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  • The Lincoln Administration’s Negotiations to Colonize African Americans in Dutch Suriname
  • Michael J. Douma (bio)

When historians in the twentieth century reviewed Civil War colonization, they arrived at a general consensus most clearly enunciated in the words of James McPherson: “As a practical solution of the Negro question, colonization was a failure from the beginning.”1 Indeed, if winners write history, or if historians concerned themselves only with victorious ideologies, then colonization should not take much of a place in the history of the war. But if historians desire a more complete understanding of the complexities of Civil War race relations and diplomacy, the topic of colonization is long overdue.

Historians have long known that in the summer of 1862 the Lincoln administration announced its intention to negotiate with foreign powers concerning the colonization of African Americans abroad. Over the next two years, federally funded initiatives to settle African Americans in Chiriqui, Panama, and Île-à-Vache, Haiti, both failed. However, only recently have scholars seriously analyzed the extent of official colonization diplomacy during the war. Most notably, Phillip Magness and Sebastian Page have argued that Abraham Lincoln kept colonization proposals alive well after [End Page 111] the Emancipation Proclamation. From their analysis, it is now clear that American negotiations with officials representing Panama, Haiti, British Honduras, British Guiana, and Dutch Suriname continued well after 1863 and indeed throughout the course of the war.2 As the understanding of this topic progresses, foreign archival materials will present a new avenue for historical research. After all, colonization during the Civil War concerned international agreements and had international significance. A new reading of primary sources concerning Civil War colonization must therefore respond to the call of Thomas Bender, who urges American historians to “integrate the stories of American history with other, larger stories from which, with a kind of continental self-sufficiency, the United States has isolated itself.”3

In the collection of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the Netherlands National Archive in The Hague, a cache of letters is filed under the inauspicious subheading “American Legation.” Elsewhere in the collection, a set of related papers is labeled “pieces relating to the emigration of workers to Suriname, 1858–1870.”4 These documents, more than eighty in total between the two folders, cover the full extent of Dutch-American negotiations on African American colonization in Suriname from 1862 to 1866. I have provided translations for the Dutch and French documents and have transcribed them along with English originals for a forthcoming primary source publication.5 These recently discovered foreign sources should significantly contribute to our understanding of Civil War colonization and point the way for future international research.

Of all the Civil War colonization schemes with known diplomatic discussions, Dutch Suriname drew the lowest number of mentions in the American press and remains today probably the least known. Suriname’s neglect in Civil War colonization literature is unfortunate, because the Dutch plan provides [End Page 112] an additional and alternative case demonstrating the seriousness and depth of the Lincoln administration’s interest in colonization. The extant historiography on this subject suffers, moreover, because of a consistent reliance on a limited number of domestic and diplomatic records. Consequently, articles on Civil War colonization written in the first half of the twentieth century completely failed to recognize the relevance of colonization in Dutch Suriname. Charles Wesley, writing in 1919, stated flatly and without citation that Secretary of State William Seward had rejected the 1862 Dutch colonization proposal. Strangely, Wesley misspells “Suriname” as “Swinam,” an error that could be forgiven as a typographical mistake if it were not repeated in the article as the patently absurd “Netherland Colony of St. Swinam.”6 An article from 1947 noted the Suriname plan among other wartime colonization proposals but presented no analysis, just a statement of the plan’s existence, based on a reading of a single government report from 1862.7 Later articles hardly did more. In 1952, in an article on colonization in Chiriqui, Panama, Paul J. Scheips listed the competing European colonization proposals that came to Lincoln’s desk. Without citing a primary source, he dismissed Seward’s interaction with the Europeans on colonization...