Vonbrunnville: From slave to Bassa ruler and missionary

Research and written by C. Patrick Burrowes

All rights reserved

This town was founded by Jacob Von Brunn (c. 1818-1876), the son of a Bassa ruler who became a Baptist missionary. It was located up the St. John’s, a mile beyond Bexley on the south bank. At this point in the river, the rapids begin. Waters cascade over protruding rocks. In the later 1800s, an island stood in the middle of the river and a trading post operated by Mr. Crusoe was on the opposite bank.1

Around age nine, Von Brunn was captured by slave traders, but he was saved from being sent overseas by a friend of his father. His mother and two younger sisters, who were captured with him, were shipped abroad.2

Some thirty years after being captured, Von Brunn wrote a ten-page autobiography. By his account, he was born along the coast of present-day Liberia, somewhere between Rivercess and Junk River. His father was apparently the leader of a Bassa clan that lived in that area and his mother was a junior wife whose home laid 70 miles in the interior.3

Von Brunn was a child when his mother left her husband’s compound and returned to her family with her son. The boy was so young, he had apparently formed no attachment to his father.4

Around 1827, the town where Von Brunn was living with his mother and two sisters came under attack. As the conflict spread, the four of them fled from that town to another and then to a third. In the third town, Jacob’s mother was seized by one set of captors, his sisters by another, and he by a sword-wielding attacker who “beat me with the sword and so made me his slave.”5

Von Brunn never saw his sisters again. He did see his mother briefly in a nearby town where they both were taken.
<blockquote>Her left foot was put, and fastened in a large stock 3 feet in length weighed many pounds. I was not allowed to speak to her &amp; that morning was the last time I saw that dear mother that used to smile tenderly on me.6</blockquote>
Although brief, his enslavement was highly traumatic. For that reason, it received greater coverage in his life story than other periods in his life and was described in richer detail.
<blockquote>men and women were taken &amp; apprehended &amp; poor infant taken from their trembling mothers against their will, &amp; some of them fell from mothers arm with a great force to the ground.7</blockquote>
Von Brunn’s capture – and the conflict between communities that led to it – occurred in the interior, but they were tied to events and processes on other continents. Typically, in the early 1800s in the area now known as Liberia, slave hunters from the coast raided interior villages. Captives were then force-marched to the beach where they were held in barracoons or jails, sometimes for months, until there were a sufficient number to fill a slave ship. They were then taken to the Americas to labor in sub-human conditions.

As Von Brunn was marched to the coast, he “traveled through many towns which by reason of war &amp; rumour of war were disolate.” Along the way, his captor stopped “in one of the ruined towns … to gaze upon the bodies of those victims who were slain in the war.”8

Those bodies were very likely the loved ones of Von Brunn’s captor, to whom he was paying his last respect. If so, he might have enslaved the nine-year-old boy in retaliation for his own losses, perhaps at the hands of people from the area where Von Brunn and his mother had lived. That was in keeping with the nature of the slave trade in this area: an endless tit for tat with no ethnic group emerging as ethically pure or militarily victorious.

Writing years later from the perspective of an adult, Von Brunn unequivocally traced responsibility for the trans-Atlantic trade in enslaved Africans to its overseas engine.
<blockquote>The wicked, barbarous &amp; bloody system of human traffic by the wicked hearted spanards [Spaniards] &amp; others is the entire original cause, why the heathens had been selling and will sell one another for slave.</blockquote>
“O the wickedness of that system!” he recalled. In a passage that combined his own bitter experience with those of countless others, he wrote:
<blockquote>The cries of scores of poor helpless orphans standing on the shores of Africa with a deluge of tears &amp; gazing on the mighty deep because the dearest relatives were carried over, is originated by that cussed system of slave trade.</blockquote>
After spending a month in a slave pen on the coast, Von Brunn’s fate turned when a local man named Hwee Bes came to buy slaves for visiting foreign customers. The man, it turned out, was a friend of Von Brunn’s father. After buying the boy, Bes immediately dispatched him to his paternal home.9

To reimburse Bes, Von Brunn’s father sent another Bassa boy, who was larger, to be enslaved in place of his son. That exchange illustrated two common aspects of the slave trade. First, in the eyes of many, enslavement was ok for others but not for their relatives. Second, local rulers sometimes trade their own ethnic kindred for foreign goods.10

Upon meeting his father, Von Brunn “was perfectly satisfied that he was my dear father” because the old man “embraced me with many parternals expressions.” The boy’s happy homecoming did not last, however. Due to the prejudice of “some of the old man’s wives,” especially the head wife, Von Brunn’s father soon sent him to live with a fellow Bassa ruler and friend named Long John, who lived 90 miles to the west.11

After four years with Long John, Von Brunn, then about age 13, met some Bassa boys who lived in Monrovia but were back home visiting relatives. Impressed by their attempt to speak English, he went with them to Monrovia without permission. A man who knew his guardian brought Von Brunn back to Long John. After receiving permission from his family, the adolescent soon returned to the main town of the Liberian colony.12

While in Monrovia, Von Brunn lived with repatriates, who sent him to school. During a visit to Long John, Von Brunn’s previous guardian asked his former charge many questions about the residents of Monrovia.
<blockquote>I told him some I saw as they appeared strange to me, houses built of wood altogether was a great spectacles to people of this country at the time. The manner of dressing of the people, their civility, activity &amp; politeness.13</blockquote>
It was two Moravian missionaries from Germany at a small station in Bassa, who converted Von Brunn to Christianity. Following his conversion, those missionaries, Rev. Jacob Frederick Sessing and Rev. George Adam Kissling, probably also named the young man after Nikolaus von Brunn, the founder of the Basel Evangelical Missionary Society.14

Due to the on-going slave trade in Bassa, however, the tiny Moravian mission was soon shuttered, and the missionaries relocated to Freetown. Several of their young acolytes, including Von Brunn, followed them.15

Sierra Leone was crucial in transforming Von Brunn from former captive and outcast to life-long missionary. While there, he attended the Christian Institution at Fourah Bay, worked as an assistant teacher from 1833 to 1845, married Hannah Cream and had three children.16

After living in Sierra Leone for 14 years, Von Brunn relocated to Bassa around 1845. A small local Baptist mission was now operating among the Bassa. It consisted of two white Americans, Rev. and Mrs. Ivory Clarke, Bassa-native <span class=”st”>Lewis K. Cocker (or Kong Koba),</span> and two repatriates: Rev. John Cheeseman and Rev. John Day, who operated a vocational school at Bexley. Based on their recommendation, Von Brunn was immediately hired by Baptist Foreign Mission Board.17

The year 1848 was momentous for Von Brunn. On the one hand, he was licensed to preach. On the other hand, he watched helplessly as his father, wife and baby died. Von Brunn’s responsibilities increased drastically when he was selected by his father’s people as their ruler. “All my fathers families were taken under my protection.”18

That year, he also married widow Matilda nee Warner Joneson. A repatriate from Baltimore, she had arrived in Liberia in May 1823, at age 6.19 She was three years younger than her brother Daniel B. Warner, Liberia’s vice president (1860-1864) and president (1864-1868).

Due to doctrinal differences over slavery, American Baptists split into northern and southern conferences in 1845. Von Brunn managed to attract support from both for a school he operated in Bexley, which was the biggest repatriate town in Bassa and relatively close to his father’s former town.20

In the 1850s, the captive-turned-missionary founded Vonbrunnville. It was located on land given to him by his uncle, known as Old Soldier, a Bassa ruler. With the land, the nephew received both his uncle’s authority and his 400 followers who lived in 27 small villages.21

As a middle-age man, Von Brunn was still deeply pained by the loss of his mother. Writing to Rev. J. B. Taylor of the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, he expressed his undying love for her by paraphrasing Psalms 137:6:
<blockquote>If I forget thee “dear Mother” let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth.22</blockquote>
Writing decades after the slave trade had abated, Von Brunn named two agents as being responsible for its demise, one which rarely receives credit. “But God be thanked that the slave trade on this Coast had been stopped by power that of the Republic of Liberia.”23

In 1871, Von Brunn visited the United States, which had been a longtime wish. His visit was covered by several newspapers, including the <em>New York Times</em>. The press noted his reaction to riding in an elevator and seeing tall buildings. While in New York, he preached at the Shiloh Presbyterian Church of Rev. Henry Highland Garnet, an escaped slave and radical abolitionist, whose daughter was operating a school in Brewerville, Liberia. One year later, Garnet was appointed U. S. representative to Liberia,24 where he died and is buried.

Von Brunn’s visit to the United States was a blessing and a curse. Thanks to funds sent by “friends in Philadelphia, N. Jersey, etc.,” he was able to build a chapel and school in Vonbrunnville. But, he was convinced that the cold weather in America made him sick, an illness that was blamed for his death in 1876. Von Brunn died on the same day as his uncle, Old Solider, which fueled local suspicions of foul play.25

In 1877, the dominant feature of Vonbrunnville was the Baptist church its founder had built on a small round hill only a few yards from the riverside. With its tower, belfry, white walls and shinning tin roof, an American visitor said it looked like something from Delaware or Missouri from 100 years before.26

Next to the church was Von Brunn’s large white wooden house. At the bottom of the hill stood a cluster of huts built in local style.27

After he died in 1877, responsibility Vonbrunnville and its founder’s mission devolved to his widow, the sister of Liberia’s former president Daniel B. Warner.28

A short distance further up the river was the campus of a small boarding school operated by Rachel R. (nee Moore) Crusoe, who was connected to two of the wealthiest families in Liberia.29

In 1877, men were busy in her yard boiling palm oil and pouring the finished product into barrels. At the center of a few modest buildings stood her home. It was a large wooden house on stilts, with steps leading to its wide veranda. Across the field was a large brick house owned by a Baptist preacher.30

Mrs. Crusoe was the daughter of a Vai mother and Gabriel Moore, one of the country’s richest merchants. Gabriel arrived as age 20 and identified as a farmer when he emigrated from Mississippi with his father and siblings in April 1835.31

Upon arriving in Liberia, Gabriel “went native,” spending many years living in Bopolu, a leading trade town about 75 miles from Monrovia. While there, according to a writer familiar with the details of Moore’s life, he “formed an intimate acquaintance with the native manners and customs.”32

A “natural linguist,” Moore reportedly spoke “with ease and fluency” all of the African languages spoken on Liberian territory, including Via, Mandingo, Goal, Kpelle, Dei, Bassa, Kru and even that of liberated Africans from the Congo. He served for many years as interpreter for the national government.33

Moore harnessed his language facility and residence in Bopolu to become one of Liberia’s wealthiest traders.

At age three, Rachel was taken to New York by Methodist missionary Ann Wilkins, with her father’s permission. While there, she learned the skill of hat making from Dr. Terry. She had three brothers: Gabriel, Jr., who assisted their father in the trading business; Hilary, a physician; and Urias, who also studied in the U. S.34

Upon returning to Liberia, she married a physician. When he died, she married John L. Crusoe, the oldest of three brothers who earned a fortune in international trading.35

Rachel’s wedding to Crusoe in 1877 was officiated by Rev. J. W. Blackledge in her father’s Monrovia home. Guests included President Joseph J. Roberts, U. S. Minister Resident J. Milton Turner and Secretary of State Hilary R. W. Johnson, the bride’s uncle. Immediately after the ceremony, the couple left for Edina aboard the <em>brig Theodorus</em>, one of Crusoe’s trading ships.36

After Crusoe’s death, his widow sought support from the Methodist Church in America for a girls’ boarding school. In 1877, her small campus was visited by Gilbert Haven, white bishop of an all-black Methodist conference in Atlanta. He urged the Women’s Foreign Missionary Society to give support to her proposal.37

Mrs. Crusoe intended to draw female students from the Vai kindred of her mother, who was still alive in 1877. Her rationale was, as summarized by Bishop Haven, “it will be better to bring the girls to her than to educate them among their own people, as they will be more likely to be drawn back into the tribe if kept so near them.”38

A mile down from Mrs. Crusoe’s along the St. John’s was the village of Rev. Kennedy, Methodist pastor. Hidden among palm trees and plantain leaves were about six houses. When Bishop Haven visited in 1877, he met “Sister Irving” with three of her indigenous male students, dressed neatly in white pants and blue jean jackets who were well read. She had built a small chapel opposite Kennedy’s parsonage.39