Abraham Lincoln ‘tried to deport slaves’ to British colonies
By Tom Leonard
11th February 2011
Abraham Lincoln’s reputation as the great champion of America’s slaves has taken a battering amid new evidence that the revered president wanted to send many of them to toil in British colonies in the Caribbean.
Academics Phillip Magness and Sebastian Page claim that documents uncovered in British archives show that Lincoln was rather less enamoured by the prospect of a racially-united America than is often assumed.
The 16th U.S. president is widely lionised in the U.S. for winning the American Civil War for the Union and bringing an end to slavery.
Although earlier historians have conceded that he did propose sending some of the freed slaves to new colonies, they have dismissed it as a ruse designed to placate racist voters.
However, according to evidence from the British legation in Washington that has turned up at the National Archives in Kew, the president was deadly serious about black colonisation right up until his assassination in 1865.
Mr Magness and Mr Page say that just after Lincoln announced the freedom of three quarters of America’s four million slaves with his historic 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, he authorised plans to set up freedmen’s settlements in what is now Belize and Guyana.
And even as black soldiers were dying for the Union cause and a mission to send 453 freed slaves to colonise a pest-ridden island off Haiti met with a disastrous small pox outbreak, Mr Lincoln was secretly authorising British officials to recruit what could have been hundreds of thousands of blacks for a new life on the sugar and cotton plantations of Central America.
Papers show Lincoln personally met agents for the then-colonies of British Honduras and British Guiana and authorised them to go into the camps of the recently-freed slaves and find recruits.
One of the agents, John Hodge, assured the British ambassador that ‘it was [Lincoln’s] honest desire that this should go ahead’.
Lincoln also considered a plan to get thousands of black soldiers out of the way after the civil war ended by sending them down to Panama to build a canal.
The new evidence, contained in a forthcoming book entitled Colonisation After Emancipation: Lincoln and the Movement for Black Resettlement, is causing ructions in the U.S. over the legacy of its most revered president. Some neo-Nazi websites have seized on it as evidence of Lincoln’s anti-black inclinations.
However, Mr Page, a Fellow of The Queen’s College, Oxford, insisted that it was wrong to conclude Lincoln was a racist.
Blacks had been lynched during recent race riots in New York and the president was motivated by a fear that the freeing of black slaves would cause serious racial strife, said Mr Page.
In addition, Lincoln always made clear the emigration would be voluntary, he said.
‘I don’t think it was ever about any personal dislike for blacks,’ Mr Page said.
‘That said, that’s not to let him off the hook because if you’re backing black colonisation you’re kind of putting your blessing on racism. But he saw strife coming.’
In the end, records show that Lincoln’s plans were foiled, largely because of the reluctance of the British government who feared the pro-slavery South might win the Civil War and sue Britain for its lost slaves.
At the same time, the U.S. Congress was upset about the failure of the Haiti project and another attempt to colonise land in Panama.
America is sensitive to accusations that it has ever behaved as a colonial power, a label it prefers to stick on Britain and other European countries.
Mr Magness admitted that historians had ‘tended to downplay’ Lincoln’s commitment to colonisation as it did not ‘mesh’ with his image as the Great Emancipator of the slaves.