Cupidon, John


John Cupidon was one of the first indigenous agents of the Methodist Church in The Gambia. Between 1822 and 1848 he served the emerging church as a translator, local preacher, catechist, teacher and assistant missionary.

Archival material indicates that John Cupidon was a Wolof slave from Goree Island, born, it seems, to enslaved parents. Cupidon therefore grew up in a Eurafrican world, where European traders, signoras, their Eurafrican descent, their African partners and their African slaves intermingled. His African name is unknown as is his date of birth. He was named Cupidon in Goree; the name John, it seems, was given to him by the Methodist missionary John Morgan at baptism.[1] In his reminiscences of work on the Gambia river, missionary William Moister relates that in his childhood years Cupidon once accompanied his British master on a trip to England; the journey had made an indelible impression on him.[2] When his proprietor retired to London, Cupidon - still a youth - was left behind in Goree in the care of the British merchant Charles Grant. When Grant and his Eurafrican family, like most British citizens, moved to Bathurst after Goree Island was returned to France in 1815, Bathurst also became Cupidon”s new place of residence.[3]

Charles Grant and his cousin and founder of the Bathurst settlement Captain Alexander Grant were strong supporters of Methodism. When the first Methodist missionary John Morgan arrived in Bathurst, he stayed with Grant for some time; Alexander Grant facilitated the Methodist settlement at MacCarthy Island. Because Grant and his family fellowshipped with the Methodists, Cupidon also visited Methodist gatherings.[4]

In 1822 Cupidon had a conversion experience. Morgan gives a detailed account of this event in his diary.[5] The new convert proved to be of great value to the nascent Methodist community. Morgan wrote: “In this Joloof was found the long wanted and much desired convert, to be an interpreter to the Joloofs, of which a large part of the population consisted, though but few of them knew the Negro English, in which alone, until then, the Gospel had been there preached.”[6] Cupidon proved quite willing to take on the task of interpreter. Fluent in his native Wolof as well as conversant with “a little broken English,” he became “an efficient translator and a valuable assistant in the Mission.”[7] Morgan describes how he and Cupidon preached in open air gatherings, sitting back to back, with Morgan facing the English-speaking congregation and Cupidon facing the Wolof present and Cupidon “energetically enforcing what he said by stamping his foot and other gestures which indicated the interest he felt in the good work.” Before long, Cupidon was able to preach independently.[8]

Cupidon had received no formal education but proved eager to improve and quick to grasp what he was taught. He attended the literacy classes of the Methodist evening school and it seems that Grant also made a personal effort to enhance Cupidon”s reading and writings skills. Grant had apprenticed Cupidon to a carpenter but later employed him as a storekeeper. With the aid of Grant, Cupidon was able to save enough money to ransom himself. The exact date of his emancipation in uncertain, but it seems that in March 1825, when Morgan left the Gambia and offered Cupidon some compensation for his voluntary assistance, he was already in a position to decline the offer of money. By that time Cupidon had become an accredited local preacher, served as a translator several times a week and regularly conducted pastoral visits to the sick, all on a voluntary basis.[9]

In 1828 Methodist missionary Richard Marshall proposed to WMMS that Cupidon and his colleague Pierre Sallah be employed as native agents. In his letter to WMMS, Marshall commended John Cupidon with the words: “He is deeply pious and has sustained an unblemished character in the society ever since its commencement on the Island. I believe all my predecessors could bear the same testimony… He has very correct views of the doctrines of the gospel.”[10]

Cupidon was appointed an assistant missionary by the Methodist Conference in 1830, but due to Marshall”s untimely death, he was not informed of the appointment until 1831.[11] His first station was a position as a teacher in the school in Bathurst. In 1832 Cupidon and his wife Mary, who was also literate, were transferred to MacCarthy Island to nurture a Georgetown congregation and to start a school on the island. Moister in his memoirs writes that he paid Cupidon and his wife Mary for the work at MacCarthy from the stipend he received for temporary acting as army chaplain.[12]

Only a few months later Cupidon requested Moister “if possible to pay him a visit, as the work was becoming too big for him, and that several persons, both children and adults were waiting to be received into the church by Christian baptism. He moreover informed me that a number of couples were anxious to be lawfully married.”[13] On Moister’s third visit to MacCarthy, barely a year after the Cupidons had started work there, he stated:

I could not but observe the change which had taken place in the appearance and the manners of the people since I last addressed them. They presented themselves in the house of God clean and neat in their apparel, and conducted themselves with reverence and propriety becoming the solemnity of the occasion. I read prayers, and preached with freedom and comfort to a deeply attentive congregation; after which I baptised seven adults and sixteen children. The adults had been carefully instructed and prepared for this sacred ordinance by the Native Teacher. (…) This holy Sabbath was, indeed a day long to be remembered; and, had I not actually beheld it, I could scarcely have believed that such a change could have taken place in so short a time, through the simple teaching of a converted African.[14]

Moister’s conclusion was that “the work at MacCarthy having now become too weighty for a Native Assistant, I renewed the application for a European Missionary.”[15] The request for another European missionary however was turned down, and – on the grounds that there were more promising mission stations that required the scarce resources -, WMMS refused to support the MacCarthy Mission. As also a new chaplain had arrived, Moister”s resources to pay the Cupidons had dried up. In 1832 however events took a turn for the better. Through the intervention of former missionary John Morgan, now stationed as a minister in Southampton, funds were raised for a mission among the Fula; the money sufficed to pay a European missionary and two native agents for a period of 5 years. Cupidon became one of the native agents employed by this so-called Southhampton Committee; Pierre Sallah became the other paid native agent.[16]  Cupidon served at MacCarthy until 1835, when William Jouf took his place and Cupidon was stationed at the school in St. Mary”s.[17]

From 1835 onwards Cupidon seems to have served at various Methodist stations, alternating between Barra, Nyobantang, Bathurst, MacCarthy Island etc. He had become one of the senior and most experienced indigenous agents and according to William Fox “respected by all who know him.”[18] When in 1838 Fox embarked on his journey to the Fula kingdom of Bondu, he chose Cupidon as his companion; in his report he expressed approbation and respect for the way in which Cupidon had engaged in discussions with Muslim in Bondu about the superiority of Christianity over Islam.[19]

Cupidon”s retirement in 1848 was not voluntarily. He was suspended and later dismissed after several clashes with his - much younger - European colleagues Benjamin Chapman and Matthew Godman. It seems that tensions began to build up in 1846 when Cupidon and his colleague Pierre Sallah opposed Chapman and Godman in enforcing the rule that members should not marry unbelievers. Cupidon, possibly due to his experiences in the Eurafrican world and his awareness of the harm that this enforcement might cause the church, profoundly disagreed with the directive and send in his resignation. The African leaders of the Leaders” Meeting of the Bathurst Church, who supported Cupidon in the conflict, mediated and persuaded Cupidon to withdraw his resignation. In addition, they wrote several letters to Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society to complain about the conduct of Benjamin Chapman and Matthew Godman. They asked WMMS to replace them – and especially Godman – with people who would make no difference “between a black man and a white man.”[20] The conflict with Godman deepened to a personal level when God­man flogged Cupidon”s wife Mary, thinking she was a drunken school girl. As rejoinder, Cupidon assaulted Godman. Though Godman apologized, the relation between the two men continued to be strained and Cupidon asked to be transferred to work upriver at Nyanibantang, away from Godman. He was refused with the argument that he was needed as a teacher in the Bathurst school.

In 1848, after clashing with two African colleagues, Amadi Ngum and Abraham Goddard, both of whom worked as native agents for the church, Cupidon was suspended and then dismissed by the Leaders Meeting, with the argument that he suffered from a form of insanity.[21] The sources offer no insight as to why Cupidon had behaved so out of character.

The first generation of British missionaries had treated the African native agents as colleagues and counterparts. The attitude of the newer generation of missionaries towards the African assistant missionaries differed profoundly from that of their predecessors. Exceptions aside, they proved much more condescending towards Africans, were convinced of European superiority and hence not free from racism. This must have made work very difficult for the indigenous agents, especially for the ones who had served for many years.

The synod of 1848 that dismissed John Cupidon, also gave notice to Pierre Sallah after 17 years of service, charging him with disobedience. John Gum, who had served the church since 1835, was retired as well, albeit honorably and on medical grounds. A year earlier, Chapman and Godman had suspended Gum”s wife.[22] Thus, in one year, three of the most experienced assistant missionaries were compulsorily retired; they and their wives had been pivotal for the first decades of the Methodist Church in The Gambia, serving the church in various capacities for 26  years, 17 years and 22 years respectively.

There is no record as to what became of Cupidon after his dismissal. He died in 1853.[23]

Martha Frederiks


[1] John Morgan, Reminiscences of the founding of a Christian mission on the Gambia, London: 1864, p. 66;  William Moister, Memorial of missionary labours in Western Africa, the West Indies and the Cape of Good Hope, London: 1886 (third expanded edition), 136. Though speculative, the fact that Cupidon was given a French name could indicate that Goree was still French possession at the time of his birth. Great Britain captured Goree in 1803 and Saint Louis in 1809; the possessions were returned to France in 1815. This would indicate a birth before 1803.

[2] In his Missionary stories William Moister narrates the – rather trope-like - story how Cupidon, as a boy in England, for the first time experienced snow. Fascinated by this phenomenon of frozen water Cupidon decides to take some of it home to show his friends and relatives. Halfway the journey home, checking up his treasure, he discovers that the snow had melted and that the only thing left to show his friends were soaking wet clothes. W. Moister, Missionary stories. Narratives, scenes and incidents, London: 1889, 168-9.

[3]  W. Moister, Memorial of missionary labours, 137. Charles Grant was cousin to Captain Alexander Grant, one of the founders of the Bathurst settlement. For Charles and Alexander Grant: G. Brooks, Western Africa and Cabo Verde 1790s-1830s. Symbioses of slave and legitimate trade, Bloomington: 2010, p. 133.

[4] W. Moister, Memorial of missionary labours, 137; W. Moister, Missionary stories, 168.

[5] J. Morgan, Reminiscences, 65-66: “One evening a young man came to the lodgings of the Missionary, and seated himself in silence outside the door: seeing him a long time there, he went out to him, when he very modestly said, "Mansa, me want to speak to you; only you white gentleman and me poor black boy." "Well, young man, you know I am the black man’s friend, and you can always speak freely to me." "You remember, Massa, when you preach under the tree over there?" "Yes." "Me live there that time and hear what you say; now my heart can’t sit down to tell you what God do for my soul." "Say on, young man: that is what I want to hear above all things." "Me hear you speak of the great blessings what Massa Jesus can give to sinners who believe on Him. Me hungry for that blessing; but me can’t catch Him. Me go again in the evening and think perhaps me catch Him there; but can’t catch Him. Then me say, me sinner too big for that blessing: me better go back and live devil-fashion again. That time you go home, you go into my master’s house; then me say, you can pray before you leave, and perhaps me catch Him there. Me go and sit down at the door a long time; but when my master call me, I go away; when I go back the door was shut; then me say, all over now, me go back to country fashion. But then me say, me pray all night first; and if I not get Him before morning, me then go back to country fashion. Me go in the yard and kneel down on the sand, and pray till garrison clock strike two; then come light all round me, and somebody say, ‘My son thy sins be forgiven;’ and me glad too much." "But what made you glad?" "Because my sins forgiven." "Are you sure that some one spoke to you?" "Not sure, -but," putting his hand to his heart, ‘it make me so happy there. I know Massa Jesus pardon my sins”.” For the date see: W. Moister, Missionary stories, 170; Marshall to WMMS, St. Mary”s February 26 1830, Box 293 H2709 mf. 831. Note: the Box numbers refer to the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society archives (now part of Methodist Missionary Society Archives) at SOAS in London; the H and mf. numbers reference the IDC microfiche edition.

[6] J. Morgan, Reminiscences, 66.

[7] W. Moister, Missionary stories,170.

[8] J. Morgan, Reminiscences, 66.

[9] J. Morgan, Reminiscences, 67.

[10] Marshall to WMMS, St. Mary”s February 26 1830, Box 293 H2709 mf. 831.

[11] Moister to WMMS, St. Mary”s August 14 1831, Box 293 H2709 mf. 832.

[12] W. Moister, Memorial of missionary labours, 192. In several cases in the early decades of the Methodist Church in The Gambia not only the men but also the women were employed as indigenous agents. Couples working for the mission were John and Mary Cupidon, Pierre and Mary Sallah and John Gum and his wife.

[13] W. Moister, Memorial of missionary labours, 180. This quotation also gives a good impression of what Moister considered criteria for “Christianity”: proper clothing and neatness.

[14] W. Moister, Memorial of missionary labours, 187.

[15] W. Moister, Memorial of missionary labours, 191-2.

[16] Dove to WMMS, MacCarthy March 14 1834, Box 293 H2709 mf. 835.

[17] Wilkinson to WMMS, St. Mary”s October 30 1835, Box 293 H2709 mf. 837.

[18] Fox to “My dear brother" [someone in Sierra Leone], St. Mary’s June 10 1834, Box 294 H2709 mf. 841. In the same letter Fox wrote that John Cupidon and Pierre Sallah were employed at ₤40 a year, which according to Fox was not enough to maintain a family.

[19] W. Fox, A brief history of the Wesleyan Missions, London: 1851, 447, 471.

[20] Leaders to WMMS, St. Mary”s October 29 1846, Box 295 H2709 mf. 879 and mf. 881; Synod minutes 1846, Box 297 H2708 mf. 2.

[21] Synod minutes 1846, Box 297 H2708 mf. 2 and Special Synod minutes 1848, Box 297 H2708 mf. 3. See also B. Prickett, Island Base. A history of the Methodist Church in the Gambia 1821-1969, Bo [SL]: s.a., 72, 77.

[22] Synod minutes 1846, Box 297 H2708 mf. 2 and Seymour Gay to WMMS, October 30 1846, Box 295 H2709 mf. 881; Special Synod minutes 1848, Box 297 H2708 mf. 3.

[23] Meadows to WMMS, St. Mary”s December 1853, Box 295 H2709 mf. 888.


William Fox, A brief history of the Wesleyan Missions, including biographical sketches of missionaries who have died in that important field of labour, London: 1851

Martha Frederiks, We have toiled all night. Christianity in The Gambia 1452-2000, Zoetermeer: 2003

John Morgan, Reminiscences of the founding of a Christian mission on the Gambia, London: 1864

William Moister, Memorial of missionary labours in Western Africa, the West Indies and the Cape of Good Hope, London: 1886 (third expanded edition)

William Moister, Missionary Stories. Narratives, scenes and incidents, London: 1889

Barbara Prickett, Island-Base. A history of the Methodist Church in the Gambia 1821-1969, Bo [Sierra Leone], s.a.

This article, received in 2016, was researched and written by Martha Frederiks, Professor for the Study of World Christianity at Utrecht University, The Netherlands. Research foci include West African Christianity, Christian Muslim relations and religion and migration. Frederiks worked in The Gambia between 1993 and 1999 as adviser of the Programme for Christian-Muslim Relations in Africa.