A few African Americans supported African colonization in the belief that it provided the only alternative to continued degradation and discrimination. Paul Cuffe (1759-1817), a Quaker sea captain who was the son of a former slave and an Indian woman, led the first experiment in colonization. In 1815, he transported 38 free blacks to Sierra Leone, and devoted thousands of his own dollars to the cause of colonization.
Virtually all the leading white abolitionists were colonizationists before calling for the immediate emancipation of slaves. But by 1830, abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879) had begun to denounce colonization as a wholly impractical solution to the problem of slavery problem. Each year the nation's slave population rose by roughly 50,000. But in 1830, the American Colonization Society persuaded just 259 free blacks to migrate to Liberia, bringing the total number of African Americans colonized in Africa to only 1400. Nevertheless, it is possible to exaggerate the impracticality of colonization, since over 50,000 Africans were being carried every year, most of them illegally, to the New World.
The biggest problems that the American Colonization Society faced, aside from finance and opposition from free blacks, were disease and morality, as the following letter points out. In this selection, the Board of Managers of the American Colonization Society describes a disastrous attempt to resettle free blacks along the coast of Africa.
The Board of Managers of the American Colonization Society have to discharge a painful duty in laying before the...republic the distressing intelligence received from the coast of Africa. The following extract of a letter, from a correspondent in London is the latest information obtained....
"You will probably have heard...of the fatal calamity which has been permitted to befall Mr. Bacon and most of his white companions on the coast of Africa, in their benevolent undertaking for the welfare of their fellow creatures. It is another of that class of Providential dispensations which repeats, with a loud voice, 'Be still; and know that I am GOD;" but which should never be permitted to discourage human efforts.... [Five white colonization society agents died of disease and] 15 out of 82 people of color had also died...."
At present we would request our friends not to be discouraged. The Board lament the unfortunate issue of their first efforts; but they had no right to calculate upon the absence of those disasters and disappointments which attend all human affairs, and which are ordered or permitted to attend them for purposes, the wisdom and goodness of which, though we may not see, we cannot doubt. We lament, also, the loss sustained by the Society and our country, and the cause of humanity, in the deaths of those who so freely offered themselves in the service of God, and for the good of man, to toil and suffering and death. They have "entered into their rest, and their works do follow them" and we trust they have obtained "the prize of their high calling;" and their example and their fate, we rejoice to know, instead of deterring, has encouraged others to assume their posts.... Could we believe that the climate of the coast of Africa was such as to forbid all hope of settlement, we should be ready to abandon our purpose, and look elsewhere for a more safe asylum; but the circumstances that have occurred there do not, in our judgment, any further prove such a fact than similar instances during the late season in our own country....
The rains were at hand, and no adequate provision, we think it probably, was made for the shelter and comfort of the people. The zeal and activity of the agents, in providing for this state of things, we have no doubt, increased their exposure and danger. Against all these disadvantages, we hope to be better able to guard for the future. It is also worthy of particular remark, that the mortality amongst our people should by no means be imputed to the situation selected for our first settlement. On the contrary, we have every reason to presume that the fatal diseases were contracted by them either on board the vessels, to which they appear to have been a good deal confined on a sickly coast; or at such temporary abodes on shore as were resorted to for shelter, until the necessary arrangements could be completed for obtaining a grant of the lands contemplated as the site of our intended settlements.... We are pleased to discover that the free colored people of this country are not intimidated; numbers of the most respectable and intelligent of that population are renewing their entreaties to be sent out this Fall; and agents well qualified have already offered themselves to lead them. With these views and encouragements, the Board of Managers propose to send out one or two vessels in the course of the next month....