Author Interview: Joseph Yannielli

Author Interview: Joseph Yannielli

Today we share an interview with Joseph Yannielli, who published an article in our special issue on abolition in June 2018, titled “Mo Tappan: Transnational Abolitionism and the Making of a Mende-American Town.” Joseph is a lecturer in Modern History at Aston University. His work can be found in the Journal of American History and the British Journal for the History of Science, among other places. He is also interested in digital history and has developed several projects, most recently the Princeton and Slavery Project.


Thank you so much, Joe, for speaking with us about this fascinating topic. How did you first learn about the existence of this town?

I’m writing a book about the Mendi Mission, which was a community of American abolitionists in Africa, established in the wake of the Amistad slave rebellion. Mo Tappan was the mission’s most remote station, so I knew part of the story. But its founder, John Brooks, was something of a mystery. Apart from his career in Canada, I knew very little about him. I spent years researching his genealogy, and eventually I got in touch with a distant relative who had saved his papers. It was a stunning discovery – thousands of pages of documents shedding light on Mo Tappan (and other aspects of the Mendi Mission) in minute detail. I’ve only just scratched the surface. Yale’s Beinecke Library acquired the collection last year, so other researchers can benefit from this treasure trove of new data.

It is always fun when a side project takes you in interesting directions! What questions guided your investigation into this village called Mo Tappan, and what is the main point that you hope to communicate through this story?

As far as I can tell, Mo Tappan was the first town named after an American abolitionist anywhere in the world. It was a place of tremendous significance. I wanted to understand, why did this happen in Africa? How does this reorient our approach to both African and American history?

The origin myth I discuss at the beginning of the article was my point of entry. It’s an important example of Mende culture and their experience of race and labor. In a way, it tells the story of Mo Tappan from an African perspective. Really the whole article is an attempt to put that folktale into its proper context and understand its meaning and implications. I reproduce the story in its entirety at the beginning of the article because I want readers to dwell on it and draw their own conclusions.

Chief Bunda Amadu and local residents near the site of Mo Tappan on the Sewa River in Sierra Leone. Photo by Joseph Yannielli.

What do we know about the experiences of its residents? What was life like in Mo Tappan?

Mo Tappan was a polyglot community located in modern-day Sierra Leone. Some of its residents were Mende people looking for education or to escape enslavement. Others were migrants from colonial Sierra Leone, Liberia, and adjoining territories. Language study was a central activity. Mo Tappan produced the first printed material in Mende and the missionaries communicated using a custom phonetic script. Residents also studied English and Arabic and collected magic talismans and other artifacts.

As you might imagine, there were conflicts. Local chiefs expressed concern about an abolitionist outpost operating so close to their land. There were also conflicts within the community. There were disputes over wages and responsibilities, and there were a series of interracial marriages. Even among abolitionists, interracial intimacy was controversial. I didn’t have the time or the space to tell the full story in the article, but more on that topic is coming soon!

Excellent! I know I speak for our readers when I say we look forward to learning more. Thinking more broadly, how does an understanding of this town help us understand the abolition movement writ large, especially in terms of trans-Atlantic connections?

Consider William Alcott, who corresponded with John Brooks at Mo Tappan. The Alcotts were famous in the United States as social reformers, educators, and authors. Louisa May Alcott, who wrote Little Women, grew up in that environment. Yet here is a member of the family exchanging information with abolitionist missionaries in Africa. Brooks and Alcott discussed sex, disease, and veganism, among other things. That dialogue shows how ideas circulated across the Atlantic, and in doing so, it alters the coordinates of American history.

The Underground Railroad is another example. Before the Civil War, almost every member of the Mendi Mission was involved, to some extent, in Underground Railroad activities. Brooks, as well as his first two wives, taught American refugees in Canada, and Brooks continued to correspond with Canadian operatives. Their work was very much part of a transnational movement with global implications, and we can’t understand it apart from that context.

Early in your article, you mention that there is “confusion about the relationship between abolitionism and imperialism” (192). This struck me as an especially important point—could you elaborate on what the relationship between imperialism and abolitionism is, in your estimation?

I’m hesitant to make sweeping statements about such a complex problem. I agree with Manisha Sinha that abolitionism, at its core, is deeply subversive.[1] As Natalie Joy argues in her contribution to this special issue, support for indigenous rights and opposition to slaveholder imperialism were central to the movement.[2] Critique of African colonization was another key element of the movement. Ultimately, I think abolitionism can be imperial or anti-imperial, or some murky mix of the two, depending on the context, and depending on how you define the terms.

The Mendi missionaries covered the whole spectrum. Some were skeptical of imperialism and actively opposed British and American encroachment on African territory. Others felt they could leverage imperial authority to their advantage. I think John Brooks and Mo Tappan got caught up in the middle of this and both paid a price for it.


Thank you again, Joe, for participating in this interview. As the issue’s guest editor, Manisha Sinha noted, all of these articles “challenge the oft repeated, virtually reflexive, received historical wisdom on abolition by both broadening our conception of what constitutes abolition and deeply engaging abolitionist archives.”[3] Joe’s article is an excellent example of how scholars of abolition, slavery, and emancipation must expand their geographic scope. We hope readers will find much food for thought in the issue.

 

[1] Manisha Sinha, The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016).

[2] Natalie Joy, “The Indian’s Cause: Abolitionists and Native American Rights,” Journal of the Civil War Era 8, no. 2 (June 2018): 215-242.

[3] Manisha Sinha, “Guest Editor’s Introduction: The Future of Abolition Studies” The Journal of the Civil War Era 8, no. 2 (June 2018), 187.

One Reply to “Author Interview: Joseph Yannielli”

  1. Excellent addition to our understanding of contributions made by abolitionists to the stAruggle against slavery.

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