Putting to Rest the Matilda Newport Myth - Part 2
By Siahyonkron Nyanseor
January 7, 2004
Part I of this article ended with the natives (African Liberians) running helter skelter “for their lives”, as portrayed in the novel written by Prince Massala Reffell, The Black Mayflower, 2000. Part II will now address whether the Matilda Newport story is true or a myth, and I shall provide my findings on the subject in the conclusion.
About three years ago, while conducting my research on Matilda Newport’s alleged deeds, I came across a bibliography in the Liberian Studies Journal about, “The Search For Matilda Newport,” a study conducted by Jane J. Martin and Rodney Carlisle in 1975. Immediately, I contacted Dr. D. Elwood Dunn, who provided me with information on how to get in touch with Dr. Martin. Eventually, I contacted her and she provided me with a copy of the study and gave me the permission to use the material; for this I am indebted to her, Dr. Rodney Carlisle and the Students of the “1st Seminar Historical Sources” at the University of Liberia – 1975.
The “Search For Matilda Newport” is the first publication to actually made sense of the Matilda Newport Story.
An Artist View of Matilda Newport in Action
The Search For Matilda Newport
According to Martin, Carlisle et al: Liberian history tells the tale of Matilda Newport and the Battles of Fort Hill (the Gatoomba War of 1822) and her famous deeds - similar to that of Joan of Arc. Reportedly, she fired a cannon using a coal from her pipe and destroyed the Dey warriors. She has been characterized as “Liberia’s Joan of Arc” and called “This Sainted Mother.” In the annals of Liberian history, she is ranked among the likes of “Cleopatra and Queen Elizabeth I of England.” In textbooks written by both Liberians and non-Liberians, Matilda Newport is described as “pipe-puffing, be skirted, widowed, occasionally as from Georgia, sometimes as a teacher. She was ‘intrepid,’ quickwitted, acting calmly and with complacency.”
Recounts of Matilda Newport’s heroism tell diverse versions of a story that say that Matilda outwitted her enemy and/or captors, using a coal from her pipe to detonate a cannon to decimate the Dey warriors. Whether Matilda Newport is a historical or mythical figure is not answered either by oral tradition or these colorful accounts. An initial search of written records did not confirm the existence of the widow Newport. Census rolls and lists of emigrants to Liberia did not confirm her existence either, at first blush. Further research reveals that Matilda Spencer, married to one Thomas Spencer, was a settler in Liberia. Reports indicate that Thomas Spencer was killed in one of the battles, which took place in 1822. There is a record of Matilda Spencer (Thomas Spencer’s widow) being married to Ralph Newport and bearing a son named Isaiah; this was confirmed in an article written in the Liberian Recorder, (November 11, 1905). The same newspaper earlier recorded the act that gave rise to her celebrity in an article published in December 1899.
The Liberian Foreign Ministry has records of a deed registered to Ralph Newport and his wife, Matilda in May 1832. This deed memorializes the sale of Town Lot No. 10 to Ralph and Matilda Newport. From these records, we can infer that Matilda Newport was a true life figure. The question, which remains is whether or not she performed the exploits attributed to her by oral tradition.
Based on the research by Martin, Carlisle et al, “Although printed speeches, newspaper articles, readers, and descriptive literature had contained the story, the History of Liberia by Abayomi Karnga, published in 1926 is the first published text to mention Matilda Newport’s act. Karnga gave Matilda Newport credit for saving the colony. He stated further that the colonists through their victory and Matilda Newport’s action were able to survive against odds and maintain their independence from foreign control. An indirect reference to the British and the French who had colonies in the area…”
“In 1922, the Newport Volunteers, along with a company of women are responsible for the erection of the Matilda Newport Monument in the part of the Centennial Pavilion.”
D. Twe who had opposed to the continued celebration of Matilda Newport Day in his 1926 Matilda Newport Day oration agreed with Karnga that without the settlers the other peoples of Liberia would be either British or French subjects. In the same speech, D. Twe stressed the need to “civilize” the “uncivilized” man. He felt that uncivilized men must “be taught to think nationally” and that “We must teach them ourselves. We can’t leave their training to foreigners”. And the way to achieve this goal was through “the increasing body of aboriginal young people who have been lifted out of their natural social environment by education and training in civilized families. Edward Wilmot Blyden saw it differently. In 1866, he said, outsiders (outlaws) contributed to some of the wars, but he attributed the deliverance of the colony to “a merciful Providence” and not to Matilda Newport. (Jane J. Martin & Rodney Carlisle, “The Search For Matilda Newport,” Monrovia, Liberia, 1975). Yet, President Edwin Barclay continued the Matilda Newport myth by dedicating a poem her honor, which is entitled “Silent Deeds”:
‘Tis not the fame of blackest shame
That makes our neighbor’s virtue less:
‘Tis not great deeds proclaimed abroad
That can our vileness e’er repress;
But pure soul-searching principles,
A soul that ‘s great, a heart that seeks
A mind from vileness free.
The mystic Trinity.
‘Tis not the wealth of coin and health
That makes one man o’er others blest;
‘Tis not earth’s fill of happiness;
‘Tis not good motives unexpressed:
But ‘tis the wealth of sacred love;
Good thoughts in deeds expressed
A sweet commune with heavenly souls,
That give the spirit rest.
Full many a flower of sweetest fume
Oft wastes its sweetness midst the thorn;
Full many a bud of brightness bloom
Wakes not to see the light of morn;
But this makes not its sweetness less,
Nor shades its brilliancy:
It lives in silence, and alas,
It dies, but happily!
See below a partial Roll of Emigrants to Liberia, 1820-1843 and Liberian Census Data, 1843 - Tom W. Shick, Principal Investigator.
This list supports
the findings of the research conducted by Martin, Carlisle et al and this
writer. Between 1820-1843, there were only three (3) Newports that went to
Liberia, among them was Ralph Newport, who in 1820 was 17 years of age. Later,
Ralph Newport married Matilda Spencer when her husband Thomas Spencer was
killed in one of the battles, which took place in 1822. The same 1820-1843 Emigrants Roll showed a 25 year-old
Matilda Spencer, a wife of Thomas
Spencer (32 years old).
The Attitude of Let Sleeping Dog Lie
According to Dr. Martin, one individual with whom she discussed her research, condemned it as a futile exercise in scholarship, serving no useful purpose except to exhume attitudes and words better left buried with the past. A typical Liberian behavior – “Your leave the people’s thing alone” or “Mind your own business!”
Based on available sources, Matilda Newport was a real person who resided in Liberia during this period. She came to Africa on the “Elizabeth,” March 9, 1820 at the age of 25 as Matilda Spencer, the spouse of the 32 years old, Thomas Spencer. According to records, she could not read nor write (illiterate). During the Battles of Fort Hill, Matilda Spencer was 27 years old. Had she performed the deed she is credited with, she would have been known as Matilda Spencer, and not Matilda Newport. Probably, her husband, Thomas Spencer was killed in one of the conflicts. According to the Emigrant List, he died as a casualty in 1822. Matilda Spencer married to Ralph Newport sometime after 1822. Her story borne of the need to pass on the so-called victory of the Settlers over the natives, and it was nurtured through myth of larger-than-life proportions, passed on as a ‘Griot’ would to his family. In passing on this tradition, the ‘Griot’ acted as if truth is woven within every treasured word of myth, fable, etc., that’s how this story was passed on from generation to generation. And that’s exactly what the Matilda Spencer Newport myth intended to achieve!
As an adult, I am of the belief that history should be written in such a way that it will enable students to distinguish between those aspects of the subject which are based on facts, and those which lean more heavily on myth.
Unlike Dr. Chieka Anta Diop, most Liberian historians of the “old school” wrote history to glorify the past no matter how inaccurate it is. Dr. Diop on the other hand, sought to expand the role played by history in the day-to-day life of all people. He did not undertake the study of Africa’s “past to generate a mere collection of data to be used for contingent reference, or a catalog of persons and places and a picturesque list of political events”.
African Liberian history, can be traced from their activities with Europeans - such as the Normans who visited the Liberian shores in 1364, Pedro de Cintra in 1461, the English in 1551, 1556, 1562, 1564 and 1567, a German-Swiss by the name of Samuel Braun in 1611, the Dutch in 1626 and 1668 and the French in 1725. Therefore, to suggest, “The cannon went off. The sound was so loud, it frighten (sic) the attackers who had never seen such a discharge of firing power before.” This is not only a BIG LIE but a ridiculous portrayal of African Liberians. In fact, during this period, some of the natives were literate; they traded and interacted with the Portuguese, Dutch, French, and Germans prior to the arrival of the Settlers. Common sense tells us that in order to carry out these activities or transactions, some of them had to speak these languages.
Furthermore, earliest reference to Kru (Klao) offshore employment relates to a Spanish vessel that stopped at Elmina on the Gold Coast in February 1645. In the eighteen century, Klao migrated to Freetown and from there they were employed on vessels owned by the Sierra Leone Company. By the end of the 1790s, more than 50 Klao were employed as deckhands and in other jobs on British colonial vessels. Klao participated in contract work in the nineteenth century was almost always voluntary (Amos C. Sawyer, The Emergence of Autocracy in Liberia, Tragedy and Challenge, 1992).
Why were a people who has had extensive interaction with Europeans prior to the arrival of the Settlers (Americo-Liberians) portrayed as stupid, “savage, primitive, and belligerent people”? The portrayal of African Liberians in “Liberian history” written by these old school “scholars” and their contemporaries resembles some comic script out of Hollywood, which depicts Native Americans in similar vein and Cowboys/Scouts as smart and intelligent, and were always victorious in their battles with Native Americans. You get the picture? A repeat of American history in Liberia!
Since new evidence has proven Matilda Newport’s so-called victory to be FALSE, the People’s Redemption Council (PRC) did the right thing to abolished a Day whose aim it was to divide the Liberian people rather than unite them. To have continued it would have only satisfied the segment of the Liberian society who found pride in promoting and celebrating antebellum southern culture.
It is therefore imperative that we pay close attention to the advice offered by Frantz Fanon:
“Every generation must out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it”.
Therefore, as Liberians, it behooves us to make it our mission to base our account of history of the people of Africa, Liberia in particular on facts by applying that which modern technology has to offer in order to acquire the correct perspective on African history, culture and tradition so as to wrestle from the clutches of the distorters of our civilization and history - who are bend on keeping up such tale as Matilda Newport’s alleged victory against the natives of Liberia. Instead, we should do as one patriot suggest, “to produce one people that shall see with one eye, think with one mind, feel with one heart, and work for one purpose – the building up of a strong and exemplary Negro Republic on this continent, small but elastic enough to accommodate all the sons of Africa who wish to become Liberians ‘for the love of liberty’”.
“Until lions have their own historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter,” says an African proverb. This should be our mission!
In point of fact, Professor V. R. Ruggiero wrote in his book, “The Art of Thinking” that, "If everyone makes his own Truth, then no person's idea can be better than another's. All must be equal. And if all ideas are equal, what is the point in researching any subject? Why dig in the ground for answers to archeological questions? Why probe the causes of tension in the Middle East? Why search for a cancer cure? Why explore the Galaxy? These activities make sense only if some answers are better than others, if truth is something separate from, and unaffected by, individual perspectives."
This exercise should be seen that light. We certainly seek the Truth, and not to offend anyone group in particular but rather to do the right thing. We seek the Truth in the hope of effecting change of attitude. This is in no way an attempt to change history (what has already taken place) but rather to put history in the proper perspective.
Like D. Twe said in his 1926 Newport Day address: “… I went against my conviction. The task was therefore a very uncomfortable one to perform, for I have always felt that the continual celebration of the destruction of men of the Bassa Tribe by Matilda Newport is a short sighted policy to sustain. It invites ill feelings from within and criticism from without. The outside world would feel, and rightly so, that [it] is radically wrong in Liberia where, one brother fires canon in celebrating the day he was successful to kill the brother.”
Many of us too, celebrated Matilda Newport Day without the slightest idea of what we were celebrating. We did so like we did when we cheered at Gabriel Cinema and Walker Theater for Tarzan, a boy raised by animal, who was portrayed as being wiser then the natives he encountered. Now that the truth has been revealed about how the Matilda Newport myth was manufactured, IT IS ABOUT TIME WE PUT IT TO REST ONCE AND FAR ALL! However, since today is Pioneer Day, I ask that we work towards the goal of achieving peace, genuine reconciliation and for the “Love of Liberty to Unite Us” in LIBERIA.