Catherine Zimmermann-Mulgrave: A Slave Odyssey

Daniel Domingues da Silva (Emory University), August 2007
Catherine Zimmermann-Mulgrave (1873)
Catherine Zimmermann-Mulgrave (1873)

Catherine Zimmermann-Mulgrave’s life experiences after imprisonment on a slave vessel were highly unusual when measured against the stories of most captive Africans. She was an eight year old survivor of the Portuguese Schooner “Heroína,” shipwrecked on the coast of Jamaica in 1833. The vessel had embarked 303 slaves on the coast of Angola, and was intended for Cuba. Contemporary records indicate that only four slaves had drowned in the wreck, but many more had died the transatlantic crossing. (For additional details, see VoyageID 41890).

The shipwreck occurred on what was then British soil and, under the terms of the 1807 act abolishing the slave trade, she and the other survivors of the wreck were freed and apprenticed – in her case to members of the Moravian church. Catherine left no memoirs, and details of her life come from letters written by her second husband, Johannes Zimmermann, a missionary from the Basel Mission of Switzerland who eventually lived in what is today Ghana, and from accounts of the shipwreck. Catherine’s African name was Gewe, and she was apparently renamed after the Earl of Mulgrave, the Governor of Jamaica at the time of the shipwreck. She was descended from a family of chiefs on her father’s side, and belonged to a prominent family of mulattos on her mother’s side. Catherine described her home town to Zimmermann as a major seaport where several Europeans lived. Many of the details she provided indicate that she may have been born and spent her early years in Luanda, a Portuguese port located on the coast of Angola, although we cannot verify this.

Sometime around 1833, Catherine was kidnapped on the way to school along with a group of friends. The group was lured to the “Heroína,” by sailors who offered them candies. Catherine, together with her friends, was carried away from the coast of Angola. She reported to her husband that the captain had treated her well all the way to the Americas, and, like many other children caught up in the slave trade, she did not travel chained in the hold with the other slaves. Nevertheless, Catherine must have witnessed every day life on board a slave vessel. Zimmermann tells that Catherine saw a slave badly beaten because he had attempted to commit suicide, and that slaves were brought from the hold daily for air. Conditions in that hold were no doubt appalling.

Catherine may have avoided the slave hold, but undoubtedly felt the fear of being kidnapped and carried to a strange land. In the Americas, she married for the first time in 1843 to Georg Peter Thompson, by whom she had two children, Rosie and Georg. In 1849, she divorced Thompson, and two years later, in 1851, married Zimmermann. The image available in our gallery of images is a photograph of the new family showing her husband standing behind her chair. Catherine became a teacher and returned to Africa with her husband to engage in missionary work in Ghana.

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