I have some significant updates to the story of Mama Meli! When I wrote about her and trying to find her grave, I was doing most of my research on my phone while living in a mud hut and also mostly just trying to find cool locations to add to Atlas Obscura, so please forgive my mistakes in that post. I’ve been digging back into the story for a final project (Hello Professor Lombard!; I assume you will find this), and whoo boy have I found out a whole lot more information.
When I first read about Mama Meli’s story, I was more than a little confused about the timeline. The story to me read like she had gotten captured, her captors quickly tried to hustle her to the border, and they got caught by one of the types of British colonialists in the area. I thought this happened when she was about 10 or 12, over the course of like a month. Then, I assumed, since her parents had been killed in the slave raid, she was sent off to live with the missionaries at Kawimbe Mission. I lobbied some criticism about the fact that when her relatives came to claim her, the missionaries demanded payment of a cow. And then I mostly busied myself with looking at old gravestones.
I have learned so much more! The first big change between then and now is I have access to a library with a copy of Strategies of Slaves & Women: Life-Stories from East/Central Africa by Marcia Wright. In the last blog post I name-checked Women in Peril; that is Marcia Wright’s first book on the subject, which is wholly included in Strategies, but Strategies includes much more information. The second big change is that the library also has access to The Chronicle of the London Missionary Society, which is an absolute treasure-trove of information on the Central Africa mission of the LMS (I link HathiTrust there, but they’re also on Google Books).
From Strategies, I learned I had very much misunderstood Meli’s story. Wright estimates that Meli was captured in probably 1894 or 1895 when she was about 5. Meli’s story is so very much wrapped up in the story of Kawimbe Mission, and so I find it fitting that Meli was likely born very close to the founding of the mission in 1890. Another intriguing bit was that Meli was probably something of a political prisoner. Meli was the youngest daughter of Mumembe, and was born with the name Mwenya (in her oral history, Meli/Mwenya refers to herself as Meli, so I am going to stick with that). Around the time when Meli was born there was Chief Ponde of the Bemba who was launching raids and attacks into Mambwe and Lungu territory. Meli’s older brothers were often called to fight in defense (I think) against these attacks. Chief Ponde was also having some marital troubles with at least one of his wives. This wife ran away at some point during the course of all this fighting, only to be knocked up by Meli’s oldest brother. This made Chief Ponde mad, and he swore that he would get retribution against this brother. Mumembe, fearing for his son’s life, hustled him way up north into Mambweland so Ponde couldn’t get to him.
A few years later, Chief Ponde was (still?) at war with the Mambwe chief Fwambo. Chief Ponde was set to launch an attack against Fwambo, and the brother decided to actually go fight for Ponde, figuring that if he did well in battle he would be forgiven. The fight was somewhat disastrous. Fwambo was well fortified, and apparently it was cold up on the plateau where Fwambo was, but since Fwambo’s men were used to the cold they routed Ponde when they launched a counter-attack while Ponde’s men were still warming themselves. I also found it pretty intriguing that the missionaries from Kawimbe mission sent armed men to help defend Fwambo as well. This was far from the missionaries’ only interaction with Ponde; they had a range of relationships with the Bemba Chief. The missionaries had been harassed by Ponde, received messengers and entered into negotiations to set up missions in Bemba territory, and Mr. A.D. Purves (watch for his wife later in this narrative) bought the only known contemporary war charm from the man.
Anyways, despite Meli’s brother distinguishing himself in battle, Ponde failed to forgive him, and I guess remembering about his wife having gotten knocked up, vowed to attack Mumembe’s village in retribution. It was in this attack that Meli was captured. It is also likely that Meli’s mother was killed in this attack. After being captured, she was taken (along with other captives) to Chief Ponde’s village, and then given to a family. For the next five years or so, she lived the life of a slave. It’s with this first family that Wright identifies Meli as something of a political prisoner here because when she accidentally burns down the hut of the family she was given to, the father is about to kill her when his wife reminds him that Meli is “the family of a Chief” (uncle maybe? I was a bit unclear).
Apparently her worth drops over time, because after a bit she is sold off to Chona Maluti, an Arab (Wright prefers the term “Swahili” for being more accurate) trader/slaver and elephant hunter. Chona would be killed when he was trampled by an elephant, and Meli would be taken to the encampment of other Swahili traders in the area. It was around this time that she heard that her father had died, and I think she wound up with these traders for about a year. Her nose was pierced “in the Muslim fashion,” and she was renamed Naumesyatu. She was sold to another Swahili trader, who fed her better, and then was sold off again to a set of traders who renamed her Mauwa.
As a bit of an aside, for all the different names that Meli gets, she’s actually a bit remarkable for having an independent identity. From my experience with Mambwe culture, I know that as soon as you have a kid, you are typically referred to as “Father of” or “Mother of” your first-born. So in her story, Meli refers to her older sister as “the mother of Mulenga Chisani.” Later on (I swear I am getting to them), Meli will mention she was in the care of Mama Purves and then Mama May. I found both these women in The Chronicle, but they are exclusively referred to as “Mrs. Purves” and “Mrs. May,” immediately becoming subsumed into their husband’s identity as soon as they are married. Interesting little cultural overlap there, if you ask me.
Anyways. These latest traders who had bought Meli were going to finally try to bring her to the coast, likely to be sold at Zanzibar. During the time Meli had been enslaved, however, the British had set up a boma at Fife (roundabouts modern-day Nakonde, though I’m actually unsure how much they overlap) and declared the slave trade outlawed. And now here is a whole thing I didn’t pick up the first time around. The traders have to get past the outpost at Fife. A man comes along and offers to help the traders out. Turns out, the traders had his kid, and I assume he wanted to use the British people at Fife to get his kid back. So the traders take him up on his offer to lead them past the outpost. Except then this guy just goes to the outpost, and tells them all about the traders, and together they lay a trap. He leads the traders right into an ambush, and during the pandemonium Meli runs into the woods with the other children. They come out later that night when they were hungry, and are picked up by some villagers who bring them to the outpost.
After I assume being fed and taken care of, the children who knew where they were from were sent back home. The rest of the children were eventually sent to Kawimbe Mission. This was about 1899, and the children wind up in the care of Mama Purves. Meli was initially actually identified as a boy and briefly named Jim, before she identified herself as a girl and was dubbed with her final name, Mary. “Mary” winds up getting pronounced as “Meli,” which is how it is written in her oral history, and therefore in every subsequent source, including this one.
Join us next week for the second part of the update! I wrote like 5,000 words about Meli and I am going to milk it!