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.
The coast of Liberia was, alas, singularly unsuited to the kind of farming the founders had in mind. The region, one black Baltimorean wrote,
is about the poorest, that you can name on the Coast of Africa. In Monrovia it is an unfurtile, Red Gravelly Mountain, nearly surrounded by an unbounded mangrove swamp, as noixous (sic.) as death itself to a stranger.
Cape Palmas, despite the arcadian impression it made on the first settlers, was not much better. Its green lushness suggested unbounded fertility, but like other rainforest soils, the ground contained few of the nutrients necessary to sustain foreign crops. In any case, Hall writes, the coastal Grebo areas were probably overpopulated even before the settlers arrived. The region was ecologically incapable of producing more food than it already did, and aggressive American agriculture was doomed.
These constraints did not keep the society back in Baltimore from firing off edict after edict, restricting the commerce both Greboes and Americans needed to keep their tiny economy afloat. The emigrants’ access to American manufactured goods and the Africans’ control of the local food market could have produced a healthy trading economy. But their sponsors in Baltimore, inflexibly committed to an agrarian ideal that had long ceased to exist in their own country, were dead-set against allowing the emigrants to conduct commerce. The emigrants received only minimal assistance in their new home and greatly resented their sponsors’ meddling. Reflecting the general frustration, one man asked: “What is liberty without bread or something in place of it?”2
The scarcity of food, together with the muddled state of land ownership, all but guaranteed conflict with the Greboes. That Maryland in Liberia remained largely peaceful was owing to a series of exceptionally talented administrators. Despite his frailty, Dr. James Hall proved himself a man of great tact and energy. He was also a physician who understood that the correct treatment for malaria was quinine, not the commonly prescribed mercury. This single insight gave Maryland a much lower mortality rate than the other American settlements in Africa.
Dr. Hall’s most prominent successor was the brilliant, melancholy John Browne Russwurm, one-eighth African, born in Jamaica and raised primarily in Quebec. Russwurm’s white stepmother, an unusually kind and open-minded woman from Maine, encouraged him to study, and he became the first “black” man to graduate from an American university. His classmates at Bowdoin College included Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Franklin Pierce, but Russwurm, extremely self-conscious about his skin color, had no contact with them. After graduation, he drifted from teaching school to editing the first black newspaper in the United States, Freedom’s Journal, published in New York.
In 1829, he traveled to Liberia, where he became superintendent of schools at Monrovia and started a newspaper. During a controversy over colonial autonomy in 1836, his printing press, the only one in the colony, was attacked. Dr. Hall, afraid of losing one of the leading men in Liberia, invited Russwurm to Maryland in Liberia. Russwurm remained governor until his death in 1851.
Russwurm’s wife, Sarah, was the daughter of a prominent immigrant, George McGill, a well-to-do Baltimore businessman who had prospered in his new African home. McGill and the colonization authorities resolved to send his son, Ford, back to the United States for a medical education. But no American medical school would accept a black student. With pressure from the society’s supporters, Ford was accepted at Washington Medical College in Baltimore, on the condition that he attend classes pretending to be a servant. But Ford did not keep up the ruse for long, and the ensuing fracas forced Ford to leave Baltimore and move to New England, where he continued his studies at Dartmouth. There, where the American-born Ford was introduced as an African rather than as a Negro, he was amused at the different reception he received. In Hanover, New Hampshire, after “a general inquiry…as to the place I learnt to speak English so fluently,” he was welcomed, remarking with irony that “foreigners of any colour are respected.”
After Russwurm’s death, Ford McGill, back in Africa, abandoned medicine for business and politics, and became governor of Maryland in Liberia, a place he despised. Yet he saw a great future for Liberia. Twenty-five years before Pan-Africanism emerged as a coherent ideology, McGill—whose writings bear the utopian stamp of Liberia’s founders—was looking ahead still further, almost a century, anticipating even Marcus Garvey’s Black Star Line:
Only think of it A Negro Republic! a Negro President, Negro Senators and Representatives, and Negro Laws!!! is there any thing under Heaven more likely to cause the Negro race to rush by thousands on board the “Ebony line of steamers” bound for this Negro land!!!
McGill longed to see Maryland in Liberia joined to the greater Republic, which became independent in 1847.3 But Maryland, in 1853, achieved independence separately. The Commonwealth of Maryland in Liberia lasted only four years. Abandoning the prudent policies of Hall, Russwurm, and McGill, a bombastic Baptist preacher named Boston Drayton launched a coup d’état and provoked a senseless war with the Greboes. At the end of a devastating conflict, Maryland, bankrupt and demoralized, had to seek the protection of the government in Monrovia. As Maryland County, it is part of Liberia to this day.4
One can be grateful that Liberia’s pioneers did not live to see what became of the country’s early promise. Isolated and indebted, unable to attract further immigration, with great swaths of its territory lost to imperial powers, Liberia descended, by the 1870s, into a corrupt one-party state. By the 1920s, it was in hock to the Firestone Corporation of Akron, Ohio, which owned a million-acre rubber plantation near Monrovia. Maryland County enjoyed something of a renaissance when the Marylander William V.S. Tubman became president of Liberia in 1944, a position to which he was regularly “re-elected” until his death in 1971. Tubman, an advocate of African unity and an ardent anti-Communist, attracted foreign investment to exploit the country’s gold, diamonds, and iron ore, and in the 1950s, Japan was the only country that could boast higher levels of economic growth.
But little of that growth benefited Liberians outside the tiny American-descended elite. After Tubman’s death, his vice-president, William R. Tolbert Jr., a preacher and former president of the Baptist World Alliance, assumed the throne, only to be murdered on April 12, 1980, during a coup led by an illiterate master sergeant, Samuel Kanyon Doe.
Doe’s brutal regime led to the flight of thousands of Liberians abroad and to a bloody civil war. Warlords, led by the psychopathic Charles Taylor, killed almost 10 percent of the population. Doe himself was assassinated by another group of rebels. Even now, with Taylor gone and Liberia’s having just held a peaceful national election, it is not an attractive country, and the challenges facing the newly elected president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, in a place lacking a public supply of water and electricity even in the capital, are enormous. Still, things can only improve from the way they were in 2003, when The Economist named Liberia the “world’s worst place to live.”
Richard Hall, unlike most writers on the subject, resists the temptation to read Liberia’s history backward, and to see in every ancient political hiccup a portent of the coming fall. To understand why this in itself is a remarkable achievement, one must realize just how polarizing the founding of Liberia was for both black and white Americans, and how, in the American mind, the Negro Republic was always the center of an ideological polemic. The passion expressed for or against colonization—which soon evolved into equally heated feelings about slavery, black equality, and black nationalism—obscured the society that resulted from the colonization movement. Today, most observers would agree with Amos Sawyer, Liberian president between 1990 and 1993, when he writes: “The idea of Liberia was flawed in conception, design, and implementation.”5 But writing on Liberia has rarely struck the reasoned tones of Sawyer’s book. Rather, it divides into opposing camps, for or against the existence of Liberia itself.
This state of affairs coincided with Liberia’s birth. A year before the Ann sailed, the great abolitionist agitator William Lloyd Garrison published his Thoughts on African Colonization, pointing to the absurdities and fallacies of the colonization movement. But by portraying colonization as the slave power’s scheme to deport gullible Negroes, Garrison lumped advocates of ethnic cleansing with courageous whites like Dr. James Hall, a man as genuinely committed to helping African-Americans as Garrison himself. Garrison also ignored the presence in the colonization movement of many distinguished African-Americans. These people, including John Browne Russwurm and George and Ford McGill, had sincerely despaired of the possibility that black Americans could lead dignified lives in their homeland. Hall tells of one emigrant, Anthony Wood, who, returning to Baltimore to recruit others to join him in Africa, complained of his treatment:
[The abolitionists] rebuke him as being an enemy of his race, in not remaining in this country and making common cause with them, in claiming their rights, viz: those of absolute social and political equality with the whites. He is derided by one party for presuming that he has claims to the privileges of a freeman, and hated by the other for having taken the only available steps to secure these privileges.
Evacuation to a distant malarial coast may have appeared a bad choice, but other options seemed much worse to many African-Americans. They lived in a society where Anthony Wood could mention “absolute social and political equality with the whites” only as an absurdity.
Though relatively few African-Americans left the United States, the idea that the black man’s true home was in Africa persisted far longer in the minds of blacks than in the minds of whites. In the twentieth century, the blacks who moved to Africa were often, like McGill and Russwurm, leading cultural figures, from W.E.B. DuBois to Maya Angelou to Nina Simone. The daily workings of the Negro Republic mattered less to such people than the simple fact that such a thing existed, and they were no more likely to criticize it than William Lloyd Garrison was to praise it.6
At the other extreme, Garrison’s intellectual descendants shifted the blame for Liberia’s stagnation from its white founders to the black pioneers. These writers held the colonists responsible for Liberia’s ultimate breakdown. Hall cites Penelope Campbell, a writer in the 1970s, whose characterization of the colonists as “whining complainers” was, alas, typical:
Most colonists resisted all efforts to create a flourishing settlement of which their benefactors could be proud. The tendency of the ex-American slaves to look down upon the Africans and to enslave them was indicative of their slovenly ways and haughty spirit.
But Hall’s book shows the energy and courage of the early colonists, and how they built, in the face of formidable obstacles, a society in many ways admirable, providing full citizenship and economic opportunity to people who, in their homeland, had been deprived of both.
To both pro- and anti-Liberian writers, however, Liberia was a foreign country and Liberians were foreigners: “ex-Americans,” as Campbell would have it. Richard L. Hall emphasizes that not one of the original settlers had ever previously set foot in Africa, and that in language, culture, and religion, they were fully American. The “Liberians” or “Marylanders” saw themselves as “Americans sojourning in Africa,” and “nothing insulted them more than to be regarded as Africans.”
In On Afric’s Shore, Hall has managed to tell the story of these Americans without ideological prejudice, and, even more importantly, has brought them so vividly to life that we can hear and see their struggles to cope with a baffling but hopeful new place. His project, which consumed twenty years, depended on a remarkable discovery.
The founders of Maryland in Liberia, he writes, “believed that their endeavor was truly historic” and carefully preserved their extensive records, sixty boxes of which are stored at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore. Until 1982, when Hall, then an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins, happened upon the archive, no one had ever gone through them. The boxes revealed a place rendered “with a level of detail perhaps unmatched in the annals of any other African American community of the period.” With the help of this trove of documents, Hall has reconstructed not only the community’s great events—its trials, elections, and wars—but also the thoughts and hopes of countless people striving to create a new society, one that would allow them the full expression of their individuality. By letting us hear their voices unfiltered by ideology, Richard Hall has created a monument to these forgotten people and their lost colony.
April 6, 2006
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. ↩
The agrarian prejudice long persisted in Liberia. In the late 1970s, President Tolbert, the last president from the old Americo-Liberian oligarchy, ended price supports on rice in an effort to spur domestic production. The resulting riots set the stage for Samuel Doe’s coup d’état, which ended with the President disemboweled in the hallways of the executive mansion. ↩
For the subsequent history of Maryland County and the life of its most famous citizen, Liberia’s longstanding dictator William V.S. Tubman, see Jonathan Ernst’s series in the Augusta (Ga.) Chronicle, chronicle.augusta.com/ tubman. Many of Ernst’s characterizations, especially about President Tubman’s benevolence, are inaccurate, but the series is interesting and valuable. ↩
Though it was not recognized by the United States until the Lincoln administration. Southern legislators refused to countenance a black ambassador in Washington. ↩
Amos Sawyer, The Emergence of Autocracy in Liberia: Tragedy and Challenge (Institute for Contemporary Studies, 1992), p. 41. ↩
One book that combines both trends is Bitter Canaan: The Story of the Negro Republic (Transaction), by the black sociologist Charles Spurgeon Johnson. This scathing history of Liberia was written in 1930. Johnson, partly out of deference to black sensibilities, never published it during his lifetime, and it appeared only in 1987. ↩