Lazaretto Lazaretto
Source: Main Line Today
Date: February 2005
Byline: Mark E. Dixon

Remembering the Ganges

Is the story told by Phillis Burr's tombstone inaccurate or simply truer than mere facts can convey? The answer may depend on whether or not you're African American.

Sure, Iraq is a mess. But the United States invaded to free an oppressed people. So surely — in, say, 50 years or so — the Iraqis will bless our good intentions. Right?

Maybe, maybe not. People have a knack for remembering things in their own way.

Take, for instance, Phillis Burr, an African American woman whose tombstone at Devon's Great Valley Baptist Church is inscribed thus: "Born in Africa, brought to America in the slave ship Ganges and sold into slavery to pay for her passage and died April 18, 1872, aged nearly 100 years."

According to official records, the inscription is almost completely wrong. Even Burr's age may be off by as much as 20 years. Yet, from her perspective, this version of the story may have been more accurate than that told by white men.

The U.S.S. Ganges was not (properly speaking) a slave ship, but one of the first regular warships of the U.S. Navy. Built in 1794 for the West Indies trade, the Ganges was purchased by the federal government in 1798 and converted to a man-of-war to protect U.S. shipping from French privateers. When Ganges first sailed from Philadelphia in May 1798, it was the first U.S. warship to put to sea since the Continental Navy's last ship, the Alliance, had been sold in 1785.

In 1800, it would become one of the first units of the U.S. military to turn its guns on slavery.

Slavery was still legal in the United States. The institution had been abolished in northern states, though more quickly in some than in others. In 1780, Pennsylvania had passed a gradual abolition law that, by 1800, had reduced the number of slaves in the state to 1,706. Southern states, however, would continue to import slaves until Washington banned the slave trade in 1808.

But in 1794, Congress had thrown anti-slavery activists a bone: It passed the Federal Slave Trade Act prohibiting the outfitting of slave ships in U.S. ports. Foreign ships could still bring slaves in, but U.S. ships could not. The act was intended to break the back of the infamous "triangular trade" that used mostly New England ships to carry agricultural commodities from the United States to Europe; manufactured goods from Europe to Africa; and slaves from Africa to America. In 1800, Congress would also prohibit U.S. citizens from serving on foreign slave ships and, in 1820, declare slave trading a form of piracy, punishable by death.

Absence of a navy made laws against the slave trade hard to enforce. This changed with the arrival of the Ganges.

On July 19, 1800, while escorting a convoy of American merchant ships to Havana, the Ganges encountered a U.S. schooner, the Prudent, off the north coast of Cuba. Two days later, it found another American ship, the Phebe. The ships were crowded with 134 naked, chained captives from Guinea, destined for delivery to a well-known slave trader at Havana. Ganges Capt. John Mullowny put prize crews aboard both ships and ordered them to sail for Philadelphia.

That the ships were sent here — and not to nearer ports such as Charleston, S.C., or Savannah, Ga. — is significant, says V. Chapman-Smith, administrator of Philadelphia's regional branch of the National Archives, which recently mounted an exhibit focusing on the ships' capture.

"Capt. Mullowny didn't have to send those ships all the way back here," she said. He did so, theorized Chapman-Smith, because the Ganges' Philadelphia-based captain and crew had absorbed the city's anti-slavery sentiment.

Even Richard Peters (1744-1828), the U.S. District judge who heard the cases against the merchant ships' owners, was sympathetic to the anti-slavery cause. Though most papers in the case seem to have been lost, the records of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society include copies of Peters' instructions to attorneys on both sides. Chapman-Smith believes that Peters was passing information directly to anti-slavery activists.

"This is a story that could really only have happened in Philadelphia," she said. "You had a city with strong anti-slavery sentiment, a sympathetic federal judge and a U.S. Navy warship in a position to go out and do something about it."

According to historian Garry Wills (author, Negro President: Jefferson and the Slave Power), it was Philadelphia's anti-slavery sentiment and activism that, during the 1787 Constitutional Convention, caused southern politicians to negotiate an agreement that the U.S. capitol would be moved out of the city. Three of George Washington's slaves escaped during his presidential term.

In August, when the slave ships arrived at the port's new (1799) quarantine station, the Lazaretto, in Delaware County, the U.S. Marshall had no resources to care for so many people. Appalled by the blacks' condition, the Abolition Society and black leaders put out a call in the Pennsylvania Gazette:

"Arrived at the Lazaretto yesterday, 118 Black People, without the least cloathing, being taken on board the schooner Phebe, prize to the United States ship Ganges. The humane citizens are requested to send to the Health-Office, at the State House, any kind of linen clothes for their accommodation, as well as to prevent the shock their decency will be exposed to by so many of both sexes being thus exposed naked."

Apparently, no one offered to take the Africans home, but at least the court did not define them as slaves. Instead, Peters appointed the Abolition Society as their legal guardian, responsible for easing the transition into American society of people who mostly spoke no English and had few skills. After giving the Africans the surname Ganges for legal purposes, the Abolition Society signed them to indentures with farmers, shop owners and other employers throughout the region. In exchange for their labor, the whites promised to provide the Africans with food, clothing, shelter and an education. Copies of the indenture papers remain in the records of the Abolition Society at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Slowly, the Africans dispersed. A boy, Bellor Ganges, went with Priscilla Mitchener of Philadelphia for 12 years, with a promise that he would learn the "Art & Mystery" of farming and receive "three quarters day schooling" — that is, schooling for three quarters of his daylight hours. Sambo Ganges was signed for four years, during which Mitchener promised to "use the utmost of her endeavors to teach him to read & write."

Mark Willcox, the papermaker of Concord Township, Delaware County, took Darrah Ganges, aged "about forty years," to learn the "Art & Mystery of Housewifery" and Tambo Ganges, "about 17 years," to learn farming. Silve Ganges went with Isaac Kirk of Upper Dublin, Montgomery County, to learn housewifery.

John Parker of Kennett Square took home young David Ganges, but the boy sickened and died despite bleedings and purgings with cream of tartar. He was buried at the Kennett meetinghouse, a scene Parker described in a letter published in the West Chester Local in 1884: "We were attended to his grave by six of his shipmates, namely Dabon, Sarrow, Nantilly, Moro, Sandalia and Gango, all New Africans, besides a small number of my beloved friends. He is happy I have no doubt. His native innocence and simplicity very much endeared him to me."

Eventually, the Africans melted into the region's growing population of free blacks. Today, online telephone listings reveal several dozen Ganges families, all in the Philadelphia region.

Also among the indenture papers is that of "Phillis Ganges," who went home with John William Godfrey, a Philadelphia ironmaster who promised that she would learn "housewifery" and receive both an education and her upkeep in exchange for eight years of labor. Phillis' indenture, like those of the other Africans, also pledged her not to marry, gamble, damage her master's goods, commit fornication, leave without permission or loiter around taverns or playhouses. Neither Phillis' indenture nor those of the other Africans indicate their assent to these arrangements; the documents are signed only by the employers and representatives of the Abolition Society.

Whether Phillis Ganges and Phillis Burr were the same person is not certain. The indentures drawn up by the Abolition Society specified terms of four or five years for adults; boys were expected to work until the age of 21, and girls until 18. Since Phillis Ganges was given an eight-year-indenture, she was presumably about 10 years old. That would make her 82 — not "nearly 100 years" — when Phillis Burr died in 1872. In 1850, however, Phillis Ganges would have been about 60, which was close to the age (58) recorded for Phillis Burr on that year's U.S. census. It may also be relevant that families named Godfrey lived in both Philadelphia and Tredyffrin Township at about the turn of the 19th Century.

Phillis Burr's husband — if she had one — is unknown. It is possible that she married into Philadelphia's prominent African American Burr family, long rumored to have been sired during an affair between Col. Aaron Burr (1756-1836) and a black woman during the Valley Forge encampment of 1777-78. (Burr's headquarters was the current Savona restaurant at Sproul and Old Gulph roads in Villanova.)

The Burr tombstone's description of the Ganges as a slave ship was not, however, simply an error. At least one other African felt the same way. In 1892, a Kennett newspaper published an account of the life of "Old Dabbo" Ganges who was indentured to Joseph Taylor of West Chester. After completing his indenture, Dabbo worked in the neighborhood raking hay and bleaching linen until he died about 1840. Fifty years after his death, according to the author, those who knew Dabbo still remembered him categorizing the Ganges as a "sea dungeon."

Which, says Chapman-Smith, is fair.

"The Africans had free lives before being pulled onto a slave ship," she said. "The fact that they were rescued by the Navy didn't change the fact that they were taken to a strange place, "sold" by the court and told to go to work to earn back the freedom that had been taken away from them."

How do you suppose the Iraqis will tell their story?