J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Dr. Cooper Shares a Creation Myth from Africa

On 14 May 1771, John Adams went into Boston from Braintree and spent the evening at Capt. John Bradford’s.

Among the other gentlemen meeting there as a club were James Otis, Jr. (apparently, but not really, recovered from his head wound and subsequent mental problems); town clerk William Cooper; his brother, the Rev. Dr. Samuel Cooper; the Rev. John Lathrop; Dr. Joseph Warren; and Adams’s own cousin Samuel. In other words, a selection of the town’s leading Whigs. “A very pleasant Evening,” Adams wrote in his diary.

At one point the conversation turned to old sayings:
Dr. Cooper mentioned an old Proverb that an Ounce of Mother Wit, is worth a Pound of Clergy. Mr. Otis mentioned another which he said conveyed the same Sentiment—an Ounce of Prudence is worth a Pound of Wit.

This produced a Dispute, and the sense of the Company was that the Word Wit in the 2d. Proverb, meant, the faculty of suddenly raising pleasant Pictures in the Fancy, but that the Phrase Mother Wit in the first Proverb meant, natural Parts, and Clergy acquired Learning—Book Learning.
Okay, that’s not the interesting part. But that discussion led into this:
Dr. Cooper quoted another Proverb, from his Negro Glasgow—a Mouse can build an House without Timble [timber?]—and then told us another Instance of Glasgows Intellect, of which I had before thought him entirely destitute. The Dr. was speaking to Glasgow about Adams Fall and the Introduction of natural and moral Evil into the World, and Glasgow said they had in his Country a different Account of this matter.

The Tradition was that a Dog and a Toad were to run a Race, and if the Dog reached the Goal first, the World was to continue innocent and happy, but if the Toad should outstrip the Dog, the world was to become sinfull and miserable. Every Body thought there could be no danger. But in the Midst of the Career the Dog found a bone by the Way and stopped to knaw it, and while he was interrupted by his Bone, the Toad, constant in his Malevolence, hopped on, reached the Mark, and spoiled the World
The story Glasgow told is a variation (perhaps his own culture’s version, perhaps because of Cooper’s filter) of a myth from eastern Africa. Here’s a version of the myth from a 2008 New Yorker essay on Chinua Achebe, and another from a textbook, linked to the Igbo people of southern Nigeria. Here’s a similar story from the Mende of Sierra Leone.

This passage is thus evidence of the transmission of an African tradition across the Atlantic to Boston. The phrase “in his Country” suggests that Glasgow was born and raised in east Africa before being kidnapped to the New World.

The anecdote also provides an interesting picture of Boston’s Sons of Liberty discussing African culture. Though we don’t have their commentary on the story, the tale was obviously of enough interest for Cooper to pass it on and for Adams to write it down.

“Glasgow Cooper[,] Negro” appears on Boston’s tax list for 1780 in Ward 7, assessed a poll tax. In other words, by that year he was a free man.

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