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.
The entire interview can be viewed on the Journal of the Civil War Era Muster blog.