Image: A postcard honoring president Abraham Lincoln for his Emancipation Proclamation freeing enslaved people, 1863.
On New Year’s Eve 1862, a day before he issued the Emancipation Proclamation to end slavery in America, President Abraham Lincoln signed a contract agreeing to relocate 5,000 free Black Americans to the Caribbean.
Lincoln had long been a staunch supporter of colonization, the state-sponsored emigration and resettlement of freed Black Americans outside America. Colonization was widely supported throughout the antebellum United States for religious, economic, and social reasons. Lincoln saw it as a remedy for emancipated Black Americans, expressing hope that they would find justice “in restoring a captive people to their long-lost father-land, with bright prospects for the future.”
Colonization was also seen by some politicians as a pragmatic solution for a country still embroiled in a civil war: It would satisfy those in the Confederate South who opposed emancipation and living alongside freed Black Americans.
In his second annual message to Congress on December 1, 1862, Lincoln summoned the Union to abolish slavery and proposed a constitutional amendment to colonize Black Americans outside the US. He sought plans to realize this vision, and received ones that would establish colonies of emancipated Black people in countries like New Granada and Liberia.
When he heard about a plan for a colony on Île à Vache (“Cow Island”), a small island off the coast of Haiti, Lincoln was intrigued. But he had little idea that the endeavor would not only fail catastrophically — leading to the deaths of more than 100 freed Black Americans — but also snuff out his lifelong dream of colonization.
The Île à Vache plan was the brainchild of a cotton planter
Bernard Kock, an entrepreneur and Florida cotton plantation owner, spied a business opportunity when he visited the 1862 World Fair in London. Impressed by the quality of cotton he saw at the fair, Kock conceived a plan to develop Île à Vache into a cotton farm by sending newly emancipated Black Americans there.
Each family would receive homes, access to hospitals and schools, and be given 16 acres of land and their wages after the completion of four-year work contracts, according to Kock’s plan.
One month before he signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln agreed to terms with Kock, which included $600,000 in funds authorized by Congress. Colonization would ultimately be voluntary for those who resettled, but it was strongly encouraged by Lincoln, Kock, and other supporters. Plans for the first government-run colonization were set in motion.
Black and white abolitionists opposed colonization
Lincoln’s proposals for colonization faced major opposition from Black and white abolitionist groups.
“Shame upon the guilty wretches that dare propose, and all that countenance such a proposition,” Frederick Douglass wrote in his newspaper “The North Star” in 1849. “We live here — have lived here — have a right to live here, and mean to live here.”
William Loyd Garrison, a prominent white abolitionist and journalist, denounced the plans as “puerile, absurd, illogical, impertinent, and untimely.”
Animosity reached a fever pitch on August 14, 1862, when Lincoln met with a committee of five Black leaders at the White House.