Published On: Mon, Jul 3rd, 2017

Blyden of St. Thomas and Black re-migration

Jacob Gelt Dekker“Those must be the Lions’ mountains,” screamed Edward W. Blyden of St.Thomas (1832-1912) in excitement when he spotted the majestic bare rock pillars rising out of the Atlantic on the Grain Coast of West Africa.

In January 1851, Blyden made the crossing as a passenger on board a transatlantic steamer, from New York to Grain Coast. Part of the Grain or Pepper Coast, thus called by European traders for its abundance of Malagueta Pepper, became the British colony, Sierra Leone. The new colony was destined for re-migration of Afro-Caribbean Blacks of the West Indies, after abolition, and poor liberated Africans, stranded on the streets of London.

Going back to Africa became Blyden’s life-calling. His powerful message was relating to a ‘feeling of belonging, ’ for Blacks. Re-migrating Caribbean and American Blacks to Africa was logical and natural for Blyden and his followers. Thus, Blyden became one of the founding fathers of Africanism.

In the United States, movements of abolition formed the colony Liberia in West Africa, similarly destined for Black re-migration. Monrovia, the capital, was named in honor of U.S. President James Monroe, a prominent supporter of the colonization of Liberia. Slaveholders in the South opposed having free Blacks in their midst and preferred to assist in the financing of the new Black colony in Africa.

The first ship, Mayflower of Liberia, departed New York on February 6, 1820, destined for West Africa, carrying 86 settlers.

“The love of liberty brought us here," was the motto of some 13,000 persons who crossed the Atlantic (1817 till 1867), with the financial support of the American Colonization Society, ACS.

The first ex-Caribbean slave re-migrants to Liberia came from Barbados, some 500 to 1,000. The second group was from Trinidad and Tobago, about 345, followed by 620 from Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. Another group, about 350 came from Saint Kitts and Nevis, 483 from Grenada and 400 from Saint Lucia.

Integration with the local population did not happen easily. An ASC reported,

“The early settlers practiced their Christian faith, sometimes in combination with traditional African religious beliefs. They spoke an African American Vernacular English, and few ventured into the interior or mingled with local African peoples. They developed an Americo-Liberian society, culture and political organization, strongly influenced by their roots in the United States, particularly the Southeast.”

The Settlers in Sierra Leone built Freetown in the styles of the American South; they also continued American fashion and American manners. Soon, re-migrants became Black plantation owners, living in antebellum mansions. On the local markets, they purchased local slaves to work their plantations, like they had been purchased themselves, once before.

Following the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, British crews delivered thousands of formerly enslaved Africans to Freetown, after liberating them from illegal slave ships of interlopers. Soon, these new immigrants created a new Creole ethnicity called Krio, speaking Krio language.

Many liberated Africans, or recaptives were sold for $20 a head, as apprentices to the white settlers in Nova Scotian Settlers, and the Jamaican Maroons. Others were forced into the British Navy.

Particularly West Indies Blacks emigrated from Liberia and settled in Freetown, Sierra Leone, out of fear of recapture. Many were kidnapped and sold back into slavery by leaving Sierra Leone, especially when trying to go back to their original villages.

Re-migration to Africa, something that appeared so logical and natural to Edward Blyden, became an unfortunate mishap in global history. Liberia and Sierra Leone are not only failed nations but also known for their horrible encounters with military coups, ruthless dictators, and Ebola.

By Jacob Gelt Dekker
Columnist for Curaçao Chronicle

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