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Lamin Sanneh

Abolitionists Abroad: American Blacks and the Making of Modern West Africa

Intercontinental Links in the Antislavery Movement, With Special Attention to the American and African Connection

Overview | General Bibliography



The bibliography that follows is based on my book, Abolitionists Abroad: American Blacks and the Making of Modern West Africa (Harvard University Press, 1999). For reasons of economy, this bibliography now appears separately. Integrated with it are materials I obtained in missionary and government archives, from field trips, and primary sources, as well as extensive interviews and discussions with people in Africa, Europe, the U.S., the Caribbean and the Pacific.

I consulted various archives and libraries in connection with the writing of this book. These included:

  • The Library of Congress, Jefferson Building, for the papers of the American Colonization Society.

  • The Methodist Missionary Society (MMS) Archives housed at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

  • The Church Missionary Society (CMS) Archives deposited in the University of Birmingham, Main Library, Edgbaston, Birmingham, England.

  • The Public Record Office (PRO), Kew Gardens, London.

  • The archives of the Day Missions Library in the Divinity Library at Yale University. The Divinity Library also holds original editions of slave narratives, testimonies and accounts.

  • The Beinecke Rare Book Library at Yale which holds the African Repository, the official publication of the African Colonization Society.

Rationale and Concept

The story as set out in Abolitionists Abroad looks at the role of blacks themselves in the agitation for freedom and humanity, beginning in the 1770s and ending in the 1890s. The book recounts how the vested slave interests of Europeans, Africans and Arabs came under direct challenge from the organized efforts of these blacks and their friends and allies in society, church and government. Together these people combined in a campaign to win wider support for abolition. Yet the anti-slavery campaign in Europe and America was only half the story. It dealt with the demand side in the West, not with the supply side in Africa.

Freetown in Sierra Leone fits into this supply side. The leaders of the Western anti-slavery movement were convinced that so long as Africans were willing to sell fellow Africans, there would always be people equally willing to buy them, with supply and demand becoming with time a chicken-and-egg question. Therefore, it was necessary to attack the problem at its source and to establish a colony that would be a haven for ex-slaves and an example to the rest of Africa. People were not sure precisely how such a colony would work, who would govern it, how it would be defended, who would pay for it, and, most crucial of all, if the Africans living in it would set a good enough example to uphold anti-slavery. Such was the lucrative draw of the slave trade that a colony of Africans without a viable alternative means of livelihood would likely revert to the trade or else perish. Not only coastal but hinterland Africa was littered with slave settlements called in the Fula language rimá'ibé(singular: roundé). In these settlements the normal rules of humanity were suspended, with whole populations held in absolute servitude. Here, slavery was taken as a normal state of affairs, and one that would last into the indefinite future. In time-scale, scope, focus and intensity, slavery, both domestic and trans-Atlantic, belonged with the most obdurate of human rights abuses. What would it take for Africans themselves to resist slavery of such magnitude?

Without the answers to all the important questions connected with the project of a free settlement, the anti-slavery leaders in Europe and America decided anyway to go ahead with plans for a free African settlement, and to meet whatever problems might arise as a consequence. In 1787 Freetown was accordingly established under the authority of the Sierra Leone Company as a free colony.

With the outcome of such a momentous and unprecedented social experiment still in doubt, the advocates of anti-slavery had to confront immediate and urgent questions about their tropical plan. One of the most perplexing was whether a viable settlement could be established on the so-called Dark Continent, "dark," that is, in the double entendre of the absence of the light of knowledge and of physical impenetrability. People in Europe and America realized that ignorance of Africa's peoples and geography had to be overcome before anti-slavery could make any progress there.

A second issue for anti-slavery was the likely disposition of neighboring chiefs and tribes towards a free colony. Would a settlement created to oppose slavery and the slave trade earn the abiding enmity of chiefs and thus pose too great a security burden for officials? Perhaps gifts and tributes, offered with lavish official blandishments, would allow chiefs' hearts to be knit in the cause of anti-slavery. Perhaps, too, a modest show of force, coupled with conciliatory gestures, what Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) called carrying the big stick and speaking softly, borrowing the idea itself from Africa, might be all it would take to avoid costly entanglements with chiefs and offer the fledgling settlement a chance. There was no knowing, except that walking makes the road.

This issue of chiefs' and tribal hostility was a major one. It would not be enough merely to restrain these chiefs and their subjects. On the contrary, they would have to have positive inducement to comply with the terms of a settlement otherwise so opposed to their interests, to be shown in effect how they stood to gain more from anti-slavery than from slavery. Thus legitimate trade as a source of wealth might succeed and reconcile the chiefs.

However, legitimate trade required open competition, and that in turn required abandoning the monopoly and protectionism that favored the chiefs. If pursued single-mindedly, legitimate trade would produce a new middle class whose members would see that they owed their status to their own efforts rather than to chiefs' patronage. Such a middle class Would soon come to regard the chiefs as at best irrelevant to their prosperity and well-being. So the question remained why chiefs should embrace anti-slavery when it was grafted to legitimate trade that threatened their interests so directly.

One answer to this obstacle was to do away altogether with chiefs in the new society to be fostered in a free colony, though such a course would still leave the colony vulnerable to chiefs' reprisals. It was a difficult historical choice. Local rulers were too wedded to slavery and the slave trade to become natural allies of anti-slavery, yet they were too important a part of the social structure to be ignored by a foreign cause like anti-slavery. It would be unthinkable to trust the chiefs, yet impossible, too, to avoid them entirely, like shaking hands with them but having to count your fingers subsequently. Concessions usually incited the less scrupulous chiefs to blackmail, while opposing them antagonized potential allies.

That impasse led to one conclusion, namely, that anti-slavery must cease simply to be a foreign movement and become instead an African and an African American cause, something that blacks themselves deeply desired and for which they were prepared to take risks. It was not enough to plant a free colony in Africa, provide it with European protection and raise it on the uncertain income from legitimate trade. Such a free colony had to set an example of Justice, of equality, of the dignity of labor, and of reward for personal enterprise, if it was to have any meaningful and lasting impact on local attitudes to the slave trade and slavery. Only then might chiefs accept that they and their own people's welfare was better served by productive enterprise, and that anti-slavery was in the interests of their societies, too. Chiefs would likely not lead in this cause, but they might be willing to cooperate, especially when cooperation at that stage carried none of the stigma it was to acquire in the high imperial era.

The American Factor

The American factor in the anti-slavery movement had great potency from the fact of the large number of Africans, slave and free, who resided in the United States. There were some 717,000 slaves and 780,000 free blacks by 1790, which by 1860 increased to 3.5 million, one of the largest communities of Africans anywhere outside Africa. Accordingly, America constituted an important source of ideas -- and stereotypes -- about Africa, knowledge that was little available anywhere else, except perhaps in Africa itself. [In 1771 Benezet published a work focused on the slave trade and social conditions in Africa. Anthony Benezet, Some Historical Account of Guinea... With an Inquiry into the Rise and Progress of the Slave Trade, Philadelphia, 1771.]

The importance of the American factor to our subject is highlighted by the events of the Revolutionary War which created an unprecedented movement among blacks to achieve their freedom. A good number of those who joined the revolution on the side of America did so in the hope of obtaining emancipation. It was a similar motive that induced many other blacks to enlist on the opposing side with the British, thinking the promise of freedom offered by the British worth the gamble of casting their lot with the Crown authorities. The pressure of these events introduced greater urgency into arguments of establishing for the purpose a free colony in Africa.

The involvement of blacks themselves in these discussions was an important contribution to the strategy for developing black leadership for anti-slavery. Some of the blacks wrote about their experiences and published their views in America and elsewhere, and that produced a much greater awareness of Africa and African issues among the public and in political and philanthropic circles. [Freedom's Journal, the first black newspaper in America, edited by Joseph Brown Russwurm. (d. 1851) and published in New York from 1827 to 1829, printed regular articles on factual knowledge about Africa, including extended reviews of scholarly works on Africans and Africa.]

Furthermore, colonization societies were founded in America to organize for the repatriation of blacks to Africa, and although not many blacks left for Africa, the issue of emigration kept Africa before the attention of the public and created a network of information and personal contact. The American connection boosted interest in Africa and knowledge about conditions there.

There is a vital connection between America's political experiment in the creation of the new republic and the need to establish a free colony in Africa at the source of the slave trade, a connection to be found in attitudes to liberty and to monarchical authority as its root enemy. Just as the Founding Fathers repudiated monarchical authority as inimical to political freedom, so did the abolitionists in Africa view chieftaincy authority as too enmeshed in slavery to be acceptable in a free colony.

Thus on the American side there was a good deal of discussion about the issue, which was broadly framed in 1776 by John Adams when he said of the revolution. "Idolatry to Monarchs, and servility to Aristocratical Pride was never so totally eradicated from so many Minds in so short a Time." [Gordon S. Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution, New York: Vintage Books of Random House, 1993, 169.] Accordingly, when Americans embarked on their Course, they did so not only against the structures and institutions of the Old World, but in awareness of the effects of those inherited values on domestic relations, including the social dependencies of subjects, servants, and slaves. In America the subjects opted for political citizenship, the servants for organized unions, and the slaves for emancipation. Turning their backs on what one revolutionary leader called "the Vanity of Birth and Titles," Americans sought to remake their image by abandoning old world presumptions and, equally importantly, by wishing to free themselves of the burden of slavery. Consequently, Americans in Philadelphia in 1775 formed the first anti-slavery society in the world. [Wood, Radicalism, 1993, 186.) A nation based on birth and titles would feel no need to account to itself about slavery and oppressed 'Other-ness', but Americans for their part felt driven to the issue by the force of their own revolutionary logic: black enslavement would have to be explained and justified "in new racial and anthropological ways that their former monarchical society [in Europe] had never needed." Samuel Hopkins was adamant: the cause of the colonies and the cause of emancipation were indissolubly linked, and the words of Benjamin Rush echo the point. He noted in 1787 that "The American war is over: but this is far from being the case with the American revolution. On the contrary, nothing but the first act of the great drama is closed." [Bernard Baylin, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1992. 230. On the issue of slavery in the pre-revolutionary ideology see pp. 242ff of the same title.]

Americans were the first people in the history of constitutional government to define and evaluate themselves in the light of the demands of a different culture, to inscribe into their original national documents the acknowledgment of another culture. That different culture in this case happened to be African, and, in lieu of making good on that acknowledgment, the Civil War ensued as the final, vengeful phase of the revolution, as Rush hinted, Americans eventually paid for the Western legacy of enslaving Africans with the 'purple testament of bleeding war'.

Meanwhile, in contemplating the Africa they knew so little of it was natural that Americans should see the continent in terms of the Africans they knew so well at close quarters, and natural, too, for Americans to feel that their social proximity to blacks entitled them to prescribe for Africa' problems. Thus, viewing their involvement in the continent through the short end of the telescope, they saw themselves loom large in Africa's affairs. With the cultural barrier thus bridged by a leap of patriotic faith, Americans encountered Africa as a reflection of their own recent history, as a familiar and recognizable image of fallen humanity. Accordingly, they reduced Africa to a problem capable of solution, a continent, like America, gasping for deliverance from the choke hold of slavery. Americans felt that their history as a moral design was thus repeatable in patterns of reassuring continuity, especially because America's influence on human events arose from altruism, not from old world vice. National liberty as America's most precious heritage was a little spark that overcame the darkness surrounding it and that now blazed so bright and so high as to light the world. In rescuing Africans, Americans would demonstrate their noble intentions.

Yet the introduction of American ideals into Africa was something of a historical paradox. Freedom from slavery and from political domination inspired the establishment of free Christian settlements on the west coast of Africa, but it was in the wake of those free settlements that colonial administrations followed. Thus, the chronological fact of American independence preceding European imperialism in Africa finds a parallel in free Christian settlements preceding formal colonialism in Africa. That paradox was played out in early settler and recaptive resistance to official control. It is a paradox that would go a long way toward explaining why eventually modern African nationalism formed a realignment with a recaptive and a charismatic Christianity, in other words, with the religion as anti-structure.

Apart from the historical paradox, American ideals were poorly applied in Liberia. In America's informal African empire, freedom and independence arrived on the scene with no public law behind them or indigenous roots for them. Liberia had no Congressional accountability or oversight, no federal assistance or protection, no state rights, no territorial safeguards, and none of the vital indigenous African involvement that might have allowed it to take root and flourish. Liberia was necessarily in Africa but preferably not of it. As Blyden observed with cruel irony, Liberia was faked on history. "We resemble," he said, "those plants which we call 'Life everlasting' -- I do not know the botanical name -- whose leaves, severed from the stem, appear to survive apart from the whole plant, with no connection with root or branch. They can be pinned up against a wall or anywhere and yet appear to be green. But we know that the condition is not permanent. Liberia is like that plant; and it is a wonder to many that it has appeared to live so long. We are severed from the parent stock -- the aborigines -- who are the root, branch and flower of Africa and of any Negro State in Africa." [E.W. Blyden, The Three Needs of Liberia: A Lecture Delivered at Lower Buchanan, Grand Bassa County, Liberia, January 26, 1908, London: C.M. Phillips, 1908, 21.

As well as its artificial character, Liberia was a private colonization venture, and it came about from belief in a scheme for repatriating freed slaves to Africa as a prerequisite for domestic emancipation, so that the injustice of slavery would be remedied by a concession to race separation and removal. In actual fact, colonization, especially as a private idea, was impractical for the overwhelming majority of blacks, slave and free. The cost and enterprise involved was beyond their too modest means, and the idea of their bondage in America being solved simply by their returning to Africa suggested, furthermore, that they could be free and equal only when they left America. Not surprisingly, most declined the boon so prescribed for them, leaving Liberia flawed in concept as well as in design. The colony suffered, then, not from its being American or from its being uncommitted to abolition, far from it, but from its being an informal, private remedy prescribed for a public social ill.

However, with the strategic extension of the anti-slavery movement to Nigeria, which occurred from Sierra Leone in 1839, the story enters a particularly promising phase of the campaign to assault the strongholds of the slave trade at its source. The figure who dominated that phase was Samuel Ajayi Crowther, an ex-captive who was rescued in 1822 from a slave ship bound for Brazil, and landed in Sierra Leone to join the colony of freed slaves there. Crowther helped to establish satellite Christian communities among the dispossessed and downtrodden in the process of which he crossed the paths of chiefs and missionaries, whose different interests he threatened. Crowther represented the novel concept of recaptive leadership in the shift of the antislavery strategy from Europe and America to Africa. Toward the end of his long life (he died on 31 December, 1891, aged over 85) Crowther's path collided with that of an aggressive colonial state, and, as a result, the anti-slavery cause suffered a set back. Yet by that stage Crowther had demonstrated the truth of African agents being indispensable to Africa's long term security. Thus his achievement strengthened the hands of Western philanthropists who supported such a decisive role for Africans.

In sum, the tree of liberty, having been planted in America, grew and cast its broad shade over free colonies in Africa whose very reason for existing was to attack the slave trade at its source, not sparing indigenous chieftaincy structures implicated in the traffic. In the end, the scale of the slave trade, the well-funded organized maritime efforts of the captains of the slave trade to thwart attempts to ban it, the profound embededness of indigenous political institutions and social structures in slave production and utility, and the hinterland slave reservations that defied coastal patrols, set the stage for the imposition of colonial rule as the only adequate response to the challenges faced. Accordingly, West African society emerged in modem history shaped by the forces of abolition and the introduction of European colonial overlordship.

The bibliography contains references to that colonial background, as well as to the human and ideological links between New World developments and the sources of African slavery. The American revolution and the evangelical awakening provide the backdrop to the book which proceeds from there to describe the several and overlapping roles of blacks as slaves and captives, as loyalists and revolutionists, as preachers and politicians, as traders and teachers, as ex-slaves and repatriates, as leaders and clients, as converts and missionaries, as natives and Creoles, and as colonized and patriots. To end with a caveat emptor, for reasons primarily of definition as well as of economy, the references here do not take full account of related works on slavery and the slave trade, but only as these are ancillary to the main subject of decisive black agency in the anti-slavery cause in contemporary West Africa.

Overview | General Bibliography