations: The Embassy of Bulfinch Lambe & Adomo Tomo to England, 1726-32," The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, Vol.XIX, No.2 (May, 1991): 137-163; (by same author: "An Alternative Text of King Agaja of Dahomey's Letter to King George I of England, 1726," History of Africa Vol.29 (2002): 257-271. On page 259, note 8, Dr. Law remarks: "My profound thanks to Daniel Rolph of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Gwenydd-Mercy College and Montgomery County Community College, who located these reports and supplied photocopies of them to me." See also Robin Law & Kristin Mann, "West Africa in the Atlantic Community: The Case of the Slave Coast," William & Mary Quarterly, Third Series, Vol.LVI, No.2 (April, 1999): 307-334.

See, The Pennsylvania Gazette, July 29th to August 5th, 1731; February 8th to 15th, 1731-32;
June 8th to June 15th, 1732; June 15th to June 19th, 1732.

Consult also, The Gentlemen's Magazine, Vol.1, (May, September & December issues, for they year '1731').