“Better For Us To Be Separated”

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An American colony in Africa would also have to be financed at least in part by the government, Finley knew. But it would benefit the nation in many ways. It would remove a trodden-down minority from the people who were doing the treading; it would give America a commercial outpost in Africa; and by supplying a catchall for emancipated slaves it would encourage manumission in the South—which Finley hoped would ultimately rid the nation of slavery. There was also an additional philanthropic attraction in the colony’s potential for redeeming Africa, since it would act as a spiritual, educational, and mercantile lighthouse on the Dark Continent.

Encouraged by the reception given the idea among his friends in New Jersey, Finley went to Washington at the end of 1816, and during the Christmas season the American Society for Colonizing the Free People of Color in the United States was formally established. Among the fifty or so leading lights who participated in its founding were Speaker of the House Henry Clay, representatives John Randolph of Virginia and Daniel Webster of New Hampshire, Secretary of the Treasury William Harris Crawford, Attorney General Richard Rush, the author of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Francis Scott Key, General Andrew Jackson, and the nephew of George Washington, Supreme Court Justice Bushrod Washington, who became the society’s first president. It was an auspicious beginning.

Bushrod Washington memorialized Congress in January, 1817, asking legislative support for creating an African colony. But Congress did not respond favorably, and in hopes of becoming more convincing through the presentation of some solidly researched data on possibilities, the society sent out a two-man expedition to West Africa in the next year. The Reverend Samuel J. Mills and Professor Ebenezer Burgess visited Sierra Leone, Sherbro Island (a hundred miles southeast of the British colony), and a number of villages along the coast of Africa’s “shoulder,” close to the Gulf of Guinea. The best that Mills and Burgess took away from their many parleys with black native leaders was a few hedged promises that land for colonists might be made available. Most of the local Negroes were hostile to the idea. But the visitors’ impressions of what they saw and heard were strongly influenced by their hopes. When they headed home in May, 1818, they were highly optimistic, particularly about Sherbro Island as a location. Mills had been ill for much of their trip, and he died on the homeward voyage; but Professor Burgess communicated their joint enthusiasm to the society.

With the support of the colonizationists, a bill was now pushed through Congress to stiffen regulation of the African slave trade by making the federal government, rather than the states, responsible for suppressing it. The law gave President Monroe power to care for and relocate any slaves captured from the holds of slave ships by the government in its policing of the seas. It authorized him, moreover, to commit a naval squadron to the task and, most significantly from the society’s point of view, to create a station on the coast of Africa for the landing of “contraband” blacks rescued from their kidnappers. The colonizationists hoped that this might be the nucleus of their hoped-for colony. Monroe thought well of Negro resettlement, and he leaned toward such a liberal interpretation. But an adverse opinion from Secretary of State John Quincy Adams blocked the society’s attempt to get the President to buy land for a colony under the new statute. Adams felt that neither the law nor the Constitution could be construed as permitting the nation to set up a colony anywhere. At length, Monroe and the colonizationists worked out a compromise: the society would buy the land, and the federal government would post two agents to Africa, along with a number of Negro volunteer colonists as workmen, to set up the African station. In January, 1820, eighty-six black “workmen,” two thirds of whom were women and children, sailed for Sherbro Island aboard the merchant ship Elizabeth , with a sloop of war as convoy. The expedition was led by two federal agents, both nominated by the society, the Reverend Samuel Bacon and John P. Bankson. Also on board was the society’s own agent, Samuel Crozer.

On Sherbro they found a rude camp waiting for them, built by a former American slave, John Kizell; he had been Mills’s and Burgess’ interpreter on the island two years earlier. Crozer went off to negotiate with the island leaders for a larger tract of land. They, as it turned out, wanted the colony as little as they had when Mills and Burgess had talked to them earlier. The thwarted colonists moved into KizelPs camp, and shortly “African fever” began to strike them down. Crozer came back to find several of them dead. He himself fell ill and died. So did John Bankson. So did a Navy officer. And so, finally, did the last surviving agent, the Reverend Mr. Bacon. Crozer had turned over authority to one of the black colonists, the Reverend Daniel Coker of Baltimore, and Coker contended with a disunited and unhealthy colony for a while before giving it up and taking some of the survivors to a refuge on the mainland.