Factory Island, Grand Bassa, [Liberia]: 1842. Envelope or Cover. This three-page stampless folded letter measures 16” x 10” unfolded. It is datelined, “Factory Island, Grand Bassa / July 13th 1842”. It is addressed to Benjamin Coates in Philadelphia and bears an octagonal “6” arrival handstamp. The letter is intact; however, splits are starting along several folds. Otherwise in very nice shape.
Wesley Johnson was a member of the Young Men’s Colonization Society of Pennsylvania and served as the governor of its Grand Bassa Colony in Liberia until his organization merged with the American Colonization Society in 1838, after which he became the Superintendent of Liberia’s only high school under the patronage of the Ladies’ Liberia School Association of Philadelphia. Benjamin Coates was a wealthy Philadelphia merchant, the Vice-President of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, and a strong proponent of colonization. (For more information, see the Annual Report of the American Colonization Society for 1845 and Lapsansky-Werner’s “Back to Africa: Benjamin Coates and the Colonization Movement” in the Spring 2007 edition of Quaker History.)
In his letter Johnson discusses the high school:
“The Ladies Liberian High School of which I am to be the supporter factotum and universal agent engrosses all my attention at present. We are going on comfortably though at a rather small rate having only ten scholars as yet. This is owing entirely to the season of scarcity under which the colony is suffering and the consequent instability of the people to furnish provisions for their children at the school. We expect it will be much better in a month or two and that the school will capacity increase. The house will accommodate forty or fifty with room for study, eating, & lodging. It is not quite finished inside but will probably be so this season. . .. There is no mistake in the improvement we have made here by dispossessing his satanic majesty of his seat on F. Island from which he has sent so many there south to chains and death and setting up an institution which in its general plan is equaled by few in any country in its adaptation to make liberty & life blessings.”
For more information about the high school, see Karen Fisher Younger’s “Philadelphia’s Ladies’ Liberia School Association and the Rise and Decline of Northern Female Colonization Support” in the July 2010 edition of the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography. Regarding “his satanic majesty,” Johnson may be speaking either figuratively or specifically. He could be speaking about the institution of slavery and the African’s slave trading “factories” that had once been located on Factory Island, or he could have been specifically referring to the slave-trading kings of the Dey and Gurrah tribes whom the colonialist militia had defeated in combat. (See Innes’s Liberia; or the early history and signal preservation of the American Colony.)
He also reports on the colony’s difficulties with Great Britain and the hypocrisy of the British regarding trade competition:
“we are so contemned by the British that they will not allow us any of the prerogatives of a commonwealth nor permit if they can prevent the enforcement of any of our laws which would regulate commerce of their traders on our purchased territory. Now have not the British set us the example of a colony governed by an incorporated company and commerce regulated by them as elsewhere? And why hast not the colon’l soc the same prerogatives as their African Company?”
And, he discusses Liberian agriculture, an extremely important topic to Coates who believed that the colony could develop a cotton-growing economy that would dwarf and destroy the South’s, thus resulting in the complete abolition of American slavery. (See Coates’s Cotton Cultivation in Africa.):
“The farm is in good order and we are introducing some modes of agriculture that may be as novel to the colonist as theirs would be to you in the good State of Penn. . .. Their system of agriculture is absolutely and certainly not more than one fifth as productive in proportion to the amount of labour bestowed as it might be with the usual means and methods in the northern states and the natives are and even will be inferior to them in this respect until they introduce more improved and labour saving plants.” And he closes with a critically frank examination of the colonization effort: “If I were in America again I could not say quite all that I did before in favour of the colony & colonists but could say. . .. Show me a feasible and good plan for securing the interests and improving the condition of the African population of the U States and you will cure me of colonization at once. . .. It is a most surprising experiment to send off a people [who] never drew a breath but in slavery [to] a new and distant country. Still more so when they are to furnish their own officers, religious teachers, and [are] destitute of the principles of . . . life and have no examples but those of the barbarians around them. But I have often said . . . nothing ever showed the colony is half so bad [as] slavery. . .. And how can we be surprised to find a want of moral courage, of enlightened . . . principle, [instead finding] selfish views & feelings want of mutual sympathy. . .? Common among slaves [are] vices as lying, theft, natural connivance, and concealment. But these people are under the pressure of poverty and the compelling influence of a barbarous community about them whom they hold as inferiors. . .. I contend with those who complain of indolence among [the colonists, but] they must work or starve and labour now performed if well applied would be sufficient for all good purposes. . .. So at last it comes to “colonization in Liberia or nowhere.”. Very good. Item #009463 Scarce. As of 2019 nothing similar in the trade or listed in Rare Book Hub auction results. Nothing like this is specifically listed in any institution by OCLC, however a similar letter may be held within one of several personal papers collections related to Liberian colonization.
A truly important summary of the problems that then beset the colony of freed American slaves in Liberia and the doubts of one of the most ardent white supporters of colonization.
Scarce. As of 2019 nothing similar in the trade or listed in Rare Book Hub auction results. Nothing like this is specifically listed in any institution by OCLC, however a similar letter may be held within one of several personal papers collections related to Liberian colonization.