Today in London’s radical history: black colonists embark in disastrous Sierra Leone scheme, 1787

The Sierra Leone Scheme – a shameful attempt to deport black people, or a charitable attempt to promote self-reliance? A bit of both…

From the 1590s (when queen Elizabeth I ordered all black people deported from England), to the 1780s, to the 1980s – black people living in the UK have largely been labeled a ‘problem’ to be ‘dealt with’ by the authorities. But schemes to ‘send them back’ didn’t begin with the National Front in the 1970s…

In the 1780s, with the slave trade still going strong between Britain and the West Indies, making huge profits for the traders, plantation owners and merchants (contributing to the massive wealth of the City of London and other financial and shipping centres), the British government was faced with a problem. Early advocates of the abolition of the slave trade had focused on the legality of importing slaves to England, and had managed to force Chief Justice Lord Mansfield into the 1772 Somerset judgment, making it unlawful to transport a slave to Britain.

As a result, black people already here, and those arriving here, began to believe themselves to be free, and many became de facto free. Growing numbers of black people also began congregating in Britain after many had to flee the new United States, having been persuaded to side with loyalists against independence, in the hope of being granted freedom.

There were also increasing large numbers of ex-sailors, runaway slaves, and former servants. Many of these ended up in London, and living in extreme poverty in the slums and rookeries, many inevitably taking to crime, begging and violence to survive. One such group, known as the St Giles Blackbirds, lived around the infamous St Giles Rookery. No doubt fears were also stoked by the numbers of blacks said to be involved in the 1780 Gordon Riots (at least two prominent black leaders were hanged in the days following this uprising.) These were the days of the earliest theorists of racial segregation and the sub-humanity of some races… A growing number of black residents, inter-marriage, involvement in crime and rebellion… The Enoch Powells of the day were frothing.

No-one was entirely sure how many black people there were in London in the mid-1780s, but all nervous government officials and concerned charitable souls could see was a problem that needed ‘fixing’ – by any means necessary…
After some philanthropists discovered the plight of the black poor and commenced the concerted effort to aid them, the Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor was set up, which (later shortened to the Committee for the Black Poor) distributed food each day at two public houses and opened a ‘hospital’ to care for the sick among them. The more seriously ill, like Jonathan Strong in 1765, were sent to St Bartholomew’s Hospital. The Committee also helped those who wished to return to sea or to other countries if not born in Britain.

Partly from the charitable activities of the Committee and their supporters, a possible solution to black poverty in England arose, which came to be supported by the government, the philanthropists and the poor themselves – but from wholly different motives, which was in the end to doom the scheme to disaster. They could leave Britain, individually or en masse, and try to make a go of it somewhere else.
The government, delighted to help them leave, contributed enormous sums of money to sustain them before, during and after their departure. Racism and a certain amount of xenophobia contributed to their position too.
The Committee for the Black Poor had truly charitable concerns and wanted to keep them from literally living and dying on the streets.
Black people themselves wanted to find a place where they could establish a working community and support themselves independently. While some of them could see the government’s motives were not entirely benign, anything (apart from slavery) was better than starvation and the opportunity to found a colony seemed a heaven-sent solution.

Initially the Committee’s and the government’s planned to found a black colony in sending the people to Nova Scotia, Canada. After this fell through, in 1786 a man named Henry Smeathman stepped into the picture; a businessman and botanist, he offered a vision of a self-sufficient and lucrative African colony, which delighted the Committee; he had lived on the west coast of Africa and claimed it was entirely habitable, which was of prime importance to those blacks who read his proposal when it was distributed later that year in the form of a handbill. In short, he told everyone what they most wanted to hear.

Smeathman sent a memorandum to the Lords Commissioners of His Majesty’s Treasury offering his scheme as the way to help rid the country of a problem, to prevent the assimilation of coloured persons into English society, but in a humane way. Smeathman’s proposal was to transport the black poor would to Sierra Leone, given three months of provisions, clothing, bedding, tools and medicine. Once there they would build housing and become self-sufficient, and quickly begin to supply Britain with various raw materials. He worked out the plan in enormous detail, listing in detail all the clothes, food, supplies, medicines etc. that would be needed. However he lied about the climate of Sierra Leone, relations with local chiefs, dangers from continued slaving ships, and more…

In their haste to accept such a relatively straightforward solution to the ‘problem’ of the black poor, neither the Committee nor the government did much investigating. Had they done so they would have discovered two important facts: first, that Smeathman himself had testified to a government commission only one year earlier that the climate of Sierra Leone was so deadly that if a convict station were set up there one hundred would die each month; and second, that he and his associates intended to establish a profit-making estate there by using slave labour. The black poor were being ushered into a deadly trap; but honest anti-slavery activists and philanthropists were happy to believe him, and the government may have colluded, not caring how the ‘problem’ disappeared. In the government’s desperation to fill the ships and have them sail, they greedily hoped to ship more problematic poor folk out. Not only had a number of unwilling blacks been rounded up and forced on board, but a number of white prostitutes had been made drunk and taken on board. A number awakened on board ship to discover that they had been married to black men the night before and were now to be transported to Africa with their new husbands. Certainly the London authorities had been given carte blanche to rid the city of ‘undesirables’ such as poor blacks and prostitutes.

Large numbers of poor black folk volunteered to join the colony; others were more or less coerced. Persuasion was starting to meet with grave doubts among London’s blacks, who feared being targeted by slavers once in Africa… The longer the plan went forward, more and more potential recruits fell prey to doubts or demanded better preparations and support. Angry sermonising, gold-pavemented lies about the land intended for them, bribery and arresting them for bribery were used to push reluctant colonists into signing up. The poverty, sickness of the future settlers handicapped the plan from the start; it was almost ended before it was begun by the death of Henry Smeathman himself, in July 1786.

It would have been better for the colonists if his scheme had died with him. But although alternative plans came u for other sites for the colony, a number of the black Londoners chosen to lead the expedition decided to stick by Smeathman’s plan, unaware that it was based on fantasy. They petitioned the Committee for the Black Poor to carry it through; the Committee pressed the Treasury, and doubts about the African coast were submerged…

At this point the Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor appointed a black man, Olaudah Equiano, known in England as Gustavus Vassa, to act as Commissary for the expedition. His job was to supervise the preparations as well as act as an intermediary between the settlers, Committee and government. He willingly took on the job, unaware of the enormous frustrations and dangers that accompanied it. Equiano had been born in Africa, taken as a slave when a child, served on board ships and had ultimately freed himself and come to England, where he became an anti-slavery activist, writer and pubic speaker. He had toured the country speaking at abolitionist meetings, met with radicals and lived with democrats (he shared a house with Thomas Hardy, founder of the London Corresponding Society), and would write his autobiography in 1789.

When Equiano arrived in London after a trip to Philadelphia in August of 1786, he learned of Smeathman’s plan. Far from seeing it as an opportunity to rid Britain of unwanted aliens, he pronounced himself ‘agreeably surprised that the benevolence of government had adopted the plan of some philanthropic individuals’. With his combination of fierce abolitionism and enthusiastic mercantilism, he believed the plan offered independence to the settlers and the possibility for England to develop commerce with Africa in goods rather than people. He was acquainted with some members of the Committee, and they approached him to take on the role of superintendent. At their recommendation, and after several interviews, the Navy Board appointed him Commissary and put him in charge of making sure all supplies were provided and loaded as ordered.

Thrilled not only by the government’s recognition but by the opportunity to assist fellow former slaves, he outfitted himself at his own expense and threw himself into the execution of his duties. But he was an honest and scrupulous champion of his own people, and he soon suspected the shortcomings of the expedition, noted the inadequacy of the supplies, and argued against the methods of recruitment. He wrote to friends that he suspected the colonists would be used “as they are in the West Indies” and betrayed into slavery or death. His attempts to improve conditions on board the ships preparing to embark for Africa, and for the future of the enlisted, resulted in him being accused of stirring them up to resist and cause trouble. In the end, although the Navy Board found he had acted in good faith, he was sacked; but the scheme went ahead.

After these disasters, the government stepped up the pace of the resettlement. With the eventual departure of the three transport ships in spring 1787, many believed that the unwanted black people of Britain had finally sailed away.

A great deal of energy had gone into getting the black poor on board ships and out of England, but very little had gone into arranging a sustainable life for them once they arrived in Africa. But the inhospitable climate, poverty, bad preparations, disease took their toll almost immediately. Of those who set sail from Plymouth, only two-thirds survived the first three months.

A number of white men sent to ‘guide’ the colony fared much better than the black settlers, mainly because of their orders to sleep on board and do no manual labour. They were given Canary wine, a supposed restorative. The settlers on the other hand had salt food and rum, slept in soggy tents, and many fell ill and died. As they became more and more discouraged—and were labelled as ‘vicious, drunken and lawless, unfit to colonize’ by the whites—they grew less and less willing to obey their orders. Even the gardener and the seeds sent along to assist them died, and when they tried to cultivate at the end of the rains they found nothing would grow. They moved to better ground but had to barter the government-sent stores for rice to prevent starvation, and were blamed for this also. The white leaders abandoned the settlement, and many settlers also began to leave, ‘drifting away to work on passing ships or for neighbouring slave-traders’. By March 1788 only 130 black settlers were left; the rest had either died or run off.

Further problems came in the shape of the continuing slave trade. Slave ships did not like having this independent black community in their slaving territory, and their captains and crews sometimes captured settlers. The settlers retaliated by tracking down and punishing the kidnappers, infuriating the captains and leading them to encourage another local leader, known as King Jimmy, to oppose them. When Americans kidnapped some of King Jimmy’s people, he killed three Americans and sold the boat. The settlers, far from living in the safe and hospitable environment described by Smeathman, were in a near war zone full of local arguments and battles for power, with nearly everyone resenting their presence. An English ship, the HMS Pomona, was sent to protect them, but its captain, Henry Savage, watched from the deck as the settlement was attacked, going ashore only to bury the dead. He refused the settlers’ pleas to carry them to safety, and sailed away on 3 December. Three days later Granville Town was burned down. Relief did not arrive for nearly a year, until January 1791.

The Colony’s problems persisted, and continued attempts to prop it up or prolong its life failed miserably. It was only the efforts of black activists and anti-slavery abolitionists, which managed to establish another colony in Sierra Leone, mainly consisting of blacks previously settled in Nova Scotia, in 1793. This was the beginning of the modern country of Sierra Leone.

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

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