Conditional manumission and emigration to Liberia

Both on my website ‘Liberia: Past and Present of Africa’s Oldest Republic‘ and on this blog I have paid attention to the (in)voluntary character of the emigration of African-Americans to the colony of Liberia in the 19th century. See the articles ‘How voluntary was the ‘return’ to Africa of people of color and freed slaves‘ and ‘A trip back in history: The United States, 1851, The arrest of a fugitive slave‘ (posted on February 28, 2019).

The other day, when browsing through a pile of old, 19th century American newspapers containing news about the recently created colony of Liberia, I came across another article that I like sharing with you.

A slave owner in the State of Virginia, Johnson Cleaveland, decided that after his death his slaves would be set free on condition that they emigrate to Liberia. I have always questioned the altruism of slave owners who wished to show their humanity by liberating their slaves after passing away – hence after enjoying a luxurious life based on the involuntary, free labour of human beings bought from people as unscrupulous as they were, and who had been responsible for the kidnapping, shipping and enslaving of innocent people, men, women and children.

As you can read in this newspaper clipping from the New York Transcript, dated September 13, 1834, Johnson Cleaveland’s slaves were given two years to decide. Should they decline the ‘offer’ the inevitable alternative meant that they would continue their enslaved existence since their ‘owner’ had stipulated in his will that they then had to make a choice of their new ‘owners’ amongst any of his relatives. After all, in 1834 slavery was common and legal notably in the southern states.

Source: New York Transcript, September 13, 1834, p.3

History does not tell us what eventually happened with the slaves, whether they emigrated to Liberia or stayed in the United States – and under which conditions. However, the article clearly shows that the emigration of African-Americans to Liberia was not always voluntary. The seal of the independent republic of Liberia which the colonists created in 1847 expressed their feelings and what brought them to Africa’s shores: the love of liberty.

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