A BBC documentary due to be aired on 9 July features Beryl Dennis of the United States of America going in search of a long – lost quilt made for British Queen Victoria by Dennis’ relative Martha Ann Erskine Ricks, an accomplished Liberian needlewoman 125 years ago.
The documentary uncovers the remarkable tale of how, 125 years ago, Martha, a former slave went to meet the most powerful woman in the world, Queen Victoria in London.
And ever since Queen Victoria’s coronation in 1838, Martha was fascinated by her and determined to meet the British Queen. Finally, aged 76, Martha was able to travel to London to meet the Queen, taking with her a hand-stitched quilt in the design of a coffee tree as a thank you for her role in the abolition of slavery.
Martha was born into slavery in Tennessee, USA, in 1817. But aged 13, after her father secured the family’s freedom, they migrated to Liberia as part of the American Colonization Society’s initiative which believed newly freed slaves would face a better future in Africa.
When Martha met Queen Victoria in London at the age of 76, newspapers of the time followed the story of their meeting, and Aunt Martha – as she is respectfully known – made an impression on Queen Victoria, who noted in her diary that she had a ‘kind face’.
The BBC says there’s even a photograph of Martha in London’s National Portrait Gallery, but the Coffee Tree Quilt seems to have disappeared. In Liberia, Martha established a reputation as an accomplished needlewoman especially as a maker of quilts, a tradition brought over by the settlers. In the US – now the home of the Dennis family – tales are heard of Aunt Martha’s charm and determination and of the letters she wrote describing life in Liberia, which are now kept in the Library of Congress.
he documentary due next month speaks of hearing President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf who it says has revived the tradition of giving quilts as diplomatic gifts. “She tells us why it was so important for her to help preserve this uniquely Liberian tradition”, it says.It concludes that contemporary quilters in Liberia who are recreating the quilt and talk of Martha Ricks have been met with, expressing great affection as their inspirational Coffee Tree Queen.