- Colonization After Emancipation: Lincoln and the Movement for Black Resettlement
Like the historical evaluation of any important figure, that of Abraham Lincoln has not remained static. How could it be? For despite the hosannas of praise for the republic he led—particularly from the West Bank of the Atlantic—he led a nation that had made a veritable fetish of enslaving Africans and dispossessing indigenes. Even for those predisposed to view the sixteenth U.S. president as a secular saint, such a proposition is not easy to mount given the often dastardly record of the nation headquartered in Washington, D.C.
Of course, it helps to have an antagonist so misguided and wrongheaded as the so-called Confederate States of America, when history seeks to render a verdict for, as has been evident for some time, compared to Jefferson Davis, Lincoln appears to wear a golden halo.
That is the context for considering this well-written, deftly argued book at hand, which explores Lincoln's highly sympathetic view of colonization—that is, deporting the African population of the U.S. [End Page 250] in the wake of its emancipation. Panama and Haiti were among the sites he considered; one of the problems that barred this initiative from coming into fruition was the difficulty in finding a nation that would accept such a large and desperately poor population. Host nations also had to consider that despite the vicious, malodorous mistreatment to which they had been subjected, these Africans could easily become a "Trojan Horse" acting in the interests of the republic that had ousted them.
The authors argue persuasively that Lincoln's dream of "resettlement" did not disappear after the purportedly grand Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. Repeatedly thereafter, the "Great Emancipator" sought avidly to eject from North America the much-abused Africans, maneuvers that have done little to enhance and burnish his contested legacy—as the leading historian, Lerone Bennett, has suggested of late.
Unfortunately, the authors are seemingly unaware of the preexisting literature that explores, for example, the extensive effort to dispatch the erstwhile "African-American" population to Brazil. Actually, this plan preceded Lincoln's arrival at the White House, as preeminent antebellum leaders, such as Matthew Fontaine Maury, long had contemplated seizing the Amazon River Valley and transporting Africans from the U.S. there to convert this vast region into a new Eldorado.
British Honduras—present-day Belize—and British Guiana (Guyana) were a primary focus of Lincoln's schemes, as the authors portray it. That Washington was considering strengthening their primary antagonist in London by providing the British Empire with cheap, battle-hardened (and English-speaking) laborers, was emblematic of how deeply despised were these Africans.
Surely, this is a story that needs to be better known and the authors deserve credit for telling it so well. Still, in all fairness to Lincoln, this disgraceful tale is more revelatory of the racist attitudes of republic he led; Lincoln's shoulders are not sufficiently broad to carry the full weight of this colonization travesty. [End Page 251]
Gerald Horne, Moores Professor of History and African American Studies at the University of Houston, is the author of a number of books, including The Deepest South: The U.S., Brazil, and the African Slave Trade (2007), recently translated into Portuguese and published in Sao Paulo, Brazil.