Black Poor and White Philanthropists: Sierra Leone

2800738What a title, eh?

It is a worthy and detailed look at the first attempt to set up a colony of free Blacks in Sierra Leone in 1786. It asks the simple question, did Black folks have agency in this process? The answer is of course they did, so there are a lot of deeper complexities that this book doesn’t address theoretically. But there is a basic history (which will make you rage), and some fun facts along the way, because a few of the principles involved were, to put it simply, batshit crazy.

There’s this nugget about Granville Sharp:

It may also seem incongruous to present-day readers that Sharp should take time off from his campaign against the evils of slavery and the slave trade to call in at Covent Garden theatre, in order to protest in person against the stage practice of dressing women in men’s clothes (15).

He must have been a very busy man with so much iniquity in the world. Described here as one of the driving forces behind the Sierra Leone settlement, he accomplished much through pithy interventions by pamphlet like this one:

Memorandum on a late Proposal for a New Settlement to be made on the Coast of AFRICA; recommending to the Author of that Proposal, several Alterations in his Plan, and more especially the Adoption of the ancient Mode of Government by Tithings (or Decenaries) and Hundreds, as being the most useful and effectual Mode of Government for all Nations and Countries.

Establish an Anglo-Saxon government in Sierra Leone? Why not. Even Swedenborg (founder of the Swedenborgian mystical… tendency? religion? cult?) got into the act with his pamphlet titled ‘An Essay on Colonization, particularly applied to the Western Coast of Africa’. I’m looking that shit up, but later.

Putting the craziness to one side for a moment (and just a moment) there are some great details on this early and mostly lost period of Black lives in London pulled from a review of parish registers from 1783-1787. Braidwood found 168 people noted as black, spread across 9 parishes, 144 of them in 6 East End parishes —  partiularly St-George’s-in-the-East (71), and St Dunstan’s, Stepney (Mile End Old Town and Ratcliffe). 83 names given place of origin, 6 born in Britain, 3 definitely born in Africa, 26 (31%) from West Indies (9 from Jamaica, 5 from Barbados). 13 from from Charleston, South Carolina. A global community. The 960 people who would ultimately receive relief, however, reflect a much larger community than that described through this source.

Braidwood also found clusters of names reflecting the histories of slavery and freedom. ‘Classical’ names like John Jupiter, James Neptune, William Cato, John Scipio. Others biblical: Aaron and Darius Brooks, Moses Handley, James Titus, Sampson Morgan and Hezekiah Nukins. Other names from where they had been born: Robert Carolina, James Stepney, Black London (!). Others on characteristics held or desired: Michael Handy, George Comfortable.

But mostly this book details the effort to establish a colony in Sierra Leone, and the principal mechanism for it through the formation of the Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor in 1786. The motivations are tangled in charity and racism, a desire to export the poor and to some limited extent a desire to help them. Formed in Mr Faulder’s book shop in Bond St, but subsequent meetings took place in Batson’s Coffee House, opposite the Royal Exchange. Its best known chairman was Jonas Hanway (his batshit reminiscent of Granville Sharp’s):

Hanway is today chiefly remembered for two campaigns which received strikingly different measures of success: his introduction to London of the umbrella, and his opposition to the ‘pernicious custom’ of drinking tea (65).

There is some really interesting primary evidence of English views on the presence of Blacks (particularly around their role in the American war of independence). Letter to The Public Advertiser (I think 19 January, 1786):

the Lascars…demand our pity only; but…the African negroes have an actual claim on our justice:- They, or the greater part of them, have served Britain, have fought under her colours, and after having quitted the service of their American masters, depending on the promise of protection held out to them by British Governors and Commanders, are now left to perish by famine and cold, in the sight of that people for whom they have hazarded their lives, and even (many of them) spilt their blood. (68)

We learn more about the geographies of Black residence in London: Relief was originally handed out at ‘the shop of Mr Brown, a baker, in Wigmore Street’, with an increase in donations rooms in two public houses were hired, the White Raven in Mile End, and the Yorkshire Stingo (!) on Lisson Green in Marylebone. On the 24th of January they were giving broth, a piece of meat and a twopenny loaf to 140 people a day, by February it was 210.

My own experiences and researches lead me to agree with those who put racism at the top of the tangle of ‘philanthropic’ motivations. John Pugh, Hanway’s biographer, wrote in 1787 in The Remarkable Occurences in the Life of Jonas Hanway that success for the committee:

must tend to relieve the misery of these poor people, and prevent the unnatural connections between black persons and white; the disagreeable consequences of which make their appearance but too frequently in our streets.

In an attempt to enlist the help of the Committee of West India Planters and Merchants, Benjamin Johnson wrote:

Commiserating the calamitous Situation of these People the object of the Committee has thus far been confined to a temporary relief, but being assured, that nothing short of their removal will effectually assist them, they are using their best endeavors to fix on some means of affording them a permanent subsistence. They have it in view also to procure a Act of Parliament, to prevent any Foreign Blacks being brought to this Country to remain, as it must ever be attended with many Inconveniences; To obtain these ends, the Committee would be very happy to have the honor of your Advice and Assistance (74-75, quoting ICS West India Committee minute books, 3/1, 32).

Novia Scotia was the original idea for the site of the settlement, but a certain Henry Smeathem had his heart set on Sierra Leone, writing Plan of a Settlement to be made near Sierra Leona in 1786 (a reworking of an older plan). He claimed it was a beautiful and healthy place, when in fact the death toll among Europeans was extremely high. He won over the committee and then the government, now involved in the plan. Black folks themselves, however, were not quite so happy about the idea. Relief became conditional on their agreement to colonise Sierra Leone by June of 1786, about 30 refused to take it, others wished to go to the US or the West Indies. There were rumours flying around that this was deportation to a penal colony — either Botany Bay or in Africa, and why not?

There was some resistence to the plan, and newspapers make clear that some Blacks did appeal to Lord George Gordon (of riot fame), but unclear if he intervened in any way or penned any of the anonymous attacks on it that were printed. Apparently, however, many were won round to the idea of returning to Africa, and there are some interesting details on how those on relief were organised around key leaders who would be responsible for bringing their people to the ships.

By late 1786 the number of those who had accepted allowances was 700 (a later figure is 960), the number Granville Sharp assumed was sailing. Payments were stopped to those who did not agree to embark, a plan to arrest all Blacks for vagrancy who did not embark was mooted. Only about 350 people had boarded the ships waiting for them by February 1787 — of which there were originally three planned, and there were huge delays in trying to get more to embark. The total in the lists drawn up by Gustavas Vassa (also known as Olaudah Equiano, famed for his autobiography and leading role in advocacy for abolition as a former slave, so I’m fascinated by his role in this affair, though it was short lived and not well explained) were 459 – 117 women (70 of these white wives) and 25 children.

By March all three had left London and reached Plymouth. There had been outbreaks of fever. A public letter was printed detailing complaints of Olaudah Equiano, who left the expedition here after his dismissal for disrespect and accusations of fomenting mutiny. Meanwhile the whites were fighting over the land to be granted them.

The fleet finally set sail on 9 April, 1787 — five months later than planned, practically ensuring the failure of the settlement as it had been timed to arrive before the rainy season when mortality was already known to be at its highest, but instead arrived on the 10th of May.

In total the Treasury had paid out £14,747 13s 9d.

They called the settlement ‘Province of Freedom’. By mid-September, 122 had died. By March of the following year only 130 people were left alive. The settlement itself only lasted 2 and half years. The blame, states Braidwood, has usually been placed on the settlers, especially their failure to set up a stable government.

White people decided to start again. In 1788 an abolitionist named Falconbridge was sent to Sierra Leone to try and refound a settlement. He found 56 survivors who had moved to a nearby town, 36 men and 20 women. Thornton and Wilberforce worked to get the Sierra Leone Settlement Bill through parliament, to support the settlement of the area by the Sierra Leone Company. A whole new effort was to commence, supposedly on a for profit basis as any other chartered company of trade and colonization.

I read this book to try and find out more after finding a reference to this extraordinary and terrible history in a biography of Henry Thornton. It’s worth requoting that in length:

The one attempt in pure colonial philanthropy, which Granville Sharp had made five years before, had proved a dismal failure.

Sharp had himself explored the land along the mouth of the Sierra Leone River in 1787. The Royal African Company had lost its monopoly there in 1698, and the territory was full of slavers from France and from England. Sharp returned to London determined to see at least one colony of freemen on the western coast of Africa, He formed a Committee for Black Poor which raised money to send a group of 340 indigent Negroes to Sierra Leone. They sailed under the protection of nine white officials and in the company of 62 white prostitutes. Sharp had elaborate plans for his settlement, but by September 1788, four months after landing, just 66 Negroes remained alive. Disease felled half the tough white women. Those neither dead nor sick were burdened with the care of 30 black and mulatto babies. The five harassed officials still at work could only try in vain to interest them in re-establishing the Anglo-Saxon frank-pledge system Sharp had felt best suited to their needs (102-103).

Everything infuriates me, from the callousness with which Black lives are treated, to calling the white wives prostitutes. Everything about this venture breaks my heart, doomed to failure as it was, and ugly as the behavior of abolitionists and philanthropists and fortune-seekers proved to be.

And still so much to find out.

Save

0 thoughts on “Black Poor and White Philanthropists: Sierra Leone”

Leave a Reply