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Pioneers

On November 27, 1833, the decrepit brig Ann, under the direction of a violent alcoholic captain, sailed out of Baltimore harbor. Aboard were several missionaries and twenty-two African-Americans who, under the sponsorship of the state of Maryland and various private philanthropists, intended to found a “virtuous commonwealth of teetotaling freeholders” on the Grain Coast of Africa.

The Ann was not the only rusty piece of equipment the expedition had brought along. The group’s ambitions rested on the emaciated shoulders of Dr. James Hall, a white physician whose own disorders—and their shocking treatments—read like a catalog of exotic diseases and bad nineteenth-century medical practice. In various foreign adventures, Dr. Hall had contracted everything from parasites to malaria to dysentery, which had been treated with heavy doses of opium and morphine, along with up-to-the-minute remedies like “antiphlogistic therapy,” which consisted of irritating one part of the body to reduce inflammation in another. This man, unable to move without crutches, was entrusted with the future colony’s government.

Most significantly, the creaky ship and its fragile leader bore the hopes of the black emigrants, three families and three single men from Maryland or nearby, some of whom had been freed expressly for the voyage. Most were literate, and all possessed some advanced skills—in agriculture, construction, or carpentry—that they intended to employ in their new home. They knew the journey would be arduous and the outcome of their enterprise uncertain. Even so, all would doubtless have agreed with the pioneer Henry Dennis, who had

looked forward to something higher and better than mere eating when I left America—the enjoyment of liberty, freedom of conscience, the privilege of educating my children, and the hope of doing something for the ignorant natives of this land.

Seventy-seven days from Baltimore, the Ann arrived at Cape Palmas.

The colony that emerged there became the independent Commonwealth of Maryland in Liberia, one of several American outposts that eventually confederated as the Republic of Liberia. The 15,000 to 20,000 blacks who journeyed to West Africa in the nineteenth century—most of them transported to Liberia by the American Colonization Society or local agencies like the one in Maryland—made up the largest-ever out-migration of Americans. Because our national mythology is more concerned with people who came to America than those who left, the history of these emigrant Americans, despite its importance, has mostly been forgotten.

The “colonization movement” that produced Maryland and the other American settlements in West Africa was one answer to the tortured arguments about slavery. Largely thanks to the agitation of Protestant religious groups, especially Quakers, slavery had been outlawed in England in 1772, but this affected only some 15,000 fugitive blacks living there. After the great upheaval of the Haitian Revolution in the last decade of the eighteenth century, the legitimacy of slavery, long questioned only by philosophers and fringe religious groups, increasingly became a subject of political controversy. The US abolished the African slave trade in 1807, and by the 1820s further revolutions had abolished slavery in most of Spanish America.

In the United States, the contest over slavery progressively hardened until only two positions remained, for or against. But in the 1810s and 1820s the problem still seemed to admit creative solutions. Perhaps the most popular of these ostensibly reasonable compromises was colonization: the removal of free blacks—seen by many as parasitic, criminal, and subversive—to colonies abroad. Colonization also allowed whites the impression of doing something about slavery without forcing them to confront the moral challenge the issue posed.

The would-be colonizers considered several destinations, especially in the Caribbean, before they settled on Africa, which, as the black man’s ancestral home, seemed the most fitting locale. In 1815, some of the republic’s leading figures—including Francis Scott Key, Bushrod Washington, Henry Clay, Andrew Jackson, Daniel Webster, and John Randolph—came together to found the American Colonization Society. Six years later, the ACS planted its first permanent settlement at Cape Mesurado and named the town Monrovia after another patron of the society, President James Monroe.

The project had its problems from the beginning, and ultimately the society failed to convince large numbers of blacks to move to the new colony, which they called Liberia. But among those who did were many successful and educated free blacks, who chafed at their native country’s suffocating restrictions.

For blacks and whites in the state of Maryland the colonization movement was particularly appealing, Richard L. Hall argues in On Afric’s Shore, his splendid new history of Maryland in Liberia. The old soils of the Chesapeake had been largely depleted by two centuries of intensive cultivation, and Maryland’s tobacco planters were turning their attention to wheat, a far less labor-intensive crop. Partly as a result of the crop shift, Maryland had the highest number of free blacks in the nation. The city of Baltimore had four times as many freemen as slaves.

One event in particular stirred white Marylanders to embrace colonization: in August 1831, Nat Turner launched a bloody rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia. The sight of racial warfare only “a day’s steamboat excursion from Baltimore,” Hall writes, panicked many white Marylanders and gave fresh urgency to calls to deport blacks. In response, the state assembly approved a subsidy of $200,000, spread over twenty years, for a black colony in Africa.

Maryland was not the only American state with an African twin. “Kentucky in Africa” was settled in 1848 near Monrovia, at around the same time as Louisiana and Mississippi, a bit further down the coast.1 But those colonies were created exclusively by private groups, not by state legislatures. Partly as a result of its official sanction and public funding, Maryland in Liberia became the largest and most successful of these state settlements.

Maryland’s arrangement was unprecedented as well as unconstitutional, but the perceived threat of black rebellion allowed legislators to overlook niceties. The Maryland State Colonization Society—distinct from the American Colonization Society—acted with extraordinary speed. The Ann sailed just two years after Nat Turner was hanged and skinned.

The kinds of people who thought it practicable to send hundreds of thousands of blacks “back to Africa” tended to be drawn to utopias. And indeed the American Colonization Society’s leaders had an exasperating tendency, typical of American foreign policy blunders down to the present day, to make already complicated matters even more difficult by sacrificing practical considerations to ideology.

While the Ann lay at anchor, James Hall, the frail white doctor appointed governor of the still-homeless colony, hobbled ashore to purchase Cape Palmas from the Greboes, the local people who controlled it. This process was by no means straightforward. Dr. Hall and the society were well aware that rum was the main legal tender in coastal West Africa. The Maryland State Colonization Society, however, was unswervingly committed to temperance. “How would it look if the temperance colony were purchased with rum, or, equally bad, if the expedition failed because it did not have the drink?” Marylanders were not keen to repeat the national society’s embarrassing experience in Monrovia, which was “bought” with a cask of rum and a gun to the head of the local potentate. Their colony, they resolved, would not be clouded by such inauspicious beginnings.

The leaders of the society debated the rum question heatedly in Baltimore before at last reaching a compromise: Dr. Hall would take a secret stash of liquor aboard the Ann, but would offer it only if he saw no way to secure the real estate by less wicked means. As it happened, Dr. Hall, a gifted negotiator, managed to purchase Cape Palmas and its surrounding territory without resort to the hidden liquor. Instead, the Greboes exchanged their land for miscellaneous goods worth about $1,200. Under the treaty, the Greboes retained the rights to their towns, farms, and fisheries, relinquishing only lands that were vacant. But the “vacant” lands were not surveyed or defined.

Each party thought it got the better deal: the Americans because they got title to about four hundred square miles and the Greboes because they expected the Americans to protect them from other tribes, educate their children, and provide a steady supply of manufactured goods. They

felt they could afford to make extravagant concessions, confident that nothing would come from them…disease and the remoteness of Cape Palmas [being] effective barriers to any substantial or permanent European settlement.

Richard L. Hall points out that the treaty was more humane than many of the treaties with American Indians. And it was certainly an improvement over the gunboat diplomacy by which Monrovia was purchased. The treaty assured that the Greboes would be full “members” of the colony. And though $1,200 seems cheap for four hundred square miles, Hall has calculated that this was a fair price for the time. Unfortunately for the future history of Maryland in Liberia, however, the treaty, practically speaking, was nonsense. As he writes,

Because it took nothing away from Grebo sovereignty, two states—or four, if the autonomous Grebo towns are counted separately—ruled the same territory. No constitution defined their jurisdictions or harmonized political or legal practice. Even more important, the meaning of “lands under cultivation” was ambiguous. Greboes sold only the land that they were not using for towns or farms. This meant something very different to Greboes than Americans. Greboes used fields briefly then left them to a long fallow. Thus lands in use in an extended cycle would appear vacant to strangers accustomed to fencing and permanent, intensive cultivation.

Notwithstanding their similar skin color, the people the treaty established as the Americans’ new neighbors were sharply different in every respect. The Greboes were organized into independent townships that were almost pure democracies, in which the most important decisions were made by the whole group, and which were ruled by “kings” who resembled mayors. The Greboes were polygamous animists who, Hall writes, “firmly believed in the malignant agency of ghosts [and] lived in terror of necromancy. Furthermore, they held as an article of faith, that witchcraft caused most deaths.”

To punish witches, the Grebo states organized a ritual called gidu, in which the accused

was made to drink a narcotic potion infused from the bark of a tree of the mimosa family. If the poison killed the subject, then a witch received justice. If, on the other hand, he survived, his innocence was proven….

Quite often, the accused was not so fortunate, and the ordeal could drag on for hours more before a fatal end. In notorious cases, sometimes, whole populations would come out to watch and perhaps hasten the end.

This was not a judicial proceeding designed to appeal to a group of teetotaling American evangelicals. “The steady execution of innocents on superstitious pretexts, often culminating in bloody beatings on the roadways,” appalled the settlers, and “confirmed Africans as ‘savages.’”

The situation would have been tense even without gidu. The Greboes had accepted the colony with the understanding that the settlers would provide them with access to manufactured goods. The leaders of the colonization movement, however, aspired to create an ideal, Jeffersonian community of free farmers, and they shared with other utopian ideologues a distrust of commerce.

  1. 1

    Alan Huffman’s fascinating recent book Mississippi in Africa: The Saga of the Slaves of Prospect Hill Plantation and Their Legacy in Liberia Today (Gotham Books, 2004) explores the byzantine origins of this last settlement.

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