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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.