Friday 16 September 2011

Jonas Mohammed Bath

In the Halflight of morning, the tall dark man in Muslimgarb made his way quickly through the dirt-covered streets. Already the clamour of the market could be heard and the bells of the newly built Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception called for five o’clock mass. As he hurried past an open doorway at the bottom of George Street, his elegant features are backlit beneath his loosely wrapped turban. His name: Jonas Mohammed Bath.
Bath quickly crosses the square and enters what would later be called Almond Walk. Now it is merely a long, earthen mound known as ‘the Mole’, which connects the bottom of the town to a small battery of five guns that date from Spanish times, known as Fort St. Andres. In the harbour roads, a slaver swings at anchor in the falling tide. The smell of fish and mangrove also carry with it another odor, the smell of unwashed humanity.
The slaves are shackeled together wrist to wrist, some tall, some short, some stooped, some bent, some gaping about them, some dribbling from toothless mouths, some shivering in the morning chill. Bath approaches the militia sentry and bows somewhat ceremoniously, with just perhaps a touch of irony in the nature of the inclination of his head. What would follow over the next half an hour or so would be unique in these waters. Bath, followed by the sentry, approaches the bedraggled lineup of human misery and an almost inaudible whisper goes from person to person ‘Salaam aleikum’ from incomprehensible ear to incomprehensible ear until towards the end of the line, a wild and tormented eye meets his own calm gaze. ‘Alacuna Salaam’ gasps the tortured one, his knees already giving way. ‘God is merciful.’
Already a small crowd is gathering, impatient men with other business to attend. With practiced eye and probing crop, the chain of human bondage is examined. The auctioneer arrives, and with no ado the business of the sale of human to human begins. The bidding os bad, the cargo is poor - Bath awaits his turn.
“100 dollars for this fine, strong inhabitant of the guinea coast. Who will offer 120 dollars for the quick and willing villain?”
The object of the transaction is thrust forward, his quaking frame and pleading eyes and hands make meaningless gestures at no one in particular.
“150 dollars!”
A couple of faces turn towards him in surprise, disdain, disapproval.
“Going once, going twice, do I hear 175? No, gone at 150 dollars to Mister Bath.”
The morning is now a bowl of light. The guard at the fort is changing as the two men walk out, one tall, reserved, with an old-world dignity, the other whipped and bent, broken, spent, but now, in hope, his step is light, and both hands can swing.
Professor Carl Campbell of the University of the West Indies writes:
“The slave trade was never selective. From time to time, persons of rank and eminence in African communitites were carried away to the New World as slaves.”
There is no doubt that one such personnage was Jonas Mohammed Bath. This remarkable individual claimed to be the Sultan of Yulliallhad Alimant Animan. He swore on the Holy Koran that ‘he is a prince in his own native land.’ The Mandingoes in Trinidad regarded him as ‘chief priest and patriarch’.
Bath arrived in Trinidad just a few years before the abolition of British slavetrade in 1807. He came directly from the African coast and not from one of the other Caribbean islands. Upon his landing here, it was remarked by Henry Fuller, Esq., a long standing resident, that Bath was “discovered to be a person of eminence in his own country”.
Jonas Bath arrived at a time when Britain and France were at war, and Brigadier-General Sir Thomas Hislop, who was Trinidad’s governor from 1804 - 1811, felt that republican France would seize the island. Hislop decided to build Fort George above the town, overlooking the Gulf of Paria’s western approaches. Jonas Bath was amongst those slaves purchased by the government to build Fort George. Hislop, on observing that Bath was a man of rank among the slaves, put him in charge of the slaves - a wise decision.
Bath formed a Mandingo society in Port of Spain and brought together many slaves, Muslims, and free black people - this even before gaining his own emancipation! No one knows when in fact he did obtain his freedom. It is known that from at least 1812m Henry Fuller, the Attorney General for 20 years, considered Bath as having the status of a magistrate over his fellow tribesmen, and accepted the affidavits from Mandingoes which were sworn before Bath.
The purpose of Bath’s Mandingo society was to pool resources to buy the freedom of Mandingo slaves. Professor Campbell maintains that “such an activity demanded a certain level of group trust and confidence. Some of this was assured not only by the fact that all were from the same tribe, but they lived in a particular part of Port of Spain and were bound together by religion. They formed a distinct society of themselves, strictly bound together by their Mohammedan faith, known as the ‘Merchant Traders of Africa’.”
It was largely in the course of their long distance trading, that they came in contact with Moslem societies, and as they scattered in many areas, they became the standard bearers of Islam in the upper Guinea coast. As trader5s and Moslems, the Mandingoes had considerable advantages over the other tribes in West Africa.
The earning of Bath’s Mandingo society went towards the purchasing of the freedom of his fellows. Mandingo slaves who were redeemed by the society had to repay the cost. This they did by working for the society.
The work of Jonas Bath did not end with the buying of freedom for his people. His vision ultimately included repatriation to Africa. This goal, complicated under British law, was achieved to some degree. Several of his followers did make their way back home. A fantastic achievement for that time! Jonas Mohammed Bath was undoubtedly a hero, not just to Africans, but to all people. His example should be made known to our young, reminding us of all that is good and upstanding in the human condition. 

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