The Controversy of the Legendary Matilda Newport
By Theodore Hodge
December 1, 2003
No sooner had I learned how to read, I was introduced to the legend of Matilda Newport, the heroine who purportedly used a single piece of coal from her pipe to light a canon that exploded and killed a multitude of advancing hostile natives, whose apparent intention it was to wreck havoc on a settlement peopled by peace-loving pioneers - immigrants newly arrived on the Liberian coast. From the point of view of some ‘historians’, this one act of bravery and heroism may have saved the union - the Liberian union, that is. Matilda Newport was therefore, rewarded by having a day set aside in her honor - December 1 was celebrated as a national holiday year after year as Matilda Newport Day.
On this day, at commemorative programs speeches were made as history was handed down from one generation to another. All ‘patriotic’ Liberians were taught to admire the courage of this great lady who saved the nation. Being a patriot by osmosis (or a knee-jerk patriot) I shared and celebrated this piece of history: Matilda Newport was indeed a heroine who killed hostile natives to save the Liberian nation.
However, by the mid-seventies some radical intellectuals began to question and challenge the view we had overwhelmingly come to accept. Was Matilda Newport a heroine or villain? Were those natives killed by the canon blast a bunch of hostile, uncivilized, war-mongering natives or were they an innocent, defenseless group of aborigines seeking to assert their rights by reclaiming properties that had been illegally obtained by the immigrants? In other words, were those killed the true patriots?
For the first time, many Liberians began to question not
only the veracity of the events as they had been hitherto convincingly
narrated, but the logic behind the whole story. If Matilda Newport lit
a canon and killed a bunch of natives, should natives (the majority
of the Liberian population) be celebrating this day with glee and joy?
All of a sudden, there was more than one side to this story. To me it was simply an intellectual exercise I found stimulating. I relished the debates that followed. Many people deemed it their patriotic duty to call for the banishment of this day. It was reasoned that it was not in the interest of the Liberian nation to celebrate a victory by the minority settlers over the majority natives. On the other hand, there were those who thought it was near sacrilegious to temper with history; facts were facts, or were they? In the end there seemed to be no convincing evidence to support its authenticity.
As is usually the case, I thought about the controversy as the legendary and disputed anniversary rolled around this year; which prompts this article.
For those wondering how could we have been sold on such a facetious story - how and why could such a controversial story be a part of our heritage only to be challenged now? Well if it is any consolation, I tell my countrymen and women not to lose sleep over this. These kinds of issues do pop up in popular history more often than we do realize, as the few examples following indicate:
The eminent history professor and civil rights activist, Dr. Howard Zinn writes in his outstanding book, “People’s History of the United States”: “The treatment of heroes (Columbus) and their victims (the Arawaks) - the quiet acceptance of conquest and murder in the name of progress - is only one aspect of a certain approach to history, in which the past is told from the point of view of governments, conquerors, diplomats and leaders. It is as if they, like Columbus, deserve universal acceptance, as if they - the Founding Fathers, Jackson, Lincoln, Wilson, Roosevelt, Kennedy, the leading members of Congress, the famous Justices of the Supreme Court - represent the nation as a whole”.
He quotes Dr. Henry Kissinger who wrote, “History is the memory of states”. Kissinger in his first book, “A World Restored” proceeded to tell the history of nineteenth-century Europe from the viewpoint of the leaders of Austria and England, ignoring the millions who suffered from those statesmen’s policies. From his standpoint the ‘peace’ that Europe had before the French Revolution was ‘restored’ by the diplomacy of a few national leaders”.
But Dr. Zinn, in disagreeing with such characterization or interpretation of history counters: “But for factory workers in England, farmers in France, colored people in Asia and Africa, women and children everywhere except in the upper classes, it was a world of conquest, violence, hunger, exploitation - a world not restored but disintegrated”.
James W. Loewen, author of the best seller, “Lies My Teacher Told Me”, writes about an experiment conducted by a history professor, Michael Frisch. Frisch asks his first-year college students to list “the first ten names that you think of” in American history before the Civil War…“excluding presidents, generals, statesmen, etc”. According to the author, “Seven years out of eight, Betsy Ross has led the list”.
“What is interesting about this choice is that Betsy Ross never did anything”, writes Loewen. “Frisch notes that she played ‘no role whatsoever in the actual creation of any actual first flag’. Ross came to prominence around 1876, when some of her descendants, seeking to create a tourist attraction in Philadelphia, largely invented the myth of the first flag”, he writes.
In the opening chapter of the book, he refers to “Heroification, a degenerative process (much like calcification) that makes people over into heroes. Through this process, our educational media turn flesh and blood individuals into pious, perfect creatures without conflicts, pain, credibility, or human interest”.
Having heard about the legend of Betsy Ross and the legendary role she is said to have played in American history, is it not amazing that this was the product of somebody’s imagination? And if Betty Ross did not design the first American flag, is it possible that Matilda Newport did not shoot a canon, just maybe? It’s something to think about, folks.