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American Literary History 14.3 (2002) 479-504

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Postcolonial Liberia:
Sarah Josepha Hale's Africa

Etsuko Taketani

Behold the American flag waving for the first time on the shores of Africa. See it towering above the lofty forests of Cape Mesurado, a herald of Freedom!

Helen C. Knight, The New Republic (1850)

Recovered for literary studies by Susan M. Ryan and Amy Kaplan in the 1990s, Sarah Josepha Hale's long-neglected historical novel Liberia; or, Mr. Peyton's Experiments (1853) has emerged as a paradigmatic colonizationist text of the antebellum period, offering insight not only into one US woman's commitment to the colonizationist cause, but also into that period's deeply intertwined politics of colonization and nationalism. In Hale's novel, the protagonist, a Virginia planter named Mr. Peyton, is depicted as a founding member of the American Colonization Society (hereafter the ACS), which was established for the purpose of "colonizing (with their consent) the free people of color, residing in our country, in Africa, or such other place as Congress shall deem most expedient" (ACS, First Annual Report 3). 1 Mr. Peyton's ex-slaves Keziah, Polydore, and Junius, are among the first of the 86 emigrants who sail for "Sherbro, an island on the western coast of Africa" on the Elizabeth in 1820 (145). 2 Their "little clearing" at Cape Mesurado (Montserrado)—later named Monrovia "in honor of James Monroe, then President of the United States" 3 —develops into "the metropolis of the African republic" (158-59), until Liberia proclaims its independence on 26 July 1847.

Perhaps nothing is so striking in Hale's accounts of Liberia as the intertwined US politics of colonizationism and nationalism. In reading Liberia, Ryan brilliantly draws a parallel between "Hale's particular colonizationist theory and its reformulations of American nationalism" (559). Hale's novel, Ryan argues, is "an unusual incarnation of colonialism, in that the departure of blacks from the United States results in two strong nations on the (white) American [End Page 479] model" (565-66). Similarly, Kaplan regards the discourse of Manifest Destiny as integral to Hale's Liberia, arguing that it "not only narrates the founding of Liberia as a story of colonization, but Hale's storytelling also colonizes Liberia as an imitation of America, replete with images of an open frontier, the Mayflower, and the planting of the American flag" (596). In her view, Liberia ultimately amounts to a story of an Americanized Africa.

Indeed, understood from within Hale's patriotic activities (e.g., helping to establish Thanksgiving as a national holiday, raising the money that helped to complete the Bunker Hill Monument, and rescuing the movement to preserve Mount Vernon as a national memorial), an endorsement of American nationalism is intrinsic to the colonizationist politics informing Liberia. 4 Hale's inclusion of Liberia's "Declaration of Independence" as an appendix to her novel clearly illustrates her deployment of US nationalistic ideology in the service of colonizationism. "We recognise," the Declaration proclaims, "in all men certain natural and inalienable rights; among these are life, liberty, and the right to acquire, possess, enjoy and defend property" (1). Liberia's "Declaration of Independence" drew on US nationalistic energies in the ways that it echoed the language of its ur-text—the US Declaration of Independence. In the November 1851 issue of African Repository (originally African Repository and Colonial Journal [Mar. 1825-Aug. 1850]), a monthly journal published by the ACS, Geo. S. L. Starks drew an analogy between the Anglo-American and the Liberian in "their origin and exile," and suggested that the year 1820 "will be regarded by the black man as the year 1620 is by the descendants of the Puritans; and Sherbro will be his Plymouth" (345). In Liberia as well, Mr. Peyton's ex-slaves and other emigrants on the Elizabeth are referred to as "pilgrims" (145). Liberia, in Starks's words, will be "the United States of Africa" (346).

But what does it mean for ex-slaves to have such a history? In Hale's narrative, Africa is modernized by the values that American...


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