December 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 8
On December 1, in what is now Monrovia, Liberia, three dozen former American slaves desperately fought off an armed assault by a thousand native-born Africans determined to reclaim their land. The freemen had been brought to Liberia by the American Colonization Society (ACS), which hoped to solve America’s growing racial problems by moving free blacks “back” to Africa. According to a sympathetic chronicler, the society’s founders felt “that giving freedom to the slave was not enough as reparation: he should be restored to the land of his fathers and resume an existence in Africa as a Christian and an enlightened propagator of civilization.”
Most free blacks, however, saw the scheme as a way for whites to get rid of them and call it a favor. The idea that blacks could not be true Americans rankled, as did the notion that they would flock to a “homeland” from which most of them were several generations removed. James Porten, a Philadelphia freeman and Revolutionary War veteran who had built a successful sailmaking business, wrote sarcastically, “Perhaps if I should only be set on the shore of that distant land, I should recognize all I might see there, and run at once to the old hut where my forefathers lived a hundred years ago.”
Native Africans were not enthusiastic about the plan either. In 1821 ACS agents had forced a local king at gunpoint to deed them a 130-mile strip of coastland in return for a few cartloads of hardware and household goods (including place settings for twelve, complete with wineglasses). Ever since, his subjects had been waiting for a chance to expel the interlopers. When fever had killed or weakened a sufficient number, they struck.
Some of the warriors carried spears. Others bore large-caliber muskets, which they loaded with foot-long copper and iron slugs for close-range use. But the settlers had artillery, which made up for their numerical disadvantage. On November 12, after the Africans’ initial attack, the colony’s white director, Jehudi Ashmun, had written: “Eight hundred men were here pressed shoulder to shoulder in so compact a force that a child might easily walk upon their heads from one end of the mass to the other.… [They were] all exposed to a gun of great power, raised on a platform at only thirty to sixty yards’ distance. Every shot literally spent its force in a solid mass of human flesh.”
The insurgents quickly fled that debacle. Three weeks later they returned with a cleverly devised multifront attack that was better organized and more persistent than the first but no more successful. A few days after the warriors had been dispersed, a British warship, which happened to be passing by and was attracted by the sound of gunfire, brought muchneeded provisions to the weary garrison. Among the ship’s passengers was the celebrated explorer Alexander Gordon Laing, who negotiated a peace treaty.
With no military experience to guide him, the tireless Ashmun had shaken off a debilitating fever to spend months organizing the colony’s defense. He was devoutly religious, and he would use whatever means were necessary to do the Lord’s work. One historian describes a subsequent attack on a Spanish slave-trading settlement: “Ashmun landed on the beach with the armed parties of marines; the first of the towns was set on fire; the fire reached a great store or magazine of powder, and a terrific explosion occurred, filling the air with débris , thatch, splinters, and fragments of human beings.” Unfortunately for the ACS, though fortunately for Liberia’s neighbors, the energetic Ashmun died in 1828, and the society never found his equal. It limped along for three more decades until the Civil War made it irrelevant. By that time a mere fifteen thousand blacks had been resettled.