This Was Then: Stella

From Gay Head to the Belgian Congo

Stella Abiah Ryan (born 1885 in Gay Head, died 1918 in Donga, Nigeria), from her US passport. Her consular application in Dakar, Senegal described her as 5’6” with brown eyes, black hair, and “Indian” complexion. —Courtesy Chris Baer

Stella Abiah Ryan was born in 1885 in the town once known as Gay Head, the daughter of Charles Ryan and Rachel Diamond of Lobsterville. Her father, a white man from Long Island, was a lobsterman. Her mother, a Gay Head–born Wampanoag woman, ran a summer boarding house out of their family homestead known as “the House at Nestle Nook.” Charles would take their well-to-do summer guests in his oxcart to the beach for clambakes.

During an era when higher educational opportunities for young women and men of color were very limited, the proceeds from Nestle Nook allowed Stella’s sister Eva to be sent to music school, her brother Bill to Carlisle Indian School for vocational training in plumbing, and her brother Grover to art school. Stella boarded temporarily at the home of the assistant drawbridge tender in New Bedford to earn her diploma at New Bedford High School in 1910, at the age of 25.

Taking Aquinnah summer visitors to the beach via oxcart was once a lucrative summer trade. —Courtesy Chris Baer

Stella’s pastor at the Gay Head Baptist Church, where her mom served as both trustee and clerk, had for the previous five years been the Rev. Clarence Whitman of Minnesota, who had graduated from the Newton Theological Institution and then spent two years as a missionary in the Belgian Congo before coming to Gay Head. Mr. Whitman had brought with him a large quantity of photographs and artifacts he had collected in the Congo, which he undoubtedly shared with his Vineyard parishioners, including Stella and her family. In 1910, Mr. Whitman left the church in Gay Head to become a missionary in the town of Donga, Nigeria, on the border of Cameroon. Inspired by him, Stella decided to continue her education at her pastor’s alma mater, the Newton Theological Institution in Boston (today known as Gordon College).

All of Stella’s siblings settled permanently on the Vineyard. Two of them, Grover and Eva, would spend their lives at Nestle Nook. Grover was a Vineyard house painter who also dabbled in fine arts, while Bill became an up-Island plumber. But when Stella finished her studies, she decided instead to teach in Nigeria, where her former pastor continued to work.

Stella left the United States in July 1913 on the White Star liner Celtic, and arrived in Donga, Nigeria, two months later. She taught at the mission school in Donga for 16 months under the auspices of the Sudan United Mission, learning the Hausa language and translating textbooks and the Bible. They discovered that converting the locals to Christianity was an uphill battle; as Mr. Whitman would report in 1915, “For every one convert to Christ’s teaching there have been 40 or 50 to Mohammedanism.” To better blend in, Stella and Whitman adopted Islamic dress. They studied the local textile industry and dyeing methods, and collected fabrics, furniture, and other items to bring back for educational use in American schools, together with many photographs.

Costumed dancers in Donga, as photographed by Rev. Whitman and published in 1915 in the New York Sun. —Courtesy Chris Baer

After a winter back home, Stella departed again for Donga in January 1917. But her love of Nigeria might not have been entirely responsible for drawing her back. According to her niece and namesake, Stella Hopkins of Aquinnah, by the time of her second stint in Nigeria, Stella Ryan “was to be married to an English trader.” A railroad had recently been built from the coast past Donga, and with it came British business. Both John Holt & Co. of Liverpool and the Niger Company Ltd. of London had local representatives in Donga, purchasing palm oil, textiles, and goatskin for European wholesale.

The wedding never took place. Stella died on Nov. 22, 1918, from a fever, perhaps malaria, and is buried in Donga. Here on the Island, a brass plaque dedicated to Stella can be found at the Gay Head Community Baptist Church.

Chris Baer teaches photography and graphic design at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. He’s been collecting vintage photographs for many years.