On a mid-April day in 1863, hundreds of African Americans, hoping for better lives, boarded the Ocean Ranger at Fort Monroe in Virginia. The ship sailed away from a nation in the deep throes of the Civil War bound for Île-à-Vache, a small island of about 20 square miles off the southwestern coast of Haiti.
Bernard Kock, an entrepreneur and Florida cotton planter, had promised the roughly 450 newly freed Black emigrants on board that, in exchange for working on a cotton plantation, they would receive homes, health care, schooling — and, at the end of their four-year contract, 16 acres of land and back wages.
“The intelligent negro may enter upon a life of freedom and independence, conscious that he has earned the means of livelihood, and at the same time disciplined himself to the duties, the pleasures and wants of free labor,” Kock had written in his proposal.
Yet by the end of the voyage that May, about two dozen Black passengers had died of smallpox. Those who landed found their lives worse than the ones they had left. Instead of the promised homes, they were made to sleep on dirt in small huts fashioned from palmetto and brush. Kock was despotic in his work demands. Hunger grew rampant; malnourishment took root; plans for a revolt took shape.
A U.S. government official visiting the island found the settlers “with tears, misery and sorrow pictured in every countenance.”
The disastrous mission — envisioned as the first installment of a grand colonization scheme that would settle 5,000 Black people on the island – had a singularly powerful backer: Abraham Lincoln.
The 16th president had agreed to the terms of the contract with Kock on Dec. 31, 1862 – on the very eve of proclaiming an end to slavery for about 3 million Black men, women and children.
The Île-à-Vache project, along with other colonization plans that never came to fruition in Central and South America and the European West Indies, complicate the enduring image of Lincoln as the Great Emancipator, savior of African Americans and one of the most widely admired presidents in U.S. history.
Americans have so revered Lincoln that they have often placed him above his times — a period in which he and the vast majority of other White Americans held deeply racist beliefs and believed in Black colonization, said Sebastian N. Page, a British historian and author of an acclaimed book “Black Resettlement and the American Civil War.”
Many prominent U.S. historians have argued that Lincoln’s public support for colonization was primarily designed to placate racist White voters opposed to emancipation or that the period after the Emancipation Proclamation represented a turning point in his thinking as African Americans began to fight and die for the country.
But Page takes a contrarian view. His research unearthed records of colonization schemes into 1864 that Lincoln “did not publicize rather deliberately and that historians have overlooked,” Page said, undermining the notion that the president’s support was primarily a public act for racist White audiences.
Taken together, he believes the plans “completely sink the idea that colonization was anything other than sincere and lifelong for Abraham Lincoln.”
‘The superior position’
From the beginning of his political career in the Illinois legislature in the 1830s and 1840s, Lincoln publicly opposed the enslavement of African Americans. In 1837, he co-signed a protest to state resolutions against abolition, declaring that the “Institution of Slavery is founded both in Injustice and bad policy.”
Lincoln was not then an abolitionist, deferring to the states to decide whether to eradicate slavery. And like almost all European Americans at the time, the president viewed Whites as superior.
“There is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races from living together on terms of social and political equality,” he said in 1858 in one of the famous debates with Stephen Douglas as he unsuccessfully vied for a U.S. Senate seat. “And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be a position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”
And yet Lincoln professed a belief that Black people should have the right to live in peace and enjoy the fruits of their own labor. He also foresaw White mob violence in the event Black people were freed.
This raised a practical question: If slavery is unjust and freedom is untenable, what should the United States do with all of its Black people?
“He despaired of the prospects of peaceful racial coexistence, particularly if the emancipation of African Americans came about,” Page said.
In his quandary, Lincoln was in good company. Many members of the American Colonization Society, founded in 1816, shared his beliefs, claiming that emigration was in the best interests of Black people.
In that, there was almost surely a heavy dose of self-delusion.
“This isn’t particular to Lincoln, but it’s always, always about ‘other’ Whites …,” Page said. “It’s basically a big handwashing by White would-be do-gooders who maybe haven’t really addressed their own issues.”
In the years before Lincoln joined its ranks in 1856, the Society embarked on project to send willing Black people to the west African republic of Liberia. Yet over the course of decades, only about 15,000 made the journey, exposing a critical weakness in colonizers’ plans: African Americans overwhelmingly rejected the idea of self-deporting.
“Their ancestors had been in the United States much longer whereas White Americans on average tended to be much more recent European immigrants,” Page said.
Abolitionists, both White and Black, were also repulsed, viewing mass resettlement as impossible to implement and former enslaved people as capable of integrating as equals into U.S. society.
“We live here, have a right to live here and mean to live here,” abolitionist Frederick Douglass wrote in his newspaper “The North Star” in 1849.
Resistance and a slew of impracticalities notwithstanding, Lincoln began his presidency in 1861 as a firm believer in Black colonization.
Before the end of the Civil War, his administration would have debated or attempted to implement overlapping plans to send freed African Americans to Chiriquí, now a province of Panama, and into early 1864 to points throughout the European West Indies.
In a little-known episode detailed in “Colonization After Emancipation: Lincoln and the Movement for Black Resettlement, which Page co-authored with American historian Phillip W. Magness, Lincoln met secretly at the White House in June of 1863 with a British representative of a landholding corporation. They discussed the fate of Black people Lincoln had just freed through the Emancipation Proclamation.
The promises flowed: In exchange for their help as farm laborers in British Honduras, now Belize, African Americans would receive land, homes and support from the British government in beginning life anew.
And yet the plan never materialized, because of British concerns over diplomatic repercussions if the South won the war; because of the new demand for Black soldiers prompted by the Emancipation Proclamation, because of disagreements over colonization within Lincoln’s own Cabinet, and more.
Black colonization “was almost doomed” from the start, Page said.
“It needs concurrent consent from so many parties,” he said. “It needs it from legislators, if you need funding; it needs it from the host state; and most of all, it needs it from the would-be African American emigrants themselves.”
The African Americans aboard the Ocean Ranger appeared very willing to onlookers who watched them set sail for the Haitian isle of Île-à-Vache that April day in 1863.
The emigrants “were described as being wild with delight … They cried ‘Amen’ and shouted ‘Hallelujah,’” Fredric Bancroft, a prominent historian born in 1860, later wrote.
Yet soon the settlers were beset by “homesickness and depression of spirit,” a doctor who had visited the island told the American Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission in December 1863.
Fever had swept the island, killing some. The soil failed to yield crops and still Kock punished his Black charges for not working harder by withholding food. Soon, the laborers were left to live off the decaying corn and salt pork from their ocean journey. By July 1863, the Black emigrants had driven a terrified Kock off Île-à-Vache, prompting the Haitian government to intervene militarily.
The botched mission became a target of barbs in the media and from radical Republicans who had always believed colonization was folly. On July 1, 1864, Congress appeared to pull the plug on funding colonization efforts.
“I am glad that the President has sloughed off that idea of colonization,” Lincoln’s personal secretary, John Hay, wrote on that day, referencing the fiasco in Haiti and Chiriquí.
Future historians, lacking slam-dunk evidence of what Lincoln was thinking, would emphasize Hay’s words. But by 1865, Congress had earmarked $200,000 for colonization efforts, Page said, referring to a document by James Mitchell, Lincoln’s Commissioner of Emigration. Other evidence points to a possible lull rather than a sloughing off, he said.
As the Civil War raged toward an end in the States, the U.S. government set sail to rescue the Black survivors on Île-à-Vache. Finally, on a March day in 1864 some 300 African Americans — “half-naked, barefooted, bareheaded,” according to an account in the Richmond Whig at the time — debarked from the Navy ship Maria C. Day in Alexandria, Va.
Like Lincoln, they had no way of knowing what would become of their nation’s Black people once the war ended.