Another America

The Story of Liberia and the Former Slaves Who Ruled It

James Ciment

Hill and Wang

ONE
The Black Mayflower
 
 
Even to the casual waterfront visitor, there would have been something unusual about the departure preparations of the Elizabeth, an otherwise ordinary-looking three-masted ship berthed on New York City’s North River. The goods being loaded onto it—farm equipment, artisan tools, the materials to build a gristmill, enough weaponry to arm a company of troops—were neither the bulk freight of commerce nor the baggage of travelers planning on a return voyage. The appearance of the Elizabeth’s passengers would have likewise caught the eye: they were all either black or mulatto. Most had their families with them, including a couple of dozen children, though there were a few single men and women, too. And on this last day in January 1820, they were about the only people in motion on the normally bustling waterfront.
New York City was then on the cusp of greatness, primed to become the young and unnaturally restless nation’s gateway to the world. The change was most noticeable in the speed and scale of things. Just two years earlier, a transplanted English merchant named Jeremiah Thompson—having made an unparalleled fortune in cotton—launched his Black Ball Line, which offered the first regularly scheduled voyages in modern maritime history. At first devoted to freight, the packet ships were quickly adapted to passenger traffic by former merchants in the now-illegal slave trade eager to wring a profit from the business of moving impoverished immigrants across the Atlantic.
But on that bitterly cold day in early 1820, nature intervened. Global temperatures at the tail end of the “little ice age,” as historians call the three centuries between the early 1500s and 1800s, were on average only about a degree colder than normal, but that was enough for the North River to routinely freeze over. Commerce slowed down but New Yorkers did not. So popular were winter promenades across the ice that vendors, many of them former slave women (New York’s last slave would not be freed until 1827), set up stands to sell smoked oysters, roasted corn, and baked sweet potatoes from the Manhattan docks to the Jersey Palisades.
For the ninety-odd passengers and crew aboard the Elizabeth, however, the ice was no playground. For six days, they struggled with pikes and shovels to break the ship free. As they did so, the passenger list shrank. The Joshua Moses family of Philadelphia, laid low by illness, returned to shore with “seeming reluctance.”1 The body of a two-year-old was carried off the ship to be interred, without fee, in the vault of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, the city’s oldest black congregation.
Then came a thaw and, on Sunday, February 6, the ship weighed anchor off White Hall Street, near Battery Park, the naval escort Cyane by its side. “We left standing on the wharves, I believe some thousands of people, both white and coloured,” recorded one passenger.2 But even though contemporaries likened the sailing of the Elizabeth to that of the Mayflower from England exactly two centuries before, the mood was not celebratory. For the “coloured” people in the crowd, it was a solemn occasion; some were there to bid farewell to friends and loved ones, others to witness a bittersweet moment in the history of their people. For the whites in attendance, there was satisfaction of various sorts. A few saw a group of despised and degraded people at long last set free. Many others simply subtracted ninety or so “niggers” from a population that darkened the soil of a white man’s republic.
For the Elizabeth’s passengers, the first of thousands of black Americans who would eventually settle in what would come to be known as Liberia, it was surely a moment of great, and conflicting, emotion: They would have felt sadness over leaving loved ones behind, fear of what awaited them on a continent none of them knew much about, and relief about leaving the burden of race behind. They watched the harbor come alive to enterprise and opportunity as the ice melted, and beyond the harbor they saw a city and a nation with a limitless future—a nation, they had been told since birth in ways both subtle and crude, that did not belong to them.
Little is known of most of these emigrants. They were a mixed lot. Just over half were male, about one-third were children, and roughly two-thirds were residents of either New York or Pennsylvania. About half had a notation in the ship’s registry indicating if they were literate or not. (Roughly three-quarters of the respondents were.) Twenty or so had their occupations listed. Of these, about a third were farmers and the rest artisans of various kinds, carpenters constituting the largest group. Just two of the passengers, a nurse from New York City and a popular minister from Baltimore, would qualify as professionals. There was, however, one aspect of their lives that unified them and, at the same time, distinguished them from the vast majority of their fellow African Americans: They were not slaves.
The 1820 census revealed that of the roughly 9.6 million persons, other than nontaxed Indians, living in the twenty-four states and various territories between the Atlantic Ocean and the Missouri River, some 1.75 million were nonwhites, all but a handful of them of African or mixed-African origin. And of these people, just 229,620—or 13 percent—were free, all of them exceptions to two of the oldest rules of antebellum American life: race is destiny and blackness equals slavery.
*   *   *
Daniel Coker and Lott Carey were exceptional men within this exceptional minority. Each had, through hard work and by taking great risks, escaped from bondage and made as much of themselves as early nineteenth-century America allowed a black man to make. And each, as he pushed up against the limits of freedom, would relinquish one struggle only to take up another, abandoning the only country that he knew for a continent that, by all contemporary accounts, was a land of “burning sun and tortuous [sic] insects—poisonous exhalations, corrupted water … unwholesome food,”3 and savage men, a “graveyard” for civilized persons. Coker sailed on the Elizabeth, while Lott would leave a year later on the ship that followed. Each, in turn, would lead the first emigrants as they struggled to survive in West Africa. Beyond these similarities, though, their lives and fates could not have been more different.
Coker was a child of relative privilege, if that word can be applied to a black man of his race and time. He was born in Frederick, Maryland, around 1780, the son of a slave and an Irish indentured servant who worked on a neighboring plantation. While his parentage represented that rarer and more scandalous of interracial liaisons—black man, white woman—mixed-race persons were often the rule rather than the exception in free black communities throughout the South. Mulattoes were typically the first to be manumitted, and they often exited bondage with a trade or a rudimentary education, skills that helped them better navigate freedom. But they also lived in racial limbo, not always trusted by their darker free black neighbors and viewed by many whites as an affront to the God-given racial order. Coker himself would take up such attitudes, later declaring racial amalgamation “truly disgraceful to both colours.”4
Coker was not born free, odd given the laws and customs of the South, where the mother’s status usually passed to the child. But he became a favorite around the plantation and the inseparable companion of one of his master’s sons, who refused to go to school without him. The “peculiar institution,” of course, made no room for the education of slaves, and for good reason. A literate slave often meant a discontented slave, and one with the ability to make his way in the wider world. Coker’s life offered all the evidence slave owners would have needed for the proscription. He escaped to New York City in his teens, joining one of the largest free black communities in the country, and by twenty was a lay minister. In 1801, he returned to his home state and became the first black teacher at the African Academy, a school for free blacks, and the first licensed black minister in Baltimore, even though technically he remained a slave until he was purchased and freed by a Quaker abolitionist five years later.
The ambitious Coker went on to found his own school and, in 1810, blazed yet another trail by writing A Dialogue Between a Virginian and an African Minister, the first abolitionist tract published by an African American. Frustrated at the reluctance of white church officials to let black members run their own affairs, he set up his own Methodist congregation in 1814 and raised the money to buy a building to preach in. Two years later, he joined with the pioneering churchman Richard Allen of Philadelphia to found the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the first national black church. But Coker soon had a falling-out with Allen and the congregation, though over what is not exactly clear. It may have had to do with color, as many members objected to a mixed-race person—contemporary accounts and portraits reveal Coker as extremely light-skinned, with pronounced Caucasian features—becoming bishop. Ultimately, the dark-skinned Allen was chosen. Or it may have had to do with his views on African colonization.
*   *   *
In the first decades of the nineteenth century, free blacks represented the fastest-growing segment of the American population. Many of them had run away during the revolution, while others had been freed by slave owners who took the rhetoric of the struggle against Britain—“all men are created equal”—to heart. Since even these enlightened masters—George Washington, most notably—usually stipulated that freedom would be granted upon their deaths, manumissions surged after 1800. Nowhere was this population explosion more evident than in the three-state region (Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia) surrounding the Chesapeake, a region that was home to a majority of immigrants to Liberia and to the white men who sent them there.
The idea of colonization was not new in 1820. Thomas Jefferson, for one, had broached it in his Notes on the State of Virginia, written just five years after the Declaration of Independence. “Among the Romans emancipation required but one effort,” Jefferson wrote. “The slave [usually of the same race], when made free, might mix with, without staining the blood of his master. But with us a second is necessary, unknown to history. When freed, he is to be removed beyond the reach of mixture.”5 Like most other people of his era, Jefferson loathed the idea of racial amalgamation, but there was also a degree of patronizing charity in his conclusion—being the inferior race, free blacks could never possibly compete with whites and so would become a permanent, and permanently oppressed, underclass.
The burgeoning free black population of the early 1800s added a new element to the equation: fear. In the paranoid depths of the white imagination, free blacks represented a threat to order: they loitered, they stole, they fenced goods pilfered by slaves, they hid runaway slaves or shepherded them to freedom, and, worst of all, in the dark of night, they gathered with their still-enslaved friends and family in dirt-floored plantation cabins, infecting them with tales of an idle and carefree life on the other side. Their very presence lowered property values.
It was with these fears in mind that a group of men met on the evening of the winter solstice of 1816, in the tavern of the Davis Hotel in Washington, a smoky, shabby brick affair that was nevertheless a favorite haunt of the district’s power brokers. Attending this initial plenary session of what would come to be called the American Colonization Society was a veritable who’s who of early nineteenth-century movers and shakers: Congressman John Randolph of Virginia, Representative Robert Wright of Maryland, several members of the prestigious Lee clan, the lobbyist (and part-time lyricist) Francis Scott Key, the aging “lion of New Hampshire,” Senator Daniel Webster, as well as key members of the clergy, the business community, and the law profession.* Although not in attendance, Bushrod Washington—Supreme Court justice and closest living link to his demigod uncle—agreed to serve as the new society’s president, though in what all viewed as a figurehead capacity.
No attendee commanded more respect than the man presiding over the meeting. Henry Clay, “Star of the West” and the Speaker of the House of Representatives, was the second most powerful individual in America. Later known as “the great compromiser” for his attempts to forge a North-South consensus on slavery, no one represented the conventional wisdom of Washington better than Clay. His opening remarks set the tone of the meeting and the course of the organization: “Can there be a nobler cause,” he asked, “than that which, whilst it proposed to rid our country of a useless and pernicious, if not dangerous portion of its population, contemplates the spreading of the arts of civilized life, and the possible redemption from ignorance and barbarism of a benighted quarter of the globe!”6 The benighted quarter Clay and his audience had in mind was Africa.
Clay’s words were inspiring, even if they amounted to a call for what later generations would have called ethnic cleansing. But what magical transformation did he expect to occur during the crossing that would turn a “useless and pernicious” people into heralds of “civilized life”? And who had the money or ships to send the hundreds of thousands of free blacks to Africa anyway? Ultimately, the society would extract a risibly inadequate $100,000 from Congress, under the guise of establishing a haven for recaptives—Africans rescued by the U.S. Navy from the recently banned international slave trade—and raise modest sums from supporters, mostly through appeals to evangelical congregations in the North and Upper South.* Still, as overblown as Clay’s rhetoric now seems, and as daunting the logistical obstacles to the goal he set for the ACS were, his plan had an even more fundamental flaw—as events one hundred miles to the north would soon reveal.
*   *   *
It did not take long for word of the ACS’s founding to spread to Philadelphia’s free black community, the nation’s largest and most influential. Its leading members—including Allen, Coker, and one of America’s richest black men, the sail manufacturer James Forten—supported the ACS’s plan on first hearing it, until they presented it to the men and women whose interests they purported to represent. A public meeting convened in mid-January to calmly discuss the merits and defects of colonization quickly turned into something else entirely, as speaker after speaker blasted the motives, methods, and aims of the ACS. Then Forten put the question to the three thousand attendees at the Bethel Church. The “aye” vote was met by a resounding hush while the “nay,” he reported, “seemed as it would bring down the walls of the building.”7
The community’s uniform response startled its leadership. After all, the very first effort at colonization, an expedition of thirty-eight led by the wealthy whaling merchant Paul Cuffe the year before, had spurred vigorous debate in the free black community, not outright condemnation. But then Cuffe was black. Whereas Philadelphia’s black leadership frequently met with well-meaning white reformers and evangelicals as near equals, ordinary free blacks knew only fear in their encounters with whites. As Forten’s own granddaughter later wrote, “there was no Northern city in which colored people were so badly treated as in that ‘City of Brotherly Love.’”8 So when whites started making plans to remove free blacks, it sounded awfully like a sophisticated form of kidnapping, a phenomenon so rife in Philadelphia that Allen himself was once captured by a kidnapper who claimed with straight face to have recently purchased America’s most prominent black ecclesiastic.
But now that the people had spoken, the leadership responded. The official declaration of the meeting questioned everything the colonization society stood for—from its “unmerited stigma … upon the reputation of the free people of color” to its assumption that blacks should and would return to Africa. The United States was just as much their home as any white person’s, while colonization was but a “circuitous route” back to slavery.9 Most ominously for those ACS members who saw in colonization a means to protect slavery, the Philadelphia blacks resolved that they would “never separate [themselves] voluntarily from the slave population of the country.”10 Later meetings even targeted cooperative blacks as “a few obscure and dissatisfied strangers among us … in favor of being made presidents, governors and principals, in Africa.”11 This last comment may explain why Coker, a man conflicted over his racial identity and possibly rejected for leadership of the African Methodist Episcopal by darker-skinned parishioners, decided to cast his lot with the ACS.
*   *   *
Despite the suspicions and misgivings of lower-class blacks, Coker and the ACS eventually attracted eighty-two willing emigrants. History is silent as to what exactly motivated them, what made them different from the hundreds of thousands of their fellow free blacks who opted not to go, but the letters and writings of later emigrants offer some suggestions. Beyond escaping the indignities, inequities, and outright dangers free black men and women faced in a white’s man’s country, there were more proactive reasons for going. The more evangelical of the emigrants no doubt bought into the ACS’s rhetoric about delivering the light of the Gospel to a benighted continent. Others certainly sensed economic opportunities that had been largely denied them in their native country—land to farm, trade to pursue, businesses to start. And, of course, there was the simple hope that they would be able to determine their own fate, make their own laws, and elect their own leaders. They were Americans, after all. Even if they had not enjoyed such freedoms yet, they knew what these freedoms were worth and wanted them for themselves.
To that end, the settlers drew up a compact, its contents sadly lost to history. Whether they did so before their departure or mid-voyage is also not known. But contemporaries who were familiar with it say it was modeled after the Mayflower Compact, drawn up by the Pilgrims two centuries earlier. If so, it was a brief document, pledging the settlers to the service of God in their new home and proposing a civil government, under their own leadership and with the power to make laws for the community.
But it was not to be. Unbeknownst to the Elizabeth’s passengers, the ACS and the federal government, which helped fund the expedition, had something very different in mind. In their view, free blacks—not to mention the freed slaves who were expected to follow in their wake—were not ready for meaningful self-government. Just look at the squalor of their communities in America, the sponsors insisted, and their licentiousness, though this latter conclusion was less the product of observation than the prurient musings of white minds. No, these people needed guidance, with a firm hand and for a long time to come, before they might be able to run their own affairs.
In the meantime, those affairs would remain the responsibility of the three white agents aboard the Elizabeth, one from the ACS and two dispatched by the government to run the recaptive program, including that program’s leader, the evangelical minister and former U.S. marine Samuel Bacon. Unsurprisingly, the dictatorial powers the ACS placed in the hands of its agents did not sit well with the colonists, who only learned of them during the voyage. Jehudi Ashmun, Bacon’s contemporary biographer and a future ACS agent himself, noted that “it was but too apparent that a mutinous spirit was secretly working in the minds of some of the people on board.”12
Bacon did not respond to the grumblings himself, asking the colonists’ unofficial leader to do so instead. But Coker, for all his antislavery credentials, rubbed the hotheads among the colonists the wrong way. He not only refused to stand up to the agents, he sided with them. At one point, Coker lined the men up on deck and ordered them to sign a petition expressing “full confidence in the judgment and sincere friendship of the agents.”13 In his journal that night, he vented, “It appears to me the height of ingratitude to manifest any distrust … of the agents, after such proof as they have given, not to say any thing of their having left friends and the comforts of civilized life.”14 Fair enough, but the next day’s entry found him lavishing praise on a far less worthy candidate. “May these children [of the colonists] ever cherish a grateful remembrance of this benevolent and humane act [i.e., sponsoring colonization] of the country that gave them birth…”15
How much of this diary talk came out in Coker’s shipboard sermons is not known, but there would soon be revealed another reason for the colonists’ distrust of him: Coker would help draw up the plan giving life-and-death power over provisions to the ACS agent, a decision that would nearly undo the great experiment when it was just getting started and was at its most vulnerable.
*   *   *
It took the Elizabeth just over a month to reach Africa. The crossing was not without its moments of drama. The colonists endured storms, “a dangerous leak … providentially discovered,” and witnessed a vicious fight between two dogs that nearly triggered a brawl between the black passengers and white sailors.16 Finally, on March 9, 1820, the disgruntled and seasick colonists arrived at Freetown. They were greeted by a haunting sight: a ghost armada bobbing and creaking in the green waters of one of West Africa’s most magnificent natural harbors. Framed by verdant hills and the stone walls of Fort Thornton, these dozens of captured slave ships rotted in the tropical humidity of the wettest colonial outpost in the British Empire.
Liberia, then simply known to sailors as the Windward Coast, did not yet exist, of course, and would not for another two years. Sierra Leone, the colony Britain had founded as a refuge for its own free blacks and recaptives, was the obvious destination for the ACS, especially now that the United States and Britain were no longer at war. Several years before, the society had sent two agents to evaluate Sherbro, a large, coast-hugging island about sixty miles south of Freetown. Despite the evident hostility of the island’s eponymous native tribe and the many shortcomings of the miasmic spot their chiefs were willing to cede, the agents wrote a glowing report, largely based on the sales pitch made by one John Kizell.
An island native who had been captured as a boy, shipped to South Carolina, and then freed by the British during the Revolution, Kizell had returned to Sherbro, where he became a local trader and intermediary between natives and British officials. At once charming and unctuous, the former slave genuinely seemed to believe in the colonization idea, having befriended the whaler Cuffe a few years earlier. But then, as a merchant, he had a clear pecuniary interest in seeing a shipload of well-provisioned African Americans settle down in the vicinity of his trading post, a site known as Campelair. Hawking Sherbro’s advantages, he failed to inform the two ACS agents that the local water supply was so foul that he had barrels of clean water shipped in. He showed them miles of forest and savannah, confidently predicting that the chiefs would gladly sell what appeared to be empty wilderness but was, in fact, the fallow component of the local slash-and-burn agricultural system. He also insisted the natives would welcome both the trade and the civilizing influence the colonists would bring. What Kizell left out of his pitch was as important as what he included. Despite his local upbringing, he had little influence with the island’s chiefs, who were wary of him for his connections with the British and looked down on him for his westernized ways. And these same chiefs, who had no concept of owning land, were never going to sell the soil of their ancestors to the newcomers, even if they shared the same skin color.
British colonial officials and merchants were equally unwelcoming, as the experiences of the Cuffe expedition survivors encountered by Coker in Freetown made clear. Fearing an influx of independent-minded New World blacks, apprenticed in American democracy and likely to establish competitive trading relations with the United States, a recent enemy in the War of 1812, they had tried to thwart colonization efforts from the beginning, leaving Cuffe’s settlers impoverished and isolated. Those fresh off the Elizabeth encountered the same ill feelings. The British authorities told the ACS agents in no uncertain terms that they could remain in port for no more than fifteen days. The latter remained undeterred, though, since Sherbro, not Freetown, was their ultimate destination and because they had to move quickly in order to start building the colony before the rainy season set in. But the captain of the Elizabeth balked when he was asked to steer his ship across the notorious sandbars around Sherbro.
John Bankson, Bacon’s assistant, looked out at the vessel-strewn Freetown harbor and came up with the obvious solution. With a huge cauldron for boiling rations of rice still bolted to its deck, the shallow-drafted Spanish schooner Augusta, only a few months removed from hauling slaves across the Atlantic, could be used to haul the colonists. To Coker, this development was another sign of Providence’s mysterious ways.
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“Dear Mother,” the colonist Nathaniel Peck wrote on March 27, 1820, a week after his arrival at Campelair, Kizell’s post on Sherbro Island. “It is with pleasure I take up my pen to tell you that I am well … I am now treading the soil of my mother country—thanks be to God! and find that it is good … The natives receive us with joy and gladness. The climate is very mild and good.”17 A twenty-two-year-old miller from Maryland, Peck had every reason to be hopeful. The weather was indeed fine, the natives did celebrate the colonists arrival, and Kizell, who had built a dozen houses in preparation for the new arrivals, appeared to be the ideal host. “Get ready to go,” he told his mother in closing.18 In fact, Mrs. Peck would never follow her son to Africa and Nathaniel would soon be fleeing for his life.
It did not take long for Peck and the others to learn that things were not as they seemed at Campelair. The natives’ apparent joy at their arrival had less to do with the return of Africa’s lost sons and daughters than with the wealth of cargo they unloaded from the Augusta. As for the settlement, it was surrounded by mosquito-infested swamps and barely above the level of the bay itself—the chiefs had been happy to unload the land on Kizell. Still, it was only supposed to be temporary, as negotiations for a better site were to commence immediately. Gazing from the beach, Coker remarked, “the land we hope to get on the main [part of the island], is much higher. We can see from here high ridges of mountains, covered with tall trees; it is said that the water there is very good and plenty.”19
Soon, though, it became clear that the locals were not keen on African American colonization and Kizell was not the influential broker he claimed to be. Within days of arriving, Bacon began pushing Kizell to set up a general council of the chiefs in order to negotiate for a tract of land in the island’s interior. But Kizell procrastinated, so Bacon took the lead, setting out for the village of King Fara, the local headman, with Kizell, reduced to a translator, in tow. “We were received and seated in the palaver or council house, on native mats … and after our presents had been produced and accepted, the palaver began,” Bacon wrote. “I stated through Mr. Kizell, the objects of our visit to Africa, and the benefits likely to accrue to the native tribes, from our religion, agriculture, and the mechanic arts.”20 Fara smiled and nodded and then said there was nothing he could do. Authority lay with King Sherbro. Bacon ventured on, visiting village after village, but everywhere was told the same thing: talk to the king. As for Kizell, Bacon began to sense that he was not just unable, but unwilling, to set up a meeting with Sherbro. There was no time to lose.
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From the time it starts in April through its end in November, the rainy season, inaugurated by howling windstorms that mariners of the day called “tornadoes,” brings torrential downpours to Sherbro that can last for days on end. Farming is impossible, life is miserable and, in an age before mosquito netting and chloroquine, very tenuous.
The settlers began to sicken even before the first drops fell. By April 6, twenty-one of them were incapacitated. Two days later, the number had risen to thirty-five, two-thirds of whom “exhibited symptoms of a dangerous character; and all, appeared to be hourly getting worse,” Bacon recounted. “There are eight entire families sick, amongst whom there is not one able to cook his own food, or wait upon a child.”21 The former marine captain turned evangelical preacher—who combined physical stamina with a zeal for benevolence—ran himself ragged tending to them, and hazarded some guesses as to the causes of the epidemic. “I reckon the following as the principal:—a too free use of the country fruits—the neglect of personal cleanliness—alternative exposure to the sun, and the dampness of the night—the want of flooring in the huts.”22 Fruit consumption aside, none of this could have helped but it did not matter in the end. The settlers were dying of malaria and the vector was the mosquito—specifically, the female anopheline mosquito—endemic to the region and especially prevalent in swampy, low-lying spots like Campelair.
Days went by and more new arrivals fell ill. “I passed the day,” Bacon wrote in his journal, “in visiting the sick, inquiring into their wants, and administering medicines. Wherever I move, I meet little besides groans and tears.”23 The symptoms were excruciating. “These consisted,” he noted, “of pains in the head, back, limbs, attended with inflammation of the eyes, lassitude, and depression of spirits … The fever is bilious, and in many cases attended with delirium.”24 The sick were suffering from diarrhea and high fever and were extremely dehydrated. But the expedition had brought little potable water and the local supply was undrinkable. Bacon was all but alone, as Crozer, the ACS agent-physician, had gone with the schooner to fetch more supplies from the Elizabeth.
The colonists, at least those with any energy left, grew angry. Absent from the ACS’s plans was any sense of the dangers awaiting them or advice on how to survive in their new home. At Sherbro, the colonists drew up a petition demanding that they be moved and, if their request be denied by the agents, that they take direction of their own affairs, including the immediate distribution of the remaining provisions. According to John Dix, surgeon aboard the Cyane, which had escorted the Elizabeth across the Atlantic, “[the colonists] consider the Agents as sent out to take care of the goods, and to deliver them as the colonists choose.”25 The opinion of the colonists, Dix noted in his report to Navy Secretary Smith Thompson, was that their days of being ordered around by white men ended once they left the white man’s country.
Bacon would have none of it. As long as he was in charge, he told an assembly of colonists, he would decide who got how much and when. “I have heard the complaints of the people,” Bacon noted in his diary. Bent over a crude table, straining against the dim lantern light of his hut, he gave vent to a rare instance of self-doubt. Were these people he had given up so much for—family, friends, career, and potentially his life—worthy of the sacrifice? They complain “because there is no good water … because they were brought to this place—because I did not take possession of the land by force—because the people are visited by sickness—because there is no fresh meat, sugar, molasses, flour, and other luxuries … because I cannot give them better tobacco—because the ‘palaver’ is not over … because the houses are not better … They complain of every thing they have; and are clamorous for every thing they have not.”26
He did not seem to understand that the colonists felt betrayed. While Bacon and Coker insisted a few “mutinous spirits” were responsible for the trouble, the dissatisfaction seems to have been more widespread.27 Among the many faults in the ACS’s plan was the notion that the colonists, as descendants of Africa, enjoyed a special immunity to the “seasoning” fever that afflicted newcomers to the Windward Coast. They did not. And from its advance scouts the society must have known the danger of sending anyone, immune or not, to Africa at the commencement of the rainy season. But in its eagerness to grab government money and launch its first expedition, the ACS ignored the risks involved. Its agents suffered along with the colonists. Bankson fell ill early on, briefly convalesced, then died in May, while Crozer, the only trained physician in the colony but sick almost from the moment the expedition arrived in Campelair, succumbed on April 15. Bacon fell sick that same day.
Despair set in. Not only were the colonists’ bodies racked by pain and their minds by delirium—in the end, a quarter of them, mostly women, would die—but they were marooned. If the natives visited their fetid encampment, it was only to steal unguarded supplies, especially rum, which the teetotaling ACS had reluctantly stocked as a necessary commodity to trade with the natives until the day they could be weaned from this “nasty habit” introduced by slavers.28 According to Dix’s report, the natives’ actions were yet another source of colonist complaint. “They [the colonists] consider themselves also as citizens of the United States,” he wrote, oblivious to the irony, “and entitled to support and protection as such and threaten the natives with our vengeance for every wrong done them.”29 This was only the beginning of the mutual distrust and animosity between the colonists—soon to be Liberians—and the natives they would, over the next century and a half, seek by turns to mollify, trade with, make war on, dispossess, and rule.
As for the British, they were not so much hostile as unconcerned, although given the dire circumstances facing the colonists, there was not much difference between the two. Informed of the epidemic raging at Campelair, the authorities did worse than nothing. While Bacon and dozens of others lay dying, a British schooner arrived and sent two men ashore, including a physician. But according to an embittered Coker, “no entreaties of the dying, suffering people, could prevail with them to remain, or to administer any medicine to the sick … Indeed, they manifested a most unfeeling indifference.”30 They did, however, agree with much reluctance to carry Bacon back to Freetown. Yet when the rowboat carrying him came in sight of the British schooner, the latter weighed anchor and sailed off, or so claimed eyewitnesses on shore. For six hours, the oarsmen labored to catch the ship, the ailing Bacon lying between them, unprotected from the sun. Finally, giving up, he directed them to head for a nearby island, where he died on May 2.
*   *   *
The sixty or so remaining settlers huddled in their huts against the onslaught of the rainy season. The healthy and the ailing alike turned to bitter arguing over who was in charge and what was to be done. As he lay dying back in April, Crozer had done the necessary but once unthinkable thing: he transferred his authority to one of the colonists—Coker, of course. Many of the colonists, however, had long since lost faith in a man they considered the society’s lackey. Nor did the Reverend help his cause. Why had he left his wife and children behind in America, some colonists wanted to know. Why, amid the suffering, had he devoted himself to a Bible school for native children? And why did his faith in the ACS not waver? “My confidence is strong … in the honour of your society and the [American] government,” he wrote the ACS’s board during the crisis. “Tell my brethren to come—not to fear—this land is good—it only wants men to possess it.”31
Dissent quickly emerged after Bacon’s death. According to Coker, the colonists immediately declared themselves “under no man’s authority” and refused to obey his orders. They took from the store of provisions as they pleased and threatened him when he tried to stop them. But it was Kizell, the Reverend decided, who was the real source of trouble. To Coker, the man who once welcomed the colonists with open arms was a huckster, a price gouger, and, worst of all, a usurper. Kizell was stirring up the survivors in an effort to take charge of the colony, poisoning the locals’ view of Coker—“white blood is good, and black blood is good but … mulattoes are bastards,” he allegedly told them—and pilfering the lion’s share of provisions, distributing them among chiefs to win their allegiance.32
Whether Coker panicked at this point is open to interpretation, but he did flee to Freetown soon after Bacon’s death and once again put his faith in the counsel of white men. “I found Mr. Coker, on whom all the affairs of the settlement had devolved … in a state of the greatest despondency, and on the point of abandoning the settlement,” wrote Captain Alexander Wadsworth, a U.S. naval officer on anti-slave-trade patrol, to the ACS secretary, Elias Caldwell. “I advised him to sustain himself in his present situation, till he should receive instructions from the United States, as the ultimate success of the colony depended so materially on such a course.”33 Coker did as he was told, returning to Sherbro with the remaining supplies from the Elizabeth. It would be one of his last official duties. Physically exhausted and thoroughly alienated from his fellow colonists, he would elect to settle permanently outside Freetown, where he would sire an influential clan of Krios, the non-native black and mulatto elite who would rule Sierra Leone for its British masters until independence in the 1960s.
In the meantime, however, the new provisions Coker brought from Freetown allowed the surviving settlers to survive the wet months at Campelair. But, as they all agreed, Sherbro was no place to settle. By November, and the end of the rains, the last of the surviving colonists had relocated to the elevated and dry Freetown suburb of Fourah Bay, a desperately needed refuge granted, reluctantly, by the British governor. As news of the Sherbro disaster made its way back to America, the ACS remained committed to the experiment, perhaps, given the catastrophe at Sherbro, even criminally so. The next year, once again backed by federal funds, it launched another expedition destined to arrive in West Africa at the start of the rainy season.
*   *   *
The Nautilus dropped anchor in Freetown Harbour almost a year to a day after the Elizabeth, bringing with it thirty-four more colonists, including a forty-year-old ne’er-do-well-turned-missionary named Lott Carey. All we know about Carey’s life before Africa comes from his own postconversion writings and the accounts of his fellow Baptists, who preferred and needed—for fund-raising purposes—the predictable trajectory from sinner to saint. Still, his backstory is revealing, both in explaining the importance of religion in Carey’s decision to cross the Atlantic and in the Liberian story as a whole.
Like Coker, the Virginia-born Carey’s early life was as fortunate as a slave could hope for. His family was intact, his father a respected “plantation preacher,” and his grandmother Mihala, an African-born healer, still alive.34 According to Carey, she taught him about his African family, who thirsted for the gospel of Jesus Christ, and related the story of her Middle Passage so that one day he might return to spread the gospel in the land of his ancestors. She had suffered, he believed, so he could save souls.
But Carey, according to his own words, must have been a disappointment to her. On the plantation, he was a hell-raiser, a profane youth given to drinking, gambling, and cursing—habits he indulged in all the more after his master rented him out to a nearby tobacco warehouse owner. But in the fleshpot that was Richmond, Carey eventually found God one Sunday morning in 1807 in the blacks-only gallery of the First Baptist Church. From that day on, he claims, he was a new man—pious, hardworking, determined to better himself. He learned to read and write. On one occasion, according to an oft-repeated story, a white “gentleman” came to the warehouse and interrupted his reading to send him on an errand.35 While Carey was off attending to the task, the man picked up the book Carey had laid down and saw that it was Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations.
Indeed, Carey applied himself to secular and spiritual pursuits with equal discipline. He rose up the ranks at the warehouse, diligently saving the earnings he was not required to turn over to his owner until, six years after his conversion, he presented his master with a check for $850 to purchase freedom for himself and his two children, his wife having died some time before. His was a rare but not impossible path to freedom for urban slaves in antebellum America. Now a free man, Carey eventually became the supervisor of the warehouse, which came with the solid middle-class salary of $800 per annum. He remarried, had several more children, and settled them on a farm in the suburbs. Carey also took up his father’s vocation, becoming an itinerant preacher, respected by his colleagues, even white ones. His sermons, J. B. Taylor, pastor of Richmond’s Second Baptist Church noted respectfully, though with some condescension, were “clear of the senseless rant too common among uneducated colored preachers.”36
Sometime around 1812, Carey caught the missionary bug, a common ailment in early nineteenth-century America. As did other evangelical denominations, the national Baptist leadership tried to harness the newfound fervor among its congregants through institutionalization and fund-raising. It also concluded that Africa offered some of the most fertile ground for proselytizing, and that black Christians from America were the ideal candidates for spreading the good word among their benighted brethren.37
If he thought he might bury his grief in missionary work, he was quickly disabused of the idea by J. B. Winn, the newly arrived replacement for Bacon. Winn’s highest priority was building and provisioning a “receptacle,” or settlement camp, for recaptives the U.S. Navy was expected to deposit at the already strained colony. “He [Winn] has rented a farm, and put us [Carey and his co-missionary Colin Teague] on it, and we must cultivate it for our support, and for the support of these Africans; and pay as much of the rent as we can,” he reported to the Baptist Board of Foreign Missions.38 Ever the faithful servant, Carey tried to put a positive spin on things. “Jesus Christ our Savior when he came on his mission into this world, was often found with a broad axe in his hand; and I believe a good many corn field missionaries would be a great blessing to this country.” But, he added in an uncharacteristic display of contrariness, only if “they were not confined to the field by the law and by necessity. We are bound by both.” Still, the indefatigable and indestructible Carey—he did not catch the “seasoning fever”—managed both to learn a new craft, cooperage, and establish a mission among the local Mandingoes in Fourah Bay.39
The latter accomplishment was especially poignant, since it fulfilled his grandmother’s prophecy that he would slake the spiritual thirst of his African brethren. Soon, out of necessity, he would drift away from missionary work. His highest priority became the survival of his fellow colonists, even when that survival required making war on the natives he had come to save. In doing so, Carey would bend his noble intentions to the exigencies of survival, which those who followed him would do time and again throughout Liberia’s history. The compromises would not always be about religion. Later in the century, after Liberians declared their independence from the ACS, they would establish a republic but keep it for themselves, for fear of being overwhelmed by masses of native voters. And when forced to choose between African liberation and national survival in the early twentieth century, they would opt for the latter. All of it was not so much a reflection on their characters as it was on their immediate circumstances. Carey was one of the first colonists to recognize that the colonists, soon to be Liberians, were a tiny and largely friendless people in a big and hostile world.
The first episode in Liberia’s history—or rather, prehistory—came to a close as the oblivious ACS leadership recognized that things were going terribly awry in Sierra Leone. The Sherbro fiasco and the continuing obstructionism of British authorities led the ACS to conclude that a new and independent colony, in a more salubrious setting, was necessary if the great experiment—Clay’s “nobler cause”—was to succeed. And so, in November 1821, agents for the federal government and the ACS—Robert Stockton and Eli Ayres, respectively—sailed southeastward to find a more suitable place to settle the colonists. Stockton headed the expedition. A former student of the Reverend Robert Finley, the pious New Jersey schoolmaster and a key inspiration behind the ACS, he was also an ambitious naval officer, an opponent of the slave trade on religious grounds, and a proto-imperialist who would go on to serve in the U.S. Senate. In short, he believed in African colonization for every possible reason: Christian benevolence, opposition to slavery, and the extension of American influence abroad.
Stockton and Ayres did not discover many viable options for the colony, as the Windward Coast offered precious few safe anchorages. The obvious destination, Cape Mesurado, a rocky headland and lagoon two hundred miles from Fourah Bay, presented a major obstacle: a native leadership notoriously suspicious of outsiders, especially those claiming to come in the name of civilization. The chiefs correctly interpreted such sentiments as a threat to their status as middlemen in the now illegal transatlantic slave trade. This reputation for intransigence had frightened off an earlier team of ACS agents sent to secure land for a settlement, and that had then promptly succumbed to fever. But Lieutenant Stockton—young, righteous, and impatient—was not so easily intimidated.


 
Copyright © 2013 by James Ciment