This short history of the Thomas’, a village just outside Freetown is taken from “The Winding Road“:
The Freetown house was a transit station for the Thomases. Their roots are in Benguema. This was the house built as a Freetown retreat for the family, with money partly provided by my father. He had built his own house in the village and had left it in the care of our Aunt Hannah. Whenever he visited Benguema, the house was made ready for his use. It was situated on Wellington Street, the main road through the village. His parents’ house was on the opposite side of the same road. As was common in those days with families working or trading in centres in the interior of the county, the Thomases’ Freetown project was thought necessary to give members of the family visiting Freetown for any length of time, from Benguema or any other part of the country, access to accommodation in a convenient location in the city without calling on the hospitality of friends or strangers.
The Thomases’ Benguema roots run deep. The village could well be described as an old Thomas settlement. It was founded by my great-grandfather, who was christened Ezekiel Thomas on his conversion to Christianity. His original name was Adekaja. When we were little, our infant tongue could only make out the sound “Adekayaja”. This is the corrupted name that most of the succeeding generations remember. Ezekiel and two of his brothers had been settled in Waterloo after their forcible abduction by slave raiders from Abeokuta, around 1807. They were among those who benefited from the action taken by Britain to mount a series of naval patrols in the West Coast of Africa, then called the Slave Coast, and recapture and release in Freetown the human cargo of those ships bound for the Americas. They became known as “recaptives”. After having escaped being transported to the Americas and into slavery, the brothers hoped that they would be able to return to their native land and made many attempts to do so. However, it was Ezekiel’s two brothers who finally made it back to Nigeria. The story commonly told in the family was that the two brothers left to set up a business trading in Yoruba cloth, brass trays and other goods, between Sierra Leone and Nigeria.
It is not known whether or not the brothers sought to re-establish contact with their former village. It could only be imagined how traumatic it would have been for them to confront those who connived with European slave traders to send their own people into humiliating exile, much of which was endured with suffering delivered in the most brutal and inhumane way by farming families in the Americas. Even for the brothers who felt only a touch of the deprivation and barbarity of conditions in which our people were transported across the Atlantic into slavery, there must have been revulsion and anger swelling in them at every thought of the very idea that their kind would stoop so low as to denigrate a people with such proud cultural heritage. Most of those who returned to Nigeria settled in and around the city of Lagos. Some were absorbed into the colonial administration while others made their fortune engaging in the lucrative West Coast trade that was developing in the sub-region. Some contact was maintained for a long while between the Sierra Leone Thomases and the Nigerian Thomases, but that was lost over time as succeeding generations failed to rekindle interest in their far-flung relations.
Many of the displaced people from the region must have felt angered by the hopelessness of their communities to stop the trade in human beings. That was something black Africa was unable to do in the face of violence from slave traders and economic enticement from financiers of the cruel business. With the exception of Agaja Trudo, King of Dahomey, few chiefs in the region had the courage to oppose the trade (5). In the 1720s, Trudo stood firm against the slave traders who tried to operate in his territory. Between 1924 and 1926, he mounted a campaign of resistance which saw the destruction of European slave camps and forts. Although efforts were made by the White slave traders to destroy him and his kingdom by instigating dissent among his people and sponsoring raids by his enemies on parts of his empire, none of these succeeded to unseat him. When violence and intrigue failed, the traders resorted to economic pressures which ultimately brought him to compromise his stand and endorsed agreements which gave him the means to acquire goods, such as cowries and firearms. It remains a sad fact that the weakness of the people of this region was exploited to the enormous advantage of the European traffickers and their home countries. More telling is the shame we endure of having our own people subtly manipulated to be part of this vast inhuman network of wicked intrigue that ruined millions of lives and wrecked ancient empires in the east and west of Africa.
Ezekiel settled down to an active life in his newly found home. He made his living initially by farming the land assigned to him under the scheme for settling recaptives. Life was hard. Soil conditions in the area were poor and most of the farming had to be done on the limited fertile swamps surrounding the village. He later trained as a builder and ran a joinery workshop in the village. His conversion to Christianity enabled him to gain access to Christian education for his children. That is how my grandfather received his education at a local school and became a teacher as well as a local preacher in the Methodist Church in Benguema. The ruins of that church are a reminder of the quality of workmanship in stone masonry that existed in the days of colonial Sierra Leone.
In 1830, changes were made to the composition of the village committee which was responsible for the management of the Waterloo settlement. Ezekiel Thomas and a number of other residents became dissatisfied with the arrangements and the governance of the town. Many of them relocated to Freetown, but he, believing that he could make a success of this life in the area, uprooted his family from Waterloo and founded a new settlement three miles away to the south. That man was my great-grandfather. The settlement he had founded became known as Benguema. Ezekiel’s family first settled on land near the banks of the stream that separates the village from the adjacent village of Samuel Town. The area included a stretch of land that was leased by the Admiralty during World War II and later taken over by the government to establish the Benguema army barracks.
The Benguema settlement grew in importance in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as an extension of the town of Waterloo. It had a vibrant farming and craft community until migration into the city after the attainment of independence from Britain stifled its economic and physical development. The barracks has been transformed into a major military training centre in the country. In recent times, it has begun to attract a new influx of residents from other parts of the country and is experiencing a renewed interest in commercial and agricultural activities that were once the backbone of the village’s economy. Ezekiel’s offspring multiplied as new branches of the family emerged through intermarriage. In Benguema, local residents with names such as Cole, Homiah, Fyle and Jones are traceable to that adventurous man. In fact, the Coles are the closest group to the Thomases, because when my paternal grandfather, Magnus, died reportedly at an early age, my grandmother married again, this time to a man called Abioseh Cole, and had another set of children with him. They had married into other families, extending the branches of the Thomas family tree. Links with all branches of the family seemed to have been strongly maintained. So the house at Waterloo Street, to which my maternal grandfather had dispatched us in keeping with family tradition, accommodated a troupe of humanity representing all branches of the Thomases, their cousins, cousins’ children, friends’ children and children from our village whose parents were neighbours who had not the remotest family or friendly connection with the Thomases. We were meeting some of the children for the first time in our lives, but in no time at all we children were hitting it off like a house on fire. Mother, for her part, was not happy in that house. She had left the comfort of the principal’s quarters, which was provided with relatively generous comforts on the topmost floor of the Methodist Boys High School at Fort Street, Freetown. There she was mistress of her home. She had a father who could provide her with ample space and food in his house if he had wanted to, but had denied her that consideration. Her grieving for the loss of her husband was amplified a thousand fold by the added imposition of what she felt was unnecessary inconvenience and deprivation. She was a suckling mother and broken-hearted and yet she was forced to endure so much more pain and suffering than was necessary. She had some help with the children. There were many willing hands in the house to lessen her childminding chores, but she was beginning to look frail and dejected. At one stage during her stay in that house, she was advised to stop breastfeeding her newborn daughter for fear that she might cause the child to suffer retarded growth and development. She did not consider the advice of any importance. She was overburdened by grief. Breastfeeding the child was not only a diversion from her sadness, it was also the newest and the final and most precious manifestation of the love she and her husband had shared.