STEAMFUNK ADVENTURERS & EXPLORERS: Black Pathfinders in the Age of Steam!
This month, I feature the Adventurers / Explorers.
As always, your feedback is welcomed and encouraged.
William Sheppard is a man who fended off crocodile attacks and shot hippos to feed starving villagers; negotiated his way into the forbidden kingdom of the aristocratic Kuba people; and documented the aftermath of a village massacre instigated by the Belgian colonial regime to punish native Congolese who refused to harvest rubber.
Sheppard – a black man, born at the end of the Civil War – somehow managed to leapfrog over the racial barriers of the American South to explore a place all but closed to the rest of the world…Africa.
As a child in Waynesboro, Virginia, William Sheppard heard about Africa and declared: “When I grow up I shall go there.”
In 1889, his big break came. Sheppard shipped out in the company of Samuel Lapsley, a white man in his early twenties who was comfortable with blacks after years of preaching to ex-slaves who filed into the church on his family’s 400-acre farm in Alabama.
Upon reaching the Congo, Lapsley and Sheppard set off on an arduous trailblazing journey to establish a Christian mission among the Kuba tribe.
Sheppard was impressed by most of the native Congolese they met. He, in turn, quickly won their admiration and trust for his courage, good humor, and genuine interest in their lives.
After cleverly finding his way into the secret kingdom of the Kuba – a tribe whose culture he documented extensively – Sheppard so charmed the king and his advisers that they abandoned the idea of executing him for his intrusion and instead declared him “Bope Mekabe,” a royal ancestor who has risen from the dead and returned as a spirit.
Less than two years after arriving in the Congo, Samuel Lapsley died of blackwater fever.
After Lapsley’s death, Sheppard summoned his wife from America to join him in his crusading efforts. She arrived in the company of other U.S. missionaries, and together they built a thriving mission at Luebo staffed by all Blacks.
In 1899 the terror sanctioned by the Belgian-controlled government of the Congo Free State edged closer to the mission station at Luebo. A feared tribe known as the Zappo-Zaps, who practiced slave trading and were armed with European rifles, were sent to punish people in the Pianga region for failing to cooperate with the state-sponsored rubber companies.
Sheppard knew Kuba people in Pianga, so he traveled to the region to compile a report.
The scene that lay before him was grisly. Zappo-Zap warriors had herded the villagers into a stockade and demanded extortionist levels of rubber, slaves, and food—a payment the Kuba could not meet. Sheppard arrived to find corpses crumpled in the yard, the bodies dismembered and putrid in the steamy heat.
His notebooks painstakingly document the gory details, including the pile of 81 severed black hands, which Sheppard counted one by one, used as proof to colonial officials that the brutal and bloody deed had been done.
On the lecture circuit back in the United States Sheppard’s report of the aforementioned atrocities began circulating. The international press picked up the story, catapulting Sheppard into the spotlight as a human rights crusader.
In an attempt to escape the demands of fame, Sheppard retired, enjoying a quiet life with his wife, raising their family and eventually ministering to Black people in the slums of Louisville, Kentucky.
Nat (pronounced ‘Nate’) Love
The most famous black cowboy of all, Nat Love – also known as Deadwood Dick (1854–1921) – was born a slave on the plantation of Robert Love in Davidson County, Tennessee, in June, 1854. Despite slavery era statutes that outlawed black literacy, he learned to read and write as a child with the help of his father, Sampson Love.
Sampson died shortly after the end of slavery forcing young Nat to work two jobs on a local farm to help make ends meet.
After a few years of working odd jobs, Love won a horse in a raffle. He sold the horse for one hundred dollars and gave half to his mother, and he used the other half to leave town. He went west to Dodge City, Kansas, to find work as a cowboy.
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