Just a day before he issued the final Emancipation Proclamation to effectively end slavery in America, President Abraham Lincoln met a Florida cotton planter who was also a proprietor of an island off the coast of Haiti called the Île à Vache.
The planter, named Bernard Kock, had been in Haiti and secured a paper from the Haitian government giving him ownership of the Ile à Vache, a small, uninhabited island just off the southern coast of Haiti. On December 31, 1862, when Kock met Lincoln, they signed a contract to use federal funds to relocate 5,000 formerly enslaved people from the U.S. to Île à Vache.
Colonization had since the 1850s been a part of Lincoln’s political advocacy. Even though he was strongly against slavery, he did not think that people of different races should live together. And so although most African Americans had been born in the U.S., Lincoln wanted to resettle them abroad, including in Central America, the Caribbean or Africa.
“Historically, the most famous example of this is Liberia, which was founded in 1816 and over the course of the next 50 or 60 years, several thousand former slaves migrated to Liberia and colonized it,” author Dr. Phillip Magness told Pacific Standard. “Lincoln liked this model, but wanted to expand upon it, and he was willing to look in Central and South America, and across the Caribbean.”
Some weeks before he signed the contract with Kock, Lincoln had proposed a constitutional amendment to colonize African Americans outside the U.S. The amendment included federal compensation for slaveowners who lost their human property because of emancipation, according to History. Lincoln at the time had another colonization plan to send freed Black Americans to the Chiriquí province of Panama but he accepted Kock’s Ile à Vache plan.
“In Kock’s plan, the former slaves would work on a cotton plantation. Each family would receive homes and access to hospitals and schools. And after the end of their four-year work contracts, they would be given 16 acres of land and the wages they had earned over that period,” History writes.
Lincoln met at the White House delegation of Black leaders on August 14, 1862, to sell his colonization idea. “Your race suffer from living among us, while ours suffer from your presence… It is better for us both, therefore, to be separated,” Lincoln said to the delegation.
Though some Black leaders believed that with colonization they can get better political equality abroad, most Black people and abolitionists despised it. “Frederick Douglass calls it a silly idea. He says the President of the United States has become an ‘itinerant colonization preacher,’ who has made himself look ‘ridiculous’ by pitching this idea that we should leave the nation of our birth,” author Magness said. “Douglass argues they have a historical presence here the same as any other American, why should they leave? Which is a very powerful and valid argument.”
Despite the outrage by Douglass and some leaders of the Black community, the vessel Ocean Ranger left Fortress Monroe, Virginia, On April 14, 1863, with some 453 African American emigrants aboard, to Île à Vache. Problems soon began. The vessel arrived at its destination in May but without some 30 Black people who had died on the way from smallpox. A second ship should have followed the Ocean Ranger with food, building and living supplies, but it never did.
Kock, who was in charge of the island, had apparently lied to everyone about the living conditions at Île à Vache. Black families were denied the homes they were promised and had to sleep on the ground in small huts made of brush and palmetto. Kock also confiscated all metallic money the former slaves had brought with them and exchange it for paper currency he had issued on his own, stating that he was only going to accept his own paper currency as payment for food and supplies on the island, according to Magness.
After some months, Kock fled the island when he learned that the former slaves were planning to revolt. “This results in the New York investors coming in, who try to rescue the situation by replacing him with one of their own agents, but then the first wave of crops they had planted failed. So it’s a succession of disasters, and by late 1863, the colony is effectively abandoned. Several of the colonists flee to the mainland of Haiti, others try to start settlements on the beach,” said Magness.
In February 1864, Lincoln had to send a ship back to Île à Vache to rescue the survivors and bring them back to the U.S. to be integrated into a post-emancipation society. Some 350 survivors arrived in Alexandria, Virginia on March 20. That same month, Lincoln signed a bill withdrawing the $600,000 appropriated for colonization.
“Following his reversal of the Île à Vache venture, Lincoln not only remained silent on the failed Haitian colony, but also never issued another public statement concerning colonization,” wrote historian Graham Welch.