Matilda Newport and the Miracle at Crown Hill
By Mohamedu F. Jones, Esq.
December 5, 2003
I drafted the PRC Decree that ended Matilda Newport Day. In November 1980, I was a senior civil servant in the Ministry of State for Presidential Affairs. A few months before, I had been a professional staff member of the National True Whig Party of Liberia. Dr. George Boley, the Minister of State, and Mr. Emanuel Shaw, Deputy Minister of State had sought me out in May 1980 to come to work in the Mansion, "for the good of our country." I had worked with Shaw and Boley the year before on a Task Force appointed by President Tolbert to reform the True Whig party, and by definition of the circumstances, the political process in Liberia - which effort had obviously failed. I accepted the Mansion position for the "good of the country", despite my political misgivings about what had happened in Liberia, and my realization as a student of politics, that the ramifications of the coup would go beyond anything we could envision.
In any event, I was working in the Mansion, in November 1980, and had noticed that despite all the rhetoric, the military government had celebrated all the historical holidays. In November, the question of "Matilda Newport Day" came to my mind and I raised it with Deputy Minister Willie Givens, who in turn raised it with Dr. Boley. Without telling me what to do, Boley sent instructions through Givens to tell me to draft a proposed decree.
As part of my young man’s "bluff," I had started smoking a pipe while in college. I can still remember while in Cedar Falls, Iowa, smoking my pipe one day, the thought came to my mind in a moment of random thinking as to whether, a pipe could light a cannon. Nearly a decade later, I was instructed to prepare a draft Decree that dealt with the very issue of a pipe and a cannon. Since it was not clear to me whether Boley wanted the holiday to continue or be abrogated, I prepared a draft with alternative proclamations. In the end, after intense debate in the PRC and the Ministry of State, Matilda Newport Day was ended.
Regardless of what one thinks about the whole Matilda Newport story, in terms of the politics of it, and its meaning of our nation, when one considers the practicality of it, Matilda Newport could not have fired a cannon with flames from her pipe. Research into U.S. civil war cannons, which if anything, one would consider to be technologically more advanced then Newport’s cannon, illustrate why this story simply has no foundation:
Firing procedure for a Civil War six pound cannon
#3 has on his left thumb a thumbstall. On the back of the cannon is a vent that he must cover while #1 pushes the sponge rammer into the cannon. If not, any remaining powder may ignite and #1 looses an arm. The cannon gets very hot, thus the leather thumbstall. The #5 man delivers the round to number 2. Note #2 has his back to the enemy to protect the round from being hit by a bullet.
After #2 loads the round in the barrel and steps back, #1 rams it home. Notice #3 is still covering the vent hole. Even though the barrel has been sponged, there still exists the chance sparks could ignite the powder bag, that is part of the round. If this happens, the rammer, and the right arm of #1 are heading toward the enemy. When finished #1 steps out.
Number #3 now steps back to the hand spike for any last minute corrections by the gunner. The gunner has been sighting the weapon during this time, by raising or lowering the barrel. The gunner gives a touchdown signal that tells #3 he is set. Much of the procedure is done by drill, using signals, not sounds. Battle noise would drown out many commands, endangering the crew.
At the command "Ready" # 3 and #4 step inside the wheel base. #1 and #2 step back and make their bodies flat to the end of the barrel. #3 takes out a vent pick and pokes a hole in the powder bag. Each round has a powderbag attached which when lit, explodes and sends the projectile down range. #4 has prepared a friction primer and attached it to his lanyard. The wire pulls thru the primer, and sends a flame down into the powderbag. The explosion sends the projectile down field.
After the hole has been poked, #4 sticks the friction primer into the vent hole, #3 places his hand over the lanyard. As #4 backs away to stretch the lanyard, #3 makes sure if #4 trips and pulls at the lanyard, the cannon does not prematurely go off. If #4 does start to trip, he drops his end of the lanyard immediately. Upon reaching the end of the lanyard, #4 sets his feet and shakes his head to #3. This tells #3 it is clear to step back to his position.
#4 turns away from the cannon to protect himself from the snapping lanyard. #1 and #2 watch the end of the barrel to ensure the cannon fires. In battle, smoke and noise sometimes disguised the individual cannon firing noise. It was absolutely necessary to make sure the cannon fired. #6 and #7 observe the firing. It was their job to get the round that is specified by the gunner, set the fuse if necessary, and give it to #5.
If Matilda Newport did fire a cannon on Crown Hill that day, it was a miracle.