Addressing the 'Negro Problem' in the 1820s

A slave barracoon in Sierra Leone (Photobucket)
A slave barracoon in Sierra Leone (Photobucket)

(The Root) — After 30 years of teaching African history, I am still fascinated by the idealism and innocence expressed by those who supported plans to settle African Americans on the African coast in the 1820s. They knew so little about the continent and the people who lived in it.


Nearly everyone who supported colonization believed that Africa would embrace the return of African Americans. They also believed that slavery in America was wrong and outdated, and they wanted it ended. Some believed that its end would come quickly, while others expected owners to free their slaves gradually.

Many supporters of colonization were convinced that freed blacks would become a perpetual underclass in America and that whites and blacks could not live harmoniously as equals. For some, the solution to the "Negro problem" was to move all African Americans to another place — any place would do — where they could rule themselves. Others dreamed of black republics spreading American-style republicanism and civilization, commerce and Christianity on the African continent. Some considered their efforts to be compensation for the damage America had inflicted upon the continent. And others dreamed of economic rewards that would surely come to sponsors, just in case African-American colonies became successful.

There was also a British side to the idea of returning African Americans to Africa. On Africa's west coast, Sierra Leone's governors were convinced that Americans were planning to surround and overwhelm the British colony by flooding the coast with American products and African-American settlers.

Britain and America were not then on good terms. While French armies were conquering Europe and Britain was fighting to contain the spread of anarchy and French-style republicanism, America had declared war on Britain in 1812. When Americans began to speak openly of schemes to establish colonies for African Americans in Africa, the British were at first amused and then horrified.

Britain knew that if Americans sent tens or hundreds of thousands of African Americans to Africa's shores, American sponsors would need to find willing recipients and support the settlers to ensure their success. The British were already having enough trouble with 2,000 African-American settlers at Freetown in Sierra Leone. And they knew that American sponsors of colonization had no viable exit strategy for how to terminate support for their colonies once they launched them. If settlers found themselves in trouble, it would be Britain's navy and military power that would need to come to their rescue, if a rescue were even possible. That was part of Britain's nightmare.

In the telling of this history, what is often missing is the African side of the story. The settlers would need a shoreline with wharfs and jetties ready and able to receive them. The list of requirements was long: land capable of absorbing massive numbers, African rulers willing to receive and protect them, farm land for them to use, an indigenous population that could tolerate their presence and odd customs and accept them despite their former slave status in America, a willingness to permit them to rule themselves and a commerce that allowed them to participate.


In my new book, American Colony on the Rio Pongo: The War of 1812, the Slave Trade, and the Proposed Settlement of African Americans, 1810-1830, I chart how these three histories — American, British and African — came together to become an important but unknown part of the search for a homeland for African Americans on Africa's western coast. Planners looked to the Rio Pongo, which seemed to meet those requirements.

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.