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  • Augustus WashingtonLooks to Liberia
  • Shawn Michelle Smith (bio)

In 1853 the African American daguerreotypist Augustus Washington left his home in Hartford, Connecticut, to begin a new life in Monrovia, Liberia. Renouncing the nation of his birth, he and his wife, Cordelia, along with their two children, joined thousands of other free African Americans in a quest to help build a new black nation. Washington began his career in Liberia as a photographer, and his daguerreotypes are remarkable records of a new nation striving to represent itself.1

Washington set sail for Liberia with a set of assumptions about the new nation and its colonial legacy inherited from the United States and the American Colonization Society (ACS).2 He saw Liberia as "a colony for the free colored people, where they have an opportunity of demonstrating their equality with the white race, by seizing upon, combining, and developing all the elements of national greatness by which they are surrounded."3 As an independent nation beginning in 1847, Liberia would be a proving ground for the race, a place of [End Page 6]

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Augustus Washington, Urias Africanus McGill. Sixth plate daguerreotype, hand-colored, ca. 1854.

Courtesy Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

[End Page 7] self-governance in which African Americans could demonstrate their equality with Euro-Americans and hold all positions in society, government, and commerce. For Washington, the success of the new nation would be proof of racial ability. But that racial ability would still be culturally circumscribed and framed by a colonial context. Washington has little to say of the African natives—whom he deems the "heathen inhabitants" of Africa—as he imagines a new nation for African Americans in Liberia. He hopes that the colonial enterprise will "send the blessings of civilization and religion to the benighted sons of that continent," but it is clear that he believes the new nation will be developed by and for African Americans.4

Washington understood that the success of the Liberian nation would be measured according to a Euro-American scale and that his images of the new nation and its leaders would also be scrutinized by a Euro-American gaze. In other words, he knew his Liberian daguerreotypes were made for two different audiences—the Americo-Liberians themselves, and men and women in the United States debating the merits and success of colonization. The American Colonization Society explicitly commissioned some of Washington's daguerreotypes, and today many of them reside in the ACS Records at the Library of Congress. Washington's daguerreotype portraits, therefore, perform citizenship for a doubled gaze.

Portraits of a New Nation

One of Washington's early Liberian images stages a first sighting of Monrovia. View of Monrovia from the Anchorage, a wood engraving made after Washington's daguerreotype, situates the viewer as if aboard a ship, framing Monrovia as an immigrant would see it for the first time. The image presents a smooth expanse of water stretching back to an inviting shore. Clusters of neat houses rise up a hill from the water's edge, and a large two-story colonnaded building and a church sit prominently on the crest of the hill. The church steeple rises into the sky to touch a bright, white, puffy cloud. Dense foliage frames the tidy community on both sides.

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View of Monrovia from the Anchorage. Wood engraving by an unidentified artist after daguerreotype by Augustus Washington, 1856

View of Monrovia from the Anchorage was published in the Twenty-Fourth Annual Report of the Board of Managers of the New-York State Colonization Society in 1856, and letters between Washington and the recording secretary of the ACS, Dr. James W. Lugenbeel, suggest that the society commissioned this image.5 The view displays Monrovia as a calm harbor and haven, a planned and orderly town that has been cut out of the jungle. Monrovia is imagined as a new "city on a hill," a community carved out of the wilderness, reaching up to the heavens—a beacon of civilization and Christianity in the "dark continent." For colonizationists in the United States, the image suggests that...