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Tue Feb 6, 2024, 01:08 PM Feb 6

On This Day: First African American settlers to Liberia face very high mortality rate - Feb. 6, 1820

(edited from Wikipedia)

Liberia is a country in West Africa founded by free people of color from the United States. The emigration of African Americans, both freeborn and recently emancipated, was funded and organized by the American Colonization Society (ACS). The mortality rate of these settlers was the highest among settlements reported with modern record keeping. Of the 4,571 emigrants who arrived in Liberia between 1820 and 1843, only 1,819 survived (39.8%).

First ideas of colonization

From around 1800, in the United States, people opposed to slavery were planning ways to liberate more slaves and, ultimately, to abolish the practice. At the same time, slaveholders in the South opposed having free blacks in their states, as they believed the free people threatened the stability of their slave societies.

Slaves were gradually freed in the North, although more slowly than generally realized; there were hundreds of slaves in Northern states in the 1840 census, and in New Jersey, in the 1860 census. The former slaves and other free blacks suffered considerable social and legal discrimination; they were not citizens and were seen by many as unwanted foreigners who were taking jobs away from whites by working for less. Like Southern states, some Northern states and territories severely restricted or prohibited altogether entry by free blacks.

Some abolitionists, including distinguished blacks such as ship builder Paul Cuffe or Cuffee, believed that blacks should return to "the African homeland", as if it were one ethnicity and country, despite many having been in the United States for generations. Cuffe's dream was that free African Americans and freed slaves "could establish a prosperous colony in Africa," one based on emigration and trade.

American Colonization Society

The first ship of the American Colonization Society, the Elizabeth, departed New York on February 6, 1820, for West Africa carrying 86 settlers. Between 1821 and 1838, the American Colonization Society developed the first settlement, which would be known as Liberia. On July 26, 1847, Liberia declared itself a (free) sovereign nation.

The American Colonization Society (ACS) was founded in 1816 by Virginia politician Charles F. Mercer and Presbyterian minister Robert Finley of New Jersey. The goal of the ACS was to settle free blacks outside of the United States; its method was to help them relocate to Africa.

Starting in January 1820, the ACS sent ships from New York to West Africa. The first had 88 free black emigrants and three white ACS agents on board. The agents were to find an appropriate area for a settlement. Additional ACS representatives arrived in the second ACS ship, the Nautilus. In December 1821, they acquired Cape Mesurado, a 36-mile-long (58 km) strip of land near present-day Monrovia, from the indigenous ruler King Peter (perhaps with some threat of force).

[First colonies]

From the beginning, the colonists were attacked by indigenous peoples whose territory this was, such as the Malinké tribes. In addition, they suffered from disease, the harsh climate, lack of food and medicine, and poor housing conditions.

Until 1835, five more colonies were created by the colonization societies of five different states in the U.S. (Republic of Maryland, Kentucky-in-Africa, Mississippi in Africa, Louisiana, Liberia, and that set up by the Pennsylvania state colonization society and one planned by the New Jersey colonization society).

Rejection of colonization in the United States

Free people of color in the United States, with a few notable exceptions, overwhelmingly rejected the idea of moving to Liberia, or anywhere else in Africa, from the very beginning of the movement. Most of them had lived in the United States for generations, and while they wanted better treatment, they did not want to leave. In response to the proposal for blacks to move to Africa, Frederick Douglass said "Shame upon the guilty wretches that dare propose, and all that countenance such a proposition. We live here—have lived here—have a right to live here, and mean to live here."

Starting in 1831 with William Lloyd Garrison's new newspaper, The Liberator, and followed by his Thoughts on African Colonization in 1832, support for colonization dropped, particularly in Northern free states. Garrison and his followers supported the idea of "immediatism," calling for immediate emancipation of all slaves and the legal prohibition of slavery throughout the United States. The ACS, Garrison declared, was "a creature without heart, without brains, eyeless, unnatural, hypocritical, relentless and unjust." It was not, in his view, a plan to eliminate slavery; rather, it was a way to protect it.

High mortality

The ACS knew of the high death rate, but continued to send more people to the colony.

Handing over command to Americo-Liberians

The ACS administrators gradually gave the maturing colony more self-governance. In 1839, it was reorganized into the Commonwealth of Liberia. In 1841, the Commonwealth's first non-white governor, Joseph Jenkins Roberts, was appointed by ACS's governing board. In early 1847, the ACS directed Liberian leadership to declare independence. On July 26, 1847, eleven signatories to the Liberian Declaration of Independence established the free and independent Republic of Liberia. It took several years for other nations to recognize Liberia's independence, most notably Britain in 1848 and France in 1852. In the United States, the Southern bloc in Congress refused to recognize Liberian sovereignty. In 1862, however, following the departure of most Southern congressmen due to the American Civil War and the secession of the Southern states, the United States finally established diplomatic relations and welcomed a Liberian delegation to Washington.


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