It has been described as the first organized Black emigration back to Africa, that began on February 6, 1820, when 86 freed black slaves left New York Harbour aboard the ship called the Mayflower of Liberia (formerly Elizabeth). They were bound for the British colony of Sierra Leone, which welcomed freed Blacks from America, as well as, fugitive slaves.
Britain had, in 1787, already started to resettle the Black Poor of London in the colony of Freetown in modern-day Sierra Leone. These groups of people, known as Black Loyalists, were former American slaves who had been freed in exchange for their services during the American Revolution.
The Crown also offered resettlement to former slaves whom they had first resettled in Nova Scotia.
On March 9, 1820, the 86 freed black slaves who left New York landed on Sherbro Island, off the coast of Sierra Leone. Between 1821 and 1838, the American Colonization Society, a Quaker organization that funded the voyage, developed the first settlement, which would be known as Liberia.
Though this voyage proved to be the first of many organizing efforts for a return to Africa by freed blacks, wealthy African-American shipowner, Paul Cuffee was actually the first to have spearheaded the “the first, black initiated ‘back to Africa’ effort in U.S. history,” according to the historian Donald R. Wright.
Cuffee, who believed in colonization, aimed at sending at least one vessel each year to Sierra Leone, transporting African-American settlers and goods to the colony and returning with marketable African products.
After founding the Friendly Society of Sierra Leone, on December 10, 1815, Cuffee, together with about 38 African Americans, sailed to Sierra Leone on his ship to join the already small community that was there. The arrival of Cuffee and his entourage on February 3, 1816, signified the start of the return home vision that he had.
Cuffee died in 1817, however, his private initiative attracted the likes of the American Colonisation Society (ACS) and many others to the idea of colonization.
The ACS, founded in 1816 by a group of Quakers and slaveholders, was encouraged by Cuffee’s voyage and began working on a voyage of its own by relocating freed blacks.
The society chose that over having an increasing number of freed black Americans demanding rights, jobs, and resources at home. Some leaders in the black community and abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison opposed the relocation of freed blacks outside of the U.S., questioning why they should have to emigrate from the country where they and their generation were born.
Yet, the colonization idea received notable support from slave owners like Henry Clay, Francis Scott Key, and Bushrod Washington who “thought slavery was unsustainable and should eventually end but did not consider integrating slaves into society a viable option.”
Thus, from January 1820, the ACS began sending ships from New York to West Africa. With $100,000 from U.S. Congress, the ACS arranged the 86 freed blacks who set sail from New York on February 6 and by March 9, the team had reached a small island, off the coast of Sierra Leone.
Unfortunately, the freed blacks, over the course of the year, suffered on the island after being stricken with malaria and having to face attacks from indigenous people.
Accounts state that an agent of the ACS later purchased a piece of land in present-day Liberia, which became the home of the team the following year.
The colony was named Liberia in 1824 and its capital was given the name Monrovia. Within four decades, between 15,000 and 20,000 freed slaves and Africans rescued from illegal slave ships joined the colony, which suffered from diseases, attacks from local people, the harsh climate, poor housing conditions, and lack of food and medicine.
As criticisms against colonization grew, the ACS, by 1840 was largely bankrupt and thus, asked the settlers to declare independence in 1846. The settlers took the move in 1847, founding the Republic of Liberia, “the first independent democratic republic in Africa, and just the second republic—after Haiti—to be founded by blacks.”