Addressing the ‘Negro Problem’ in the 1820s

A new book charts the little-known history of plans to send former slaves back to Africa's west coast.

A slave barracoon in Sierra Leone (Photobucket)

There were no African states that would oppose the migration. There was already a community of Americans and Britons dating to the mid-18th century, and nearly all had partnered with African women and produced large families of mixed-race children. English was the dominant language of commerce and the language used by the existing mixed-race community.

The good land of the Rio Pongo was sparsely populated, and coastal markets were well-connected with caravan routes. There were wharfs and jetties capable of supplying settlers from the Atlantic and exporting whatever they might produce from their own labor. And planners had received a letter of invitation from headmen on the river to consider the Pongo as a possible migration site. Despite those attractions, planners wisely decided to consider other options. That decision was made, however, only after an inspection tour of the Rio Pongo was conducted and after a lengthy report describing the river’s disadvantages had been written.

The Rio Pongo was an important center of slave trading at the turn of the century, and illegal slave trading continued in parts of it. Most of the river’s mixed-race families had abandoned slave trading and had adjusted their commerce to trade in coffee and peanuts, but even that was problematic. Slave trading may have been illegal, but slavery was not. Plantation operators owned or controlled the labor of thousands of workers whose lives closely resembled what arriving African Americans would have left behind in America. There was also the question of whether freed African Americans could or would ever be accepted as equals in a society that forever labeled people with slave backgrounds as descendants of slaves.

In doubt also was whether African Americans could obtain full membership in secret societies that were foundational in the Pongo’s culture. Could they compete in an economy that was governed by the Euro-African descendants of slave traders? These were issues that eventually led planners to reject the Pongo as a possible site for settlement.

The plan to settle African Americans at the Rio Pongo was one of the more sophisticated developed by advocates of colonization. Conditions on the ground, however, were symbolic of problems that Americans would face in Liberia in the 1820s and would lead them to separate themselves from the people among whom they had settled. Those problems remained essentially unchanged for the next century and were a vital part of the African-American experience on Africa’s western shores.

Bruce L. Mouser is professor emeritus of history at University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.