Putting the Matilda Newport Myth to Rest - Part I
By Siahyonkron Nyanseor
December 1, 2003
Liberian history is replete with accounts of heroism on the part of Americo-Liberians (Settlers), and accounts of cowardice on the part of Native-Liberians (the aborigines). And it is this slanted view of Liberian history, and this false sense of heroism and cowardice that have been the main source of conflict amongst generations of Liberians on either side of the political and social divide, and undermined true patriotism and nationalism in Liberia.
These conflicts also became the key stimulants for continued
distrust, disunity, and infighting amongst Liberians up to this day.
For instance, the story of Matilda Newport was a mixed bag of Americo-Liberian
pride, and native-Liberian nightmare, yet successive Americo-Liberian-dominated
government leaderships in Liberia found it necessary to honor and celebrate
the supposed good deeds of Matilda Newport as a national holiday. And
Liberian school children were forced to parade in the streets in celebration
of Matilda Newport Day until 1980 when the holiday was abolished by
the native-Liberian leaders of the 1980 coup, which displaced the ruling
Americo-Liberian leaders of the ruling True Whig Party after 133 years
at the helm.
I can still vividly recall that as a youth growing up in Monrovia we used to assemble at Coconut Plantation each December 1 to watch the reenactment of the Battle of Fort Hill. And during the reenactment, one group of actors would dress-up in native-Liberian attires with their faces painted to portray native-Liberian tribesmen, and the other groups of actors would dress-up in Antebellum south style outfits to portray Americo-Liberians Settlers or Pioneers. And suddenly, a woman dressed-up as an old lady would appear from nowhere, light a cannon pointed directly at the actors dressed like native tribesmen (portrayed like fools in front of the cannon), and then “BOOM” the cannon goes off, and all of them would fall and pretend to die.
But way back then, I had the inclination that something was just not right about the Matilda Newport story. For I didn’t believe for a second that a group of tribal warriors would be so stupid to become such an easy target of elimination. But, again, I was very young, so I just had to play along. But then as I got older, and read the 1926 Matilda Newport Day Oration by Honorable D. Twe (Didwho Twe) that I realized that I was not alone in my suspicion about the Matilda Newport story. In reference to his December 1, 1926 Matilda Newport oration, delivered under the title, “Our Foremost Internal Problem,” Mr. Twe, who became a member of the Liberian legislature recalls thus:
"…In 1926 I delivered the Newport Day address for that year right in this very hall, but on that day 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 shortsighted policy to sustain. It invites ill feelings from within and criticism from without. The outside world would feel, and rightly so, that is radically wrong in Liberia where, one brother fires canon in celebrating the day he was successful to kill the brother.
"What sort of unity do we really expect to establish? Nevertheless, I delivered the oration. It was my first public address but it landed me in the National Legislature the following year as member from Montserrado County."
And given Mr. Twe’s reflections and what I have read, I have come to realize over the years the depth to which some people will go to preserve falsehood. But I couldn’t be sure the Matilda Newport story was a myth or reality in the absence of concrete evidence. But I had several theories of my own why anyone would want to invent such a story. And one of these was that the people in power, in this case the ruling class in Liberia, would not hesitate to use their intellectual, political, and economic resources to suppress dissent, and make good example of those who attempt to challenge their authority. And history is replete with the enormous prize paid by those who fought at various points in time to reveal the truth. Some pay with their lives, while others were ostracized or branded as divisive, ridiculed or called by all sorts of names. And for those who couldn’t stand the pressure or the heat soon compromised their scholarship to project the popular view of the day to avoid physical and financial hardship.
I have also come to realize that in order to maintain the status quo, those in power will show little or no compunction for speaking or writing the truth. They usually tend to promote or impose a particular way of life (culture) or viewpoint as the “gospel truth” without considering the impact it will have on the entire society. Such is the case of Matilda Newport. And even my family felt victim to the Matilda Newport myth. Because my sister was born on December 1, or “Matilda Newport Day”, she was almost named Matilda like most other females born on December 1, before the family decided against it. But the incident with my sister only goes to illustrate the impact of the celebration of Matilda Newport, a woman who supposedly and single-handedly defeated the indigenous warriors during the battle of Crown Hill. The battle was supposedly fought between the Americo-Liberian settlers and Bassa, Dey and Gola tribes at Cape Mesurado in present day Monrovia, the Liberian capital, over the ownership of land.
However, in the 1970s, there were serious public debates regarding the truth or falsity of the heroism attributed to Matilda Newport. There were those who felt that Matilda Newport was a mystical or fictional character, while others believed she actually existed. But whether or not she existed is not the concern of this writer. My goal is to present available research regarding the Matilda Newport story so as to correct this blemish on Liberian history, to the extent that the next generations of Liberians would be able to carefully evaluate the story or myth, and put its divisive consequences in proper perspective. And this brings me to the inquiry as to whether Matilda Newport was a person, or a mystical or fictional character developed to reinforce Americo-Liberian domination of native-Liberians.
And on that score alone, there are inherent faults in the recorded Liberian history taught in Liberian primary and secondary schools. Written accounts in Liberian history differ from author to author, even on identical subjects, including the Matilda Newport story. Authors such as Abayomi Karnga, Ernest Jerome Yancy, A. Doris Banks Henries, Christian Abayomi Cassell and Nathaniel R. Richardson were notorious for their slanted views of Liberian history, especially issues involving native Liberians. In their respective history books, these authors saw nothing of substance that African Liberians contributed to the development of Liberia. Even where the natives granted the newcomers free arbor at Providence Island and other places in modern Liberia, it was written that the natives sold their land for “smoke-fish”. And most references to the natives were always negative, except in the cases of natives who collaborated with the newcomers. For example, A. Doris Banks Henries, a recent emigrant described native Liberians in her Liberian History (1966) book as: “savage, primitive, belligerent people”. A. Doris Banks Henries and her contemporaries were not only bias in their writing of Liberia’s history, they also committed academic dishonesty.
For since history is defined as the recording of past and present events (activities), then those who record history are not suppose to leave out the contributions made by others when the history is about the entire country, otherwise such a written history would be grossly inaccurate. But, as the saying goes, “You can fool some of the people, some of the time, but not all of the people, all of the time”. So I joined the debate in the 1970s to find out whether the deed Matilda Newport was credited with was true or false. There were those who felt that Matilda Newport was a myth created by descendents of the Settlers, and there were others who believed that she did perform the deed. Based on both concerns, I felt it was the right thing to do by setting the record straight once and for all. That’s how I began my inquiry, - which became a research paper (unpublished) titled: Matilda Newport’s Deed, Myth or Reality? Excerpts from this work were used to write this article.
Nonetheless, in order to find out the truth or falsity of the Matilda Newport story, we must first answer the following questions: Who was Matilda Newport? Was she a real person? Was she an old lady as portrayed? Was she literate? Is it possible for a cannon to be fired by coal from a pipe? Is Matilda Newport and Matilda Spencer the same person? Did Matilda Newport perform the deed she is credited with? Was she Spencer or Newport when she allegedly fired the cannon? And why were the natives portrayed as stupid? These are issues this article intends to address.
For in this two-part article, I will explore the Matilda Newport story from the perspectives of various Liberian and non-Liberian historians in part I, and continued in part II with research accounts as to whether the Matilda Newport story is a myth or reality, and then provide my own thoughts on the subject in the conclusions to the article. Let’s now begin our journey into the Matilda Newport story on this anniversary date of December 1, 2003, which was celebrated as a national holiday throughout Liberia before being abolished in 1980. We shall now review various accounts of the Matilda Newport story:
Nathaniel R. Richardson’s Account of the
Matilda Newport Story
Be that as it may, she formed her plan. Silently she went forward, resolved to do, or die. Hundreds of the natives, their main body, were yet collected around the cannon. She walked fearlessly in amongst them and offer (sic) to teach them how to use that cannon. They listened to her attentively. She directed them to arrange themselves in a row, directly in front of the cannon’s mouth. When she had got them arranged in straight line, directly in front, with the cannon pointing straight at them, she coolly and quickly took a coal of fire from her pipe and placed it in the cannon’s tube.
“The explosion that followed killed nearly all the natives she had so arranged; the rest summoned our dispirited men to renew the combat. They returned full of hope to the charge, retook their cannon, and soon gained a complete victory over the routed foe.
“Thus, Matilda Newport has rendered her name famous in the annals of Liberian history, and is well worthy of the honor paid her memory on every first day of December by citizens generally, especially by the military company ‘A’ of ‘Newport Volunteers’. Without her action, it is probable that the colony would have perished.
“But while war in self-defence is no doubt often necessary, it should be registered more as a means of protecting innocence, the establishment of right, and the introduction of higher principles of human action, rather than as a means of self-gain. While we rejoice with the victor in our case we should pity the misguided natives who fought to uphold the wicked cause of slave-trading.
“On December first, the citizens of Monrovia celebrate a national holiday in honor of the Liberian heroine of colonial days, Matilda Newport. This anniversary of the day in 1822 when the colonists, aided by Matilda Newport, won a great victory over attacking hostile native tribes. Thus Matilda Newport Day is marked each year with solemn thanksgiving as well as gay celebrations.
“The Commissioner of the Commonwealth District of Monrovia arranges a special program for the occasion, at which time a distinguished citizen delivers an address appropriate to the occasion, and the Liberian Frontier Force parades through the streets. After the program, the Commissioner holds a reception for the guests. In the evening the celebration is climaxed by a grand ball.
“The story of Matilda Newport begins in the difficulty times when the first pioneers came to Liberia. The natives were hostile, because they misunderstood the mission of the colonists, and on December first, a combined force of Deys, Vais and Mambas made a furious assault on the little band of colonists. Both sides fought bravely for hours, but the outcome looked increasingly hopeless for the new settlers. Then to make matter worse, a great number of tribesmen began a new attack from two sides. This action was observed by Mrs. Matilda Newport, who, seeing that the cannoneers were dead or wounded, rushed forward and ignited a cannon with a coal from her pipe. The explosion at almost blank range stopped the attack, and gave the settlers time to man other guns. In a short time the host fled in wild panic and the battle was over." (Liberia’s Past and Present, 1959)
Tom W. Shick’s Account of the Matilda Newport
The first violent confrontation between Afro-American settlers and Africans occurred during the now legendary Battle of Fort Hill on December 1, 1822. Tradition maintains that the first settlers in Monrovia were outnumbered and on the verge of being overwhelmed by the attacking Africans. At that crucial moment a settler woman, Matilda Newport, fired a cannon with her pipe. The blast is said to have killed and wounded many of the attackers, causing the rest to retreat in disarray. This early victory against great odds has become an important element in the settler ethos. It marks the triumph of ‘civilization over barbarism; of enlightenment over gross ignorance; and of Christianity over paganism.’ Unfortunately this emphasis on the Fort Hill encounter tends to obscure the varied aspects of African-settler relations during the nineteenth century. Conflicts were frequent, but the motives were often more complicated than simply a struggle between civilization and barbarism. Africans were never unified in opposition to the presence of Afro-American settlers. As immigration increased and new settlements were formed, settler attitudes towards their African neighbors also became differentiable." (Behold the Promised Land, 1980)
Prince Massala Reffell's Account of the Matilda
Newport Story (Novel)
"An old white lady, Matilda Newport, was directing some of the women and children on the ammunition supply line. News had been sent to them by one of the fighters to abandon their post. She directed the women and children to safety as they had practiced before the war, she lit her pipe that she always smoked and took a look into the ammunition dump. After making sure that no one else was in the warehouse, she walked out of the warehouse together with a fighter, as her escort was about to close the door, a warrior made it close enough and struck the settler a deadly blow. Before he could attack the woman, he was gunned down by a second settler, Matilda Newport, frightened by the suddenness of the episode, threw her pipe down into a cannon as she ran to safety. A short while later, a large number of native fighters made their way to the warehouse with some warriors. They crowded it, inspecting the ammunition with curiosity. One of the main witch doctors who had come with the group decided that victory was at hand and climbed on top of the warehouse with some warriors. He started to perform some rituals to insure victory. The chief watched closely as the dancing and stampeding of some warriors began within the stockade. There was no doubt in the minds of the settlers that it was all over, as the warriors now carried their chief toward the warehouse, which was attracting a lot of the natives' attention.
"But a third and major miracle for the settlers was about to unfold. The pipe Matilda Newport had thrown into the cannon had been very hot and suddenly it had the cannon aflame. It fired, and part of the explosion caught part of the warehouse. In a few seconds it was fireworks. Dancers, chief, witch doctors, all evaporated as the fireworks made rattling and cracking sound that could be heard as far as surrounding native villages. The rest of the fighters saw their chief, elders, and top warriors of their society screaming and dying in flames. They saw their witch doctors and sorcerers of war being thrown up into the air and engulfed in flames right in front of their eyes. As they watched, the devil of hell consumed their best, the fighters were so astounded and frightened that they stopped what they were doing. In the confusion, they imagined that the settlers must have more powerful witch doctors and medicine men than they did, to have lured their chief, elders, and witch doctors to a particular spots to be devoured whole. In extreme horror, some feared that, if they should continue to advance, the same fate would await. They dropped their ammunition, turned around, and started running. The effect was immediate. Like mules following the lead, the surviving natives took to their heels, dropping their weapons as they ran. Some of the settlers, in the confusion, were shooting their last ammunition at the natives as they ran. But the way they ran was very different from what seemed to have been an organized retreat during their first attack. At that time, they ran with their ammunition. This time they were running and leaving everything behind. They were obviously running for their life." - (The Black Mayflower, 2000)
Part 2 to continue…