American Empire in Africa: Colonization, Liberia, and a Benevolent Empire

AHA Session 157
Saturday, January 8, 2011: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Room 201 (Hynes Convention Center)
Ronald G. Walters, Johns Hopkins University
David Kazanjian, University of Pennsylvania

Session Abstract

Traditionally, scholarship on African colonization focuses on leaving America rather than plans for Africa.  People at the time made no such separation.  In fact, advocates for colonization were often more concerned with what would happen once settlers reached Africa’s shores.  Proponents of colonization saw it as an opportunity to solve not only America’s problems, but to uplift Africa as well.  Through the evangelization of Christianity, the development of a market economy, and the establishment of a republican government, African colonization could show Africa the way to civilization and demonstrate America’s benevolence to the rest of the world.

In “W.N. Lewis vs. Rev. John Seys: Power, Ideology, and Race in Colonial Liberia” Matthew Spooner uses one court case as a window onto relationships of power in Liberia.  He examines a seemingly minor matter tax dispute and personal feud, which led to the decline of missionary activity in Liberia and eventually to Liberian independence in 1847.  In doing so, Spooner argues that transposed ideologies carried across the Atlantic led to fractious relations between benevolent organizations and the American Colonization Society, each of whom sought to control Liberia’s wealth as well as its citizens.

During a later period, Jennifer Walton-Hanley Colonization Society shifting its methods but still trying to impose American values in Africa.  “’Benevolence’ Abroad: The American Colonization Society’s New Agenda, 1892-1964” begins with the Society’s financial problems and the resulting plan to stop actively sending emigrants to Liberia.  Instead, they sponsored missionary and educational endeavors and became primarily a philanthropic organization.    This allowed them to continue spreading Christianity and American mores, while disavowing any responsibility to African Americans.  Thus, colonization became only a benevolent enterprise and the American Colonization Society was able to continue its activities until it disbanded in 1964.

Matthew Hetrick examines colonization and American empire from the perspective of the African American settlers in “America in Africa: African Colonization and American Empire, 1815-1925.”  From its earliest days through the time of Marcus Garvey, African Americans supporters of colonization sought to establish American values in African soil.  In addition to seeking personal freedom and opportunity in Africa, they too hoped to uplift Africa through religion, economy, and government.  Ironically, settling in Africa allowed these African Americans to demonstrate their Americanness, something they were all too often unable to do in America.  African Americans became the voluntary agents of an early American empire.  In seeking to escape American racism they often perpetuated American values, for good and ill, in Africa.

Though this panel is focused on schemes for the colonization of Africa, the importance of Liberia is far broader and deeper than many historians realize.  Touching on themes of: empire, race and equality, transnationalism, and immigration, these papers demonstrate the growth of an indirect American empire in a little studied location and time while examining the exportation of American sacred and societal values as they changed over time.  By exporting not only African Americans but also American values, proponents of colonization established a “benevolent” empire.

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