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The Death of John Frederic Naimbana: Did the British Kill A Sierra Leonean Prince?

The Death of John Frederic Naimbana: Did the British Kill A Sierra Leonean Prince?

When Alexander Falconbridge, agent of the Sierra Leone Company (SLC), a business venture established to facilitate commerce between Britain and Sierra Leone, renegotiated a land contract for the reconstruction of Freetown, which had been recently burnt down by Chief Jimmy, the presiding sovereign, King Naimbana of Robana, added to the new land grant a request for Falconbridge to take his son, Prince John Frederic, to London to receive Western education under the guardianship of the British abolitionist, Granville Sharp. It was in fulfilment of this promise that Falconbridge took the twenty nine year old prince to London at the end of 1791.

King Naimbana, the highest monarch on the coast of Sierra Leone at the time, developed a long-distance friendship with Sharp, who wrote regularly to seek the King’s assistance towards protecting the Black Poor, free British slaves who were resettled in Sierra Leone in 1787. King Naimbana, described as “peaceable, benevolent, desirous of knowledge, and of affording protection to all who were capable of impacting it,” was receptive and tolerant of the Black Poor because he believed they brought knowledge that could potentially benefit his people. He forgave the transgressions of the Black Poor and interceded on their behalf in disputes between them and local chiefs. He had a soft side for the settlers, but he also believed that there was a severe lack of leadership among them. “As to the settlers,” he wrote to Sharp, “I could only wish that you will send me over one worthy of taking the care and command of the place.” In entrusting his son to Sharp, he added an instruction that the prince should have his way in nothing but what Sharp deemed right.

Sharp replied to King Naimbana, informing him that he was honoured to take care of his son, but emphasized that the prince’s own “natural good disposition, modesty, behaviour, and great diligence and application to learning” made his task an easy one. Anna Maria, Falconbridge’s wife, passed time on their perilous return voyage to London by teaching Prince Frederic how to read and write. She described the prince as possessing sound intellect and “very capable of improvement, and he also possesses a great thirst for knowledge.” Prince Frederic was not the only son King Naimbana sent abroad. He had sent one of his other sons, Prince Pedro or Bartholomew, to France. He offered another to Islamic scholars who visited Robana for Qur’anic studies. It was King Naimbana’s intention that Prince Frederic would return home with knowledge from the West and lead his people. Among the visitors to the Sierra Leone coast, King Naimbana had great respect for the British and their king, George III, even though he considered Europeans as rogues.

Granville Sharp and Henry Thornton, Chairman of the SLC, sponsored Prince Frederic’s baptism. At baptism, the prince was given the first names of his sponsors and he became known as Henry Granville. Prince Frederic was subsequently entrusted to Reverend Gambier of Kent as his tutor. He was diligent and studious, often reading for eight to ten hours a day. His assessments stated that “he was uncommonly pleasing in his behaviour, showing much natural courtesy and even delicacy of manners. He was also of a kind and affectionate disposition.” The prince became a devout Christian and associated with only those he believed could improve his knowledge.

Prince Frederic was appreciative of his benefactors, but he never missed an opportunity to enlighten those who attempted to disparage his people, Africans. At one gathering, the prince went berserk when the name of a known racist was mentioned in his presence. He screamed and cursed, which compelled his benefactors to remind him of his Christian duty to forgive those who wronged him. But the Prince, having obtained their undivided attention, said: “If a man should rob me of my money, I can forgive him; if a man should shoot at me, or try to stab me, I can forgive him; if a man should sell me and all my family to a slave ship, so that we should pass all the rest of our days in slavery in the West Indies, I can forgive him.” But, he continued, rising from his chair with much emotion, “if a man takes away the character of the people of my country, I never can forgive him.”

His curious audience asked why he was unwilling to extend his forgiveness to those who tarnished the character of his people. The prince responded in no uncertain terms that seventy-seven times seven was an acceptable recommended dose of Christian forgiveness for other sinners, but not for impenitent racists. As he explained: “If a man should try to kill me, or should sell me and my family for slaves, he would do an injury to as many as he might kill or sell; but, if any one takes away the character of Black people, that man injures Black people all over the world; and when he has once taken away their character, there is nothing which he may not do to Black people ever after. That man, for instance, will beat Black men, and say, oh it is only a Black man, why should not I beat him? That man will make slaves of Black people, for when he has taken away their character, he will say, oh they are only Black people—why should not I make them slaves? That man will take away all the people of Africa, if he can catch them; and if you ask him, but why do you take away all these people? He will say, oh, they are only Black people—they are not like White people—why should not I take them? That is the reason why I cannot forgive the man who takes away the character of the people of my country.” In the prince’s perspective, the dehumanization of others is the foundation of all bigotry, and so he was incapable of forgiving those who destroyed the character of others.

In a year and half, Prince Frederic went above and beyond expectations to obtain extensive knowledge in science and religion. As the prince demonstrated his knowledge and wisdom to his British hosts, “sanguine hopes were naturally entertained that the education of the son of an African chief in England might be of the greatest assistance in cementing a confidential union between the people of his country and the European colony of Freetown.” Unfortunately, Prince Frederic’s stay in Britain was cut short when a letter written on April 17, 1793 bearing news of his father’s death reached him. He immediately wrote Sharp informing him of the distressing news, expressing the hope that his father died a Christian and with a happy soul. On May 23rd., he wrote Sharp one more time from Plymouth, where he awaited his customs papers, before embarking for Sierra Leone with his servant James, Mr. Graham of the SLC, and Captain Woollis, on the Naimbana.

Prince Frederic left Britain a physically healthy man, but fell ill as soon as they reached warmer climate. The malaria virus in his bloodstream may have gone into incubation and suddenly became active with change in temperature. He complained of pain in his throat and headache. In addition to his illness, the prince was anxious about the duties that awaited him and difficulties he anticipated concerning the implementation of his newly acquired ideas. He was excited about spreading Christianity, but agonized over the possibility of severe disappointments. Perhaps he was also thinking of Jesus’ words in Mathew 13: 57 that a prophet is not without honour except in his hometown. As the temperature rose with change in climatic zones, so did the fever in his body, throwing him in and out of delirium. When the fever became violent and the prince realized his end was near, he asked Mr. Graham to assist him in drafting a will. The prince bequeathed his property to his brother Bartholomew until his son, Lewie, became of age. He ordered Bartholomew to pay thirteen tons of rice and three cows or the equivalent in value to the SLC as consideration for money expended on him. He was to give Henry Thornton fifty pounds in repayment of a loan. He also requested that his brother takes all necessary measures to oppose the slave trade.

Prince Frederic made it to Freetown alive, but that would be the last time he saw his beloved country. Dr. Winterbottom was immediately dispatched to the harbour in one last attempt to save the prince, but it was too late. The prince was taken to Governor’s House on Thornton Hill where he died at 7pm on July 17, 1793 surrounded by his family. Death “terminated the days of this amiable and enlightened African, from whose exertion, if he had lived, the company might have expected the most important and extensive services.” His body was hurriedly taken to Robana for burial. His mother, Queen Yamacopra, was distraught, but his brothers and sisters even more so. His cousin, Harry Naimbana, was in visible anguish. Governor William Dawes, Mr. Graham, and Chaplain Horne, later delivered a coffin to Robana for the burial. Chaplain Horne conducted a funeral service and gave a eulogy that made everyone cry.

Rumours spread that the prince was poisoned by the British during their return voyage to Sierra Leone. James testified to his people that he had witnessed Captain Woollis give the prince a cup of poisoned tea. The Naimbana family conducted a divination ritual in which they placed the prince’s body upright and asked whether Mr. Graham, Governor Dawes, Dr. Winterbottom, etc. poisoned him, but there was no response. The corpse allegedly nodded in the affirmative when Captain Woollis’ name was mentioned. Harry was dispatched with a letter to Governor Dawes containing claims that the Naimbana family believed the prince was poisoned. The complaint, written by Elliot Griffiths, former protégé of Granville Sharp, who had become King Naimbana’s secretary, alleged that the prince was murdered because Woollis wanted to take possession of various valuables, including royal robes and a gold crown sent for King Naimbana. The locals were agitated and Freetown was placed under armed guard, war seemed inevitable.

However, two senior chiefs, Signor Domingo and Chief Jimmy, called a palaver to settle the dispute between the Naimbana family and Captain Woollis, who was accused of killing their son. On August 2nd, a palaver attended by regional chiefs and their entourage was held in Freetown. All the men of Freetown were armed and ordered to attend the meeting. Tension was high as the “chiefs formed themselves into a ring on each side of us. Without them stood crowds of their followers, and a body of our settlers stood at hand to prevent disorder and confusion.” The ranking chief, Signor Domingo, presented their case to the governor. Signor Domingo stated that the queen had nothing against the SLC or Governor Dawes; she was after Captain Woollis who she believed poisoned her son with a cup of tea. To avert war, the queen demanded 600 bars in compensation. However, if Woollis denied the accusation, he was offered the possibility of exculpating himself by participating in the Red Water ceremony—a traditional ritual in which accused persons drank from a bowl of red concoction. Only the innocent survived a sip from the calabash of judicial hemlock. On hearing this, Woollis became nervous and he began to shiver, which his colleagues found quite laughable. When Governor Dawes heard their complaint, he called the star witness, James to the stand. James recanted his testimony, but confirmed that the captain offered the prince Chamomile tea. The governor also read the prince’s will to convince the chiefs that there had been no foul play. The queen was summoned and she arrived the next day with Pa Yabba, King Naimbana’s brother. The queen was satisfied with the palaver and she placed Lewie in the care of Governor Dawes as a demonstration of her confidence. The death of Prince John Frederic was a shocking blow to his people and members of the SLC who believed in his potential to become a Christian king, an educated and friendly monarch in Sierra Leone.

The prince left such an impression in Britain that “notwithstanding his untimely and much to be lamented death, he has rendered at least one important service to his country, by furnishing a memorable instance of the effect of education on the mind of Africans.” It will never be known whether John Frederic would have chosen his father’s throne over the life of a vicar, but his intelligence was one more evidence used by Granville Sharp and his abolitionist friends to convert those who were still pupils in the school of thought portraying Africans as savages, lacking mental faculty, that but for the other’s tan, black and white were the same.

This story is part of an upcoming book: Kaifala, Joseph. Free Slaves, Freetown, and the Sierra Leonean Civil War. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

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