Africa Badass women History

Privileged Africans in the colonial era

Fatima Massaquoi, Arthur Massaquoi, and Momolu Massaquoi, Hamburg, Germany, ca. 1924. Collection of Vivian Seton

Another fascinating aspect of Fatima Massaquoi’s autobiography is that it gives a glimpse at the lives of West African royalty during that era. I say privileged Africans, I mean people who were wealthy, who maintained relationships with (colonial) Europeans living in their territories at the time. Even if they had the best interest for their people, they were all about converting people to Christianity and advancing “development” (in a way that would benefit Africans of course). I wonder how the continent would look like now if these privileged Africans hadn’t been betrayed by those cunning Europeans.

We would call Fatima ajebutter today in Nigeria. I mean this is was her reaction when she first heard the Cinderella story.

When I heard the story, I began regretting my position and everything about me in my life. I was very proud that I had been born the daughter of Momolu IV. Now I wanted to be poor (p.80).

Fatima’s grandmother was Queen Sandimanni, a warrior queen. Apparently Sandimanni (who Fatima was named after) learned the art of warfare from her father. She fought many wars and gave birth to Momolu (Fatima’s father) on a battlefield in a war that she was both fighting in and leading. After Sandimmani’s husband King Al-Haj (aka Lahai) died, his brother tried to usurp the throne and make himself the King of the Vais. Sandimanni was not having it, she rounded up several hundred warriors and went to war successfully repelling each invasion sent by her brother-in-law.

Al-Haj was younger than Sandimanni, Fatima writes that Sandimanni married him because she admired his “art of warfare”. Sandimanni was his first wife and Al-Haj was her third husband. Even after marrying him, Sandimanni did not follow Al-Haj to his territory, the Gallinas because she administered the Liberian side of Vai country. Fatima’s father Momolu IV was the first child of Al-Haj and the youngest of Sandimanni. As both parents each ruled a throne, Momolu inherited both. At this point it must be mentioned that the Massaquoi family was involved in the slave trade through the actions of Fatima’s great great grandfather King Siaka and his son Prince Manna were directly involved in the trade. Al-Haj was grandson of Siaka and son of Jaya.

Sandimanni taught Momolu to read the Koran and also Vai script. She would have trained him in the art of commerce and warfare but Momolu wanted to go to Christian school and ran off to join the mission. Momolu ran away again to America where he attended schools in Boston and New York. Sandimanni used to send him ivory and other commodities which supported Momolu when he was in the US. As a scholar and missionary Momolu travelled across the world lecturing about Africa, on evangelism and advancing Western culture in ruling his people. As a King, Momolu drew plans for better roads, industrial schools and such for his country. Eventually, the British removed him in 1906 following Momolu’s efforts to reclaim all the traditional Vai state.

Fatima writes,

The conflicts that father had with the British authorities could be summed up in the fact that he had been trained in Western culture and had the ambition of training his people along Western lines. This of course would have spoiled much of the trade in the colony as well as undermine the authority that the colonial government exercised in the area…The traders in the Gallinas bought goods such as palm oil, piassava, palm kernels, cacao, ivory and other materials from the Africans in the area, but paid very little for them. They ten sold the goods for about eight or ten times what they paid. Father then found out what was being paid on the world market for the goods and made a law that no African in the place should sell his goods directly to Europeans. From that point, goods were to be sold to him and he would in turn sell them to the European traders. As he paid the Africans more for the goods and in turn demanded more from the European traders, the former responded splendidly. This of course embittered the traders greatly.(p.32)

While reading Fatima’s autobiography, I got a bit confused keeping track of all the mother’s Fatima grew up with. There was Mother Soko Sando, Mother Zoe, Mother Yaawaa, Mother Massaa Barlo, Mother Beendu, Ma Sedia. Her biological mother was Massaa Barlo.

Although Fatima states that she doesn’t know much about her maternal relatives (“the fact that a child belongs to the patriarchal line has hindered me from discovering much about my maternal family and from being able to write about them with very much accuracy as I can about the Massaquois (p.11)”) due to leaving home at an early age, she did talk about her mother. Massaa was the daughter of chiefs of the Bali district. Massaa spoke both Mende and Vai and she was literate in the Vai script and Arabic. It was not initially clear to me but it seems Massaa was divorced from Momolu after a family squabble and returned to her maternal home in Bali country where she refused to remarry.

As you can see Fatima Massaquoi came from privileged lines on both her mother’s and father’s sides. Her writing brings a very different, personal view to European colonialism in this part of the world. Fatima’s story is extraordinary and I wonder about others like hers.