The Colonization Movement – Liberia History

With commendable energy the newly organized society set about the accomplishment of the task before it. Plans were discussed during the summer, and in November two agents, Samuel J. Mills and Ebenezer Burgess, sailed for Africa to explore the western coast and select a suitable spot. They were cordially received in England by the officers of the African institution, and by Earl Bathurst, secretary of state for the colonies, who provided them with letters to Sierra Leone. Here they arrived in march, 1818, and were hospitably received, every facility being afforded them to prosecute their inquiries, though marked unwillingness to have a foreign colony established in the vicinity was not concealed. Their inspection was carried as far south as Sherbro island, where they obtained promises from the natives to sell land to the colonists on their arrival with goods to pay for it. In may they embarked on the return voyage. Mills died before reaching home. His colleague made a most favorable report of the locality selected, though, as the event proved, it was a most unfortunate one.

After defraying the expenses of this exploration the society’s treasury was practically empty. It would have been most difficult to raise the large sum necessary to equip and send out a body of emigrants; and the whole enterprise would have languished and perhaps died but for a new impelling force. Monroe, who ever since his correspondence with Jefferson in 1800, had pondered over “the vast and interesting objects” which colonization might accomplish, was now by an interesting chain of circumstances enabled to render essential aid.

Though the importation of slaves had been strictly prohibited by the act of congress of march 2, 1807, no provision had been made for the care of the unfortunates smuggled in in defiance of the statute. They became subject to the laws of the state in which they were landed; and these laws were in some cases so devised that it was profitable for the dealer to land his cargo and incur the penalty. The advertisements of the sale of such a cargo of “recaptured Africans” by the state of Georgia drew the attention of the society and of gen. Mercer in particular to this inconsistent and abnormal state of affairs. His profound indignation shows forth in the second annual report of the society, in which the attention of the public is earnestly drawn to the question; nor did he rest until a bill was introduced into the house of representatives designed to do away with the evil. This bill became a law on march 3, 1819.

Provision was made for a more stringent suppression of the slave trade: new cruisers were ordered and bounties awarded for captures; but the clause which proved so important to the embryo colony was that dealing with the captured cargoes:

“the president of the united states is hereby authorized to make such regulations and arrangements as he may deem expedient for the safe keeping, support, and removal beyond the limits of the united states, of all such negroes, mulattoes, or persons of color as may be so delivered and brought within their jurisdiction; and to appoint a proper person or persons residing upon the coast of Africa as agent or agents for receiving the negroes, mulattoes, or persons of color, delivered from on board vessels seized in the prosecution of the slave trade by commanders of the united states armed vessels.” The sum of $100,000 was appropriated for carrying out the provisions of the act. President Monroe determined to construe it as broadly as possible in aid of the project of colonization. After giving congress, in his message, December 20, 1818, fair notice of his intention, no objection being made, he proceeded to appoint two agents, the rev. Samuel bacon, already in the service of the colonization society, and John P. Bankson as assistant, and to charter the ship Elizabeth. The agents were instructed to settle on the coast of Africa, with a tacit understanding that the place should be that selected by the colonization society; they were to provide accommodations sufficient for three hundred, supplying provisions, clothing, tools, and implements. It is important to note the essential part taken by the government in the establishment of the colony, for this is often said to be purely the result of private enterprise; the inference tending to free the united states from any responsibility for the protection of its feeble offspring. It is true according to the letter, that the government agency was separate from the colony: the agents were instructed “to exercise no power founded on the principle of colonization, or other principle than that of performing benevolent offices;” and again, “you are not to connect your agency with the views or plans of the colonization society, with which, under the law, the government of the united states has no concern,” yet as a matter of fact the agency and colony were practically identical; and for years the resources of the government were employed “to colonize recaptured Africans, to build homes for them, to furnish them with farming utensils, to pay instructors to teach them, to purchase ships for their convenience, to build forts for their protection, to supply them with arms and munitions of war, to enlist troops to guard them, and to employ the army and navy in their defense,” these words of one unfriendly to the colony forcibly show the extent to which our national government was responsible for the experiment.

When the Elizabeth was chartered the society was notified that the government agency was prepared to transport their first colonists; or more literally “agreed to receive on board such free blacks recommended by the society as might be required for the purpose of the agency.” For the expenses of the expedition $33,000 was placed in the hands of Mr.. Bacon. Dr. Samuel a. Crozier was appointed by the society as its agent and representative; and eighty-six negroes from various states thirty-three men, eighteen women, and the rest children, were embarked. On the 6th of February, 1820, the mayflower of Liberia weighed anchor in New York harbor, and, convoyed by the U.S. Sloop-of-war Cyane, steered her course toward the shores of Africa. The pilgrims were kindly treated by the authorities at Sierra Leone, where they arrived on the ninth of march; but on proceeding to Sherbro island they found the natives had reconsidered their promise, and refused to sell them land. While delayed by negotiations the injudicious nature of the site selected was disastrously shown. The low marshy ground and the bad water quickly bred the African fever, which soon carried off all the agents and nearly a fourth of the emigrants. The rest, weakened and disheartened were soon obliged to seek refuge at Sierra Leone.

In march, 1821, a body of twenty-eight new emigrants under charge of J.B. Winn and Ephraim bacon, reached Freetown in the brig nautilus. Winn collected as many as he could of the first company, also the stores sent out with them, and settled the people in temporary quarters at Fourah Bay, while bacon set out to explore the coast anew and secure suitable territory. An elevated fertile and desirable tract was at length discovered between 250 and 300 miles S.E. Of Sierra Leone. This was the region of cape Montserado. It seemed exactly suited to the purposes of the colonists, but the natives refused to sell their land for fear of breaking up the traffic in slaves; and the agent returned discouraged. Winn soon died, and bacon returned to the united states. In November, dr. Eli Ayres was sent over as agent, and the U.S. Schooner alligator, commanded by lieutenant Stockton, was ordered to the coast to assist in obtaining a foothold for the colony. Cape Montserado was again visited; and the address and firmness of lieutenant Stockton accomplished the purchase of a valuable tract of land.

The cape upon which the settlers proposed to build their first habitations consists of a narrow peninsula or tongue of land formed by the Montserado River, which separates it from the mainland. Just within the mouth of the river lie two small islands, containing together less than three acres. To these, the Plymouth of Liberia, the colonists and their goods were soon transported. But again the fickle natives repented the bargain, and the settlers were long confined to “perseverance island,” as the spot was aptly named. Space forbids entering on the interesting details of the difficulties they successfully encountered. After a number of thrilling experiences the emigrants, on April 25, 1822, formally took possession of the cape, where they had erected rude houses for themselves; and from this moment we may date the existence of the colony. Their supplies were by this time sadly reduced; the natives were hostile and treacherous; fever had played havoc with the colonists in acclimating; and the incessant downpour of the rainy season had set in. Dr. Ayres became thoroughly discouraged, and proposed to lead them back to Sierra Leone. Then it was that Elijah Johnson, an emigrant from New York, made himself forever famous in Liberian history by declaring that he would never desert the home he had found after two years’ weary quest! His firmness decided the wavering colonists; the agents with a few faint hearted ones sailed off to America; but the majority remained with their heroic negro leader. The little band, deserted by their appointed protectors, were soon reduced to the most dire distress, and must have perished miserably but for the arrival of unexpected relief. The united states government had at last gotten hold of some ten liberated Africans, and had a chance to make use of the agency established for them at so great an expense. They were accordingly sent out in the brig strong under the care of the Rev. Jehudi Ashmun. A quantity of stores and some thirty-seven emigrants sent by the colonization society completed the cargo. Ashmun had received no commission as agent for the colony, and expected to return on the strong; under this impression his wife had accompanied him. But when he found the colonists in so desperate a situation he nobly determined to remain with them at any sacrifice. He visited the native chiefs and found them, under cover of friendly promises, preparing for a deadly assault on the little colony. There was no recourse but to prepare for a vigorous defense. Twenty-seven men were capable of bearing arms; and one brass and five iron fieldpieces, all dismantled and rusty, formed his main hope. Ashmun at once set to work, and with daily drills and unremitting labor in clearing away the forest and throwing up earthworks, succeeded at last in putting the settlement in a reasonable state of defense. It was no easy task. The fatiguing labor, incessant rains, and scanty food predisposed them to the dreaded fever. Ashmun himself was prostrated; his wife sank and died before his eyes; and soon there was but one man in the colony who was not on the sick list. At length the long expected assault was made. Just before daybreak on the 11th of November the settlement was approached by a body of over eight hundred African warriors. Stealthily following the pickets as they returned a little too early from their watch, the savages burst upon the colony and with a rush captured the outworks. A desperate conflict ensued, the issue of which hung doubtful until the colonists succeeded in manning their brass field piece, which was mounted upon a raised platform, and turning it upon the dense ranks of the assailants. The effect at such short range was terrible. “Every shot literally spent its force in a solid mass of living human flesh. Their fire suddenly terminated. A savage yell was raised, and the whole host disappeared.” the victory had been gained at a cost of four killed and as many seriously wounded. Ammunition was exhausted; food had given out. Another attack, for which the natives were known to be preparing, could scarcely fail to succeed. Before it was made, however, an English captain touched at the cape and generously replenished their stores. On the very next evening, November 30, the savages were seen gathering in large numbers on the cape, and toward morning a desperate attack was made on two sides at once. The lines had been contracted, however, and all the guns manned, and the well directed fire of the artillery again proved too much for native valor. The savages were repulsed with great loss. The unusual sound of a midnight cannonade attracted the prince regent, an English colonial schooner laden with military stores and having on board the celebrated traveler captain Laing, through whose mediation the natives were brought to agree to a peace most advantageous to the colonists. When the prince regent sailed, midshipman Gordon, with eleven British sailors volunteered to remain, to assist the exhausted colonists and guarantee the truce. His generosity met an ill requital; within a month he had fallen victim to the climate with eight of the brave seamen. Supplies were again running low, when march brought the welcome arrival of the U.S. Ship Cyane. Captain R.T. Spence at once turned his whole force to improving the condition of the colonists. Buildings were erected, the dismantled colonial schooner was raised and made sea worthy, and many invaluable services were rendered, until at length a severe outbreak of the fever among the crew compelled the vessel’s withdrawal. It was too late, however, to prevent the loss of forty lives, including the lieutenant, Richard Dashiell, and the surgeon, dr. Dix.

On the 24th of may, 1823, the brig Oswego arrived with sixty-one new emigrants and a liberal supply of stores and tools, in charge of dr. Ayres, who, already the representative of the society, had now been appointed government agent and surgeon. One of the first measures of the new agent was to have the town surveyed and lots distributed among the whole body of colonists. Many of the older settlers found themselves dispossessed of the holdings improved by their labor, and the colony was soon in a ferment of excitement and insurrection. Dr. Ayres, finding his health failing, judiciously betook himself to the united states.

The arrival of the agent had placed Mr.. Ashmun in a false position of the most mortifying character. It will be remembered that in sympathy for the distress of the colony he had assumed the position of agent without authority. In the dire necessity of subsequent events he had been compelled to purchase supplies and ammunition in the society’s name. He now found, himself superseded in authority, his services and self sacrifice unappreciated, his drafts[9] dishonored, his motives distrusted. Nothing could show more strongly his devotion and self abnegation than his action in the present crisis. Seeing the colony again deserted by the agent and in a state of discontent and confusion, he forgot his wrongs and remained at the helm. Order was soon restored but the seeds of insubordination remained. The arrival of 103 emigrants from Virginia on the Cyrus, in February 1824, added to the difficulty, as the stock of food was so low that the whole colony had to be put on half rations. This necessary measure was regarded by the disaffected as an act of tyranny on Ashman’s part; and when shortly after the complete prostration of his health compelled him to withdraw to the Cape de Verde Islands, the malcontents sent home letters charging him with all sorts of abuse of power, and finally with desertion of his post! The society in consternation applied to government for an expedition of investigation, and the rev. R.R. Gurley, secretary of the society, and an enthusiastic advocate of colonization was dispatched in June on the U.S. Schooner porpoise. The result of course revealed the probity, integrity and good judgment of Mr.. Ashman; and Gurley became thenceforth his warmest admirer. As a preventive of future discontent a constitution was adopted at Mr.. Gurley’s suggestion, giving for the first time a definite share in the control of affairs to the colonists themselves. Gurley brought with him the name of the colony Liberia, and of its settlement on the Cape Monrovia, which had been adopted by the society on the suggestion of Mr.. Robert Goodloe Harper of Maryland. He returned from his successful mission in august leaving the most cordial relations established throughout the colony.

Gurley’s visit seemed to mark the turning of the tide, and a period of great prosperity now began. Relay after relay of industrious emigrants arrived; new land was taken up; successful agriculture removed all danger of future failure of food supply; and a flourishing trade was built up at Monrovia. Friendly relations were formed with the natives, and their children taken for instruction into colonial families and schools. New settlements were formed; churches and schools appeared; an efficient militia was organized; printing presses set up and hospitals erected. On every side rapid progress was made. After years of illustrious service Ashman retired to his home in new haven, where he died a few days later, on august 25, 1828. Under dr. Richard Randall and Dr. Mechlin, who successively filled his post, the prosperity of the colony continued undiminished.

The decade after 1832 is marked by the independent action of different state colonization societies. At first generally organized as tributary to the main body, the state societies now began to form distinct settlements at other points on the coast. The Maryland society first started an important settlement at Cape Palmas, of which we shall make a special study. Bassa Cove was settled by the joint action of the New York and Pennsylvania societies; Greenville, on the Sinou River, by emigrants from Mississippi; and the Louisiana society engaged in a similar enterprise. The separate interests of the different settlements at length began in many cases to engender animosity and bad feeling; the need of general laws and supervision was everywhere apparent; and a movement toward a federal union of the colonies was set on foot. A plan was at length agreed upon by all except Maryland, by which the colonies were united into the “commonwealth of Liberia,” whose government was controlled by a board of directors composed of delegates from the state societies. This board at its first meeting drew up a plan of government, and Thomas Buchanan was appointed first governor of the commonwealth, 1837. The advantages of the union were soon apparent. The more aggressive native tribes with whom not a little trouble had been experienced, were made to feel the strength of the union; and many of the smaller head men voluntarily put themselves under the protection of the government, agreeing to become citizens, with all their subjects, and submit to its laws. The traffic in slaves all along the coast was checked, intertribal warfare prevented, and trial by the Sassa-wood ordeal abolished wherever colonial influence extended. Mr. Buchanan was the last white man who exercised authority in Liberia. On his death the lieutenant-governor, Joseph Jenkins Roberts, succeeded him. Roberts, who afterward became Liberia’s most distinguished citizen, was a Virginia Negro, having been born at Norfolk in 1809, and brought up near Petersburg. He obtained a rudimentary education while running a flat boat on the James and Appomattox rivers. In 1829 he went with his widowed mother and younger brothers to Liberia, where he rapidly rose to wealth and distinction. As governor he evinced an efficient statesmanship that promised well for his future career.

Roberts had not long been governor when trouble arose with the British coast wise traders that gave rise to a most interesting crisis. The Liberian government in regulating commerce within its jurisdiction had enacted laws imposing duties on all imported goods. The English traders, accustomed for hundreds of years to unrestricted traffic on this very coast, were indignant at the presumption of the upstart colony, and ignored its regulations. The government protested, but in vain. And at length the little colonial revenue schooner John Seyes, while attempting to enforce the laws at Edina, was actually seized by the stalwart Britisher and dragged before the admiralty court at Sierra Leone. A long discussion which would be profitless to follow in detail, ensued. The result was, that the John Seyes was confiscated. The British government opened a correspondence with the united states, in which it was ascertained that Liberia was not in political dependence upon them. Whereupon the sovereignty of Liberia was promptly denied, her right to acquire or hold territory questioned, and she was given to understand that the operations of British traders would in future be backed by the British navy.

Evidently if Liberia was to maintain and govern her territory something must be done. The colonization society while claiming for Liberia the right to exercise sovereign powers, seems to have had the unacknowledged conviction, that England’s position, however ungenerous, was logically unassailable. The supreme authority wielded by the society, its veto power over legislative action, was undoubtedly inconsistent with the idea of a sovereign state. This is clearly apparent from the fact that though there was pressing necessity for a treaty with England, neither the colony nor the society had power to negotiate it. It was accordingly determined to surrender all control over the colony; and the “people of the commonwealth of Liberia” were “advised” by the society “to undertake the whole work of self government;” to make the necessary amendments to their constitution, and to declare their full sovereignty to the world.

The suggestion was adopted in Liberia by popular vote, and a convention met on July 26, 1847, adopted a declaration of independence and a new constitution, closely modeled on the corresponding documents of the united states. In September the constitution was ratified by vote of the people. Governor Roberts was elected to the office of president, upon which he entered January 3, 1848. His inaugural address is one of remarkable interest, fitly proclaiming to the world a new republic.


McPherson, John Hanson Thomas. The History Of Liberia. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press. 1891.

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