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Momodou Posted - 30 Mar 2021 : 17:51:41

By Dembo Fatty

Contrary to general believe that Africans who arrived in the Americas during the slave trade were slaves, there were in fact free Africans who also settled in the Americas as free Africans during the slave trade.

For purposes of this article, we will look at one "Gambian” woman called Fenda Lawrence of the settlement of Kaur in present day Saloum.


While we hold the believe that slave trading was mainly the business of men, it appears that some very powerful women too participated. In Nuimi for example, we know of many powerful women during both the colonial and pre-colonial periods who wielded power and influence. Some married many powerful movers and shakers in commerce and politics. These were the Senora mainly of Portuguese or connected to the Portuguese fraternity and the likes of Sra Beare. Some owned merchant businesses while some owned some not so businesses to be proud of.

In Bathurst, some had connections to slavery even after slavery was abandoned and in one instance a very powerful concubine of the Governor.

In this article, we will journey far from the confines of Nuimi and Bathurst to the far flung region of Saloum and specifically, Kaur; a settlement believed to have been founded by the Bainunka. The Jury is out on that but that is not the subject of this piece less I digress. I would however remind readers that another such woman existed at Pisania (Karantaba Tenda) associated with Dr. Laidley, the slave trader stationed there and who hosted Mungo Park for six months before he embarked on his first journey in 1795.
Not much has been written about the true identity of Fenda Lawrence of kaur except the following:

1. She was a free African woman from kaur;
2. She was a slave trader herself;
3. She had children with a famous captain of a slave ship between “Gambia” and Georgia. He was Captain Stephen Deane.
In 1772,

Captain Deane signed an affidavit requesting that Fenda Lawrence and her children be allowed to remain in Georgia and to secure education for children. The application was made to the acting Governor of Georgia in the person of James Habersham Senior who also happened to be the business partner of Captain Stephen Deane. The application was approved on July 24, 1772. Fenda, it appeared, entered the United States as a “tourist”.

While many captains of slave ships made no more than two voyages in their career, Captain Deane was credited with 7 to 9 voyages and that 1 in 5 slaves in Georgia were transported by him. He indeed made a fortune with his partner James Habersham. If we go by these numbers, then Fenda must have been Captain Deane’s partner for many years and her story should not just disappear in Kaur.

She at least maintained her African name Fenda which is a popular Mandinka female name. Lawrence is the big question as it appeared that she never took the last name of the Captain. Was she previously married to another European as many Senora in Nuimi? We do know that she had at least four children with Captain Deane who facilitated her travel to the United States as a free African in 1772 and ensured that she remained free there. The Affidavit unfortunately named only James Lawrence one of Fenda’s children. Was Captain Deane trying to secure a better life for his four children of mixed heritage? Possibly or perhaps, he wanted to repay Fenda for the business collaboration.

Captain Deane it appeared, retired from transporting slaves when a slave revolt in November of 1772 along the coast of the river “Gambia”. Captain Deane, in trying cut corners, hired free Africans as deckhands who secretly provided tools to the slaves who broke onto the deck and lit up the ammunitions. In the fight that ensued, 222 slaves (probably all “Gambians”) perished. Only Captain Deane and one crew member survived. Deane returned to America on another slave ship called the “Swift”. This is another confirmation that Africans resisted slavery and were willing to die than willingly surrender their fate to traders.

Perhaps, we should erect a monument along the coast of the Gambia, and may be on the Nuimi end to commemorate the death of 222 enslaved Africans who died resisting being enslaved and to the gallantry of the free Africans hired as deckhands by Captain Deane, who supplied the enslaved Gambians in the bowel of the ship which made it possible for the revolt to take place. This is by far the greatest resistance by enslaved “Gambians” I have ever read about. This is a story that should be kept alive and celebrated.
May their souls rest in peace and may the freedom for which they fought and died for, never perish in Gambia. The quest for freedom is worth every try even to the point of dying because it is only when we bend our backs forward, could the oppressor climb. This too needs to be taught in our schools.

What later became of Fenda is still a subject of further research but it is amazing to learn that some African indeed travelled to the Americas as free Africans and not slaves during the slave trade. It also brings to bare how little we know or have been told about the role of Women in the slave trade and the powers they wielded in a trade that was believed to have been a male territory until now.

And in the writings of Joseph Clay, the executor of Captain Deane’s estate, he described the four children of the Captain as “these young Folks are very unfortunately situated in this country their descent places them in the most disadvantageous situation………. Free persons, the laws protect them but they gain no rank in Life White Persons do not commonly associate with them on a footing of equality”

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