September 14, 2011

A Biography of James "Kaweli" Covey

Benjamin N. Lawrance, Rochester Institute of Technology, has published La Amistad’s ‘Interpreter’ Reinterpreted: James ‘Kaweli’ Covey’s Distressed Atlantic Childhood and the Production of Knowledge About Nineteenth-Century, in Slavery, Abolition and the Transition to Colonialism in Sierra Leone (Suzaane Schwarz and Paul Lovejoy eds., Africa World Press, forthcoming). Here is the abstract.

This article explores the life of Kaweli or James B. Covey via geographical phases and legal subjectivities deployed by the former child slave, seaman and interpreter. It is my first attempt to lay out his biographical timeline and physical movements. Generally, I am interested in advancing the debate about Atlantic creoles in a new direction, toward a focus on the implications of age of individual making Atlantic passages; this chapter is part of that larger project. But specifically here, I am interested in using Covey’s life to rethink what we know about the production of knowledge in the trial of La Amistad. Let us imagine for a moment what might have occurred without a Mende translator. Without a translator, the story of Cinque and the others would have remained unknown, and their attorneys would have been unable to advance the argument that they were originally from Africa. The court would have been forced to draw only on English and Spanish language texts and narratives; and it is quite conceivable that the survivors would have been returned to Cuba, and to certain death.

Kaweli, a.k.a. James B. Covey, was born circa 1820-21 of parents in the forested southwestern uplands, where today Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia meet. In infancy they relocated to the southeastern Moa River valley. At five or six he was kidnapped and sold to a Bullom chief, circa 1827-9. After three years he was resold to a European. From a coastal barracoon he became part of an illegal slave shipment in 1833. The Royal Navy captured his ship, and Covey was transferred to the Church Missionary Society. After five years in school he joined the crew of the HMS Buzzard in 1838. In 1839, while the Buzzard was in New York, he met Reverend Gibbs of Yale Divinity School, who engaged him as interpreter for La Amistad’s captives. After his detention under subpoena in the US, he returned to Freetown with the freed survivors of La Amistad.

This sketch is vague as uncertainty surrounds Covey’s life for four principal reasons. First, as epistolary evidence demonstrates, Covey was never the center of attention of the trials and remained peripheral to the white American abolitionists who championed the cause of the survivors of La Amistad. Second, and perhaps because of this, no scholar has spent more than several paragraphs on his contribution, let alone his origins and background. Third, adding confusion to the mix, as interpreter playing a pivotal role, he made multiple, and sometimes conflicting, declarations about his origins, background and experiences. And fourth, one consequence of his distressful past was a classic childhood survival technique, specifically the skillful crafting of knowledge and information for dispersal to particular audiences, especially potential protectors.

In reality, however, Covey and two others provided the invaluable service of translating the narratives of the survivors. These survivor narratives then became the knowledge basis that gave rise to the legal arguments winning their freedom. While Covey features marginally in most stories about the trial, his role in the production of knowledge could not have been more central. For that reason alone, it makes sense to reconsider what we know and do not know about him and to scrutinize the role of translator. My research reveals that there is a lot more to be said about Covey’s background than previously realized, and that this new background information provides an important avenue to reconsidering the type of expertise and knowledge he provided. Covey’s movements across the Atlantic offer insight into the place of children within the illegal nineteenth-century slave trade, the role of rescued children in Christianity’s West African expansion, and African participation in British naval patrols. While Covey is perhaps most famous for serving as an interpreter, his childhood experiences were fundamental in establishing the context of illegality and making his mediation possible.

The various sources for Covey, including polysemous “autoethnographic” texts, originate in the U.S., Europe and West Africa. I discern four phases in Covey’s childhood, which are anchored geographically: 1. his familial origins and first enslavement in Kono/Koranko/Mende territory; 2. his second enslavement, forced migration and rescue in the Gallinas region; 3. his education and service in the Atlantic, and; 4. his sojourn in North America and Freetown homecoming. But in order to contextualize these four geographical phases, I first explore the historical bases of Covey’s self-narration. From the documentary record, I interpret his self-narration as a form of subjectivity characteristic of “distress” and emanating from a supplicant. Covey’s distressed subjectivity recasts his significance: he was no simple interpreter, but rather a cultural broker whose interpreting constituted part of a broader creolizing process.

Covey’s distressful childhood and attempts to ameliorate his situation by garnering protectors’ attention may be mapped geographically. The Covey emerging from the historical record deployed what I describe as quasi-legal subjectivity, which in turn provides for a rethinking of his significance. Covey was effective in trial because he brokered experiences that mirrored his own. This article thus narrates the geographical and historical stages of Covey’s life, in order to specifically advance the idea that his experiences prior to the trial of La Amistad’s survivors are central to understanding why he was so successful in court. With this new perspective on an erstwhile peripheral character, I suggest that, rather than thinking of the trial of La Amistad as a touchstone of Anglo-American mid-nineteenth-century abolitionism, it is perhaps time to redirect our attention to African contributions to the end of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Download the essay from SSRN at the link.

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