January 10, 2011

The Original 'Wikileaks': The 1862 scheme to colonize Central America with freed black slaves

US President Abraham Lincoln (1861-65)

I was searching for a better scanned version of an old e-book about Honduras that I have when I stumbled upon what could only be described as the original 'Wikileaks'. The search results included an item that caught my attention with a phrase about colonizing freed blacks in Honduras.

The book is called Foreign Affairs, Part II from December 1, 1862. My search sent me to a particular section which is a collection of 1862 US State Department correspondence to and from Central America. In August 1862, in the midst of the civil war, US President Abraham Lincoln made a speech to emancipated blacks in Washington, D. C., (who had been freed by decree in April 1862) suggesting the possibility of immigration to Central America where he would "endeavor to have them made equals, and that he had the best assurance that they would be as good as the best." That speech was reported in newspapers and caused a flurry of activity among the diplomatic community.

US representatives from various countries in Central America as well as foreign ministers wrote in alarm to US Secretary of State William H. Seward about proposed US plans to colonize freed blacks in the Central American countries under the protection of the US.

The population and the presidents of those countries were totally against this idea and offended that the US would even consider such a thing without discussion and the approval of the respective governments. Seward was politely told that, in fact, any such colonization without the permission of the respective governments was illegal, whether it be white or black colonists.

Seward's response was to downplay the idea as just a fleeting thought, saying that, of course, the US would not take any such action without the consent of the respective governments, but unfortunately, the President was not available to discuss it with the representatives. (Image: William H. Seward)

Seward even replied with a diplomatic reprimand to one foreign minister, surprised he would take action based on rumors and unconfirmed newspaper reports.

However, in other letters it was noted that the US Congress had made an appropriation of funds to assist emancipated negroes in colonization in other countries and that the government had been authorized to procure land and transportation for blacks wishing to migrate to Central America, so it was obviously more than an offhand comment by President Lincoln.

In one case, the US was offered 50,000 acres for $1.5 million in Ecuador for such settlements and had been in negotiation with an American, Ambrose W. Thompson and the Chiriquí Improvement Company, for many months to buy several hundred thousands acres of land in the Chiriquí region of Panamá, to which Ambrose held a dubious title. Even more telling about the duplicity of the US government, was the promotional pamphlet being publicly distributed to blacks by US Senator Samuel C. Pomeroy, inviting free blacks to join the colonization, promising the assistance of the US government.


I intended to stop here with the above summary, but thought that you might find this as interesting as I did — learning about US and Honduras history at the same time — so I'll include a partial summary of the correspondence. Please forgive the lengthy sentences! You should see the original sentences that I'm summarizing. Fair warning: If you read the correspondence, be prepared for the distasteful racist views common of the times on both sides of the conversations.


The topic of black colonization appears to begin with Guatemala on page 881, though I have not read the entire 900+ pages, so I can't be sure that it isn't mentioned in other sections.

Mr. E. O. Crosby of the US Legation in Guatemala wrote in May 1862 to Mr. Seward inviting him to consider the idea of freed black colonization along the coast near the borders of Honduras and Belize, as it 1) would help to direct trade to the US, 2) would materially increase the influence of the US in shaping the future policy of Guatemala, and 3) would check the future encroachment of the English colony of Belize upon Guatemala. He also pointed out that since other blacks already lived in the area, the new blacks would fit right in since all Africans spoke the same language and had the same religious sentiments. Mr. Seward responded by authorizing Crosby to make an offer to the Guatemalan government similar to that being made to Costa Rica.

Costa Rica

The Costa Rican section (page 883) begins with correspondence, also in May 1862, from Mr. Charles N. Riotti, US Legation to Costa Rica, indicating that he had been informed that the Costa Rican congress will consider setting aside part of the national domain, a tract of coast land, for the colonization based on their knowledge that the US President had been authorized "to expend a certain sum to assist the colonization".

However, in September 1862, Mr. Riotti strongly urged the US government not to spend "one cent for the purchase of lands for negro colonies" as the government would surely be swindled and the poor negroes robbed or placed in miserably poor locations. He believed that President Lincoln referred in his speech to the coal mining area of the Chiriquí province of New Granada (which later became Panamá), which he pointed out was not only worthless mining property, but the title to the land was in question and the area was in dispute between the governments of New Granada and Costa Rica.

Later information described the Chiriquí Improvement Company and particularly its representative American Ambrose W. Thompson with terms like cheat, scoundrel, opportunists, and swindling speculators. Mr. Thompson apparently continued to try to defraud the US government with his illegal claim of ownership and untruthful claim of vast coal reserves until at least the early 1880's according to this NY Times article from March 1882. But, interestingly, President Lincoln seemed fixated on this area despite several investigations over the years which cast serious doubt on the legal ownership of the area.


The tale continues with Honduras on page 887, with Mr. James R. Partridge of the US Legation in Honduras writing to Mr. Seward in August 1862 of his deep concern. Partridge had spoken personally with the Honduran President who indicated his strong desire for "the immigration of industrious whites .... particularly those of German descent" who had done so much to develop and add to the wealth of Costa Rica. The President felt that immigration of blacks was not at all desirable based on the trouble the government had had on the northern coast and particularly the Bay Islands, with the free negro population. Mr. Partridge informed Seward that this was the general sentiment of the country.


The Nicaraguan section begins on page 889 with several letters from Mr. A. B. Dickinson of the US Legation in Nicaragua expressing the deep-rooted and strong opposition of the people to the US President's project. He wrote that the "more or less colored population" (he explains that although not so dark as the negroes, they are colored nonetheless) was insulted to be classed with "a servile race". He also blames wealthy American secessionist immigrants to be a big cause of the panic in the country regarding "a dreaded deluge of negro emigration" into Honduras and Nicaragua. Dickinson credits these Americans with keeping the population agitated over this topic.

Guatemala and Salvador

Notes from Guatemala and Salvador begin on page 897, with an August 1862 letter from Mr. A. J. de Yrisarri, Foreign Minister representing the governments of Guatemala and Salvador (whose name actually should be Antonio José de Irisarri - image). He writes that he has seen the newspaper reports of President Lincoln's speech. (You can read the Harper's Weekly of August 6, 1862 here.) The letter expresses his regret to inform Seward that no type of colonization of foreigners, of any color, is allowed without the express permission of the respective government. Seward responds with feigned surprise that any diplomatic communications would be based upon informal conversations and newspaper reports, and that secondly, (paraphrased) just because the president said it, doesn't mean that he meant it or had any desire to do it.

Minister Yrisarri writes back with an amusing apology for relying on the speech of the US President related in public newspapers and for attributing to the President a wish to colonize other countries without permission, even though, he points out, this coincides exactly with what has been set forth in public by US Senator Pomeroy, "the President's commissioner for organizing colonies for persons of color in Central America", which was authorized by Congress. Yrisarri stated that he waited 12 days for the US government to deny or clarify the newspaper reports before writing. He states that he has no wish to insult the President but that he must make it very clear that no such colonizations can take place because they do not suit the views of these governments, who desire a more educated class of immigrants, something which was not acquired by blacks under slavery. Seward wrote back with assurances that no attempts at colonization will take place without the permission of said governments.

Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Honduras

The next section, beginning on page 901, is titled Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Honduras. It begins with a lengthy September 19, 1862 letter from Minister Luís Molina, representative of Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Honduras in Washington, D. C., documenting the understanding which has resulted from what apparently had been repeated meetings and conversations in Washington. It all boils down to 'no way, no how' will the governments of Central America allow the US to colonize in their territories, and certainly not independently under the auspices and protection of a foreign government. He refers to the colonization as "for the purpose of importing a plague of which the United States desire to rid themselves" but he states that the countries are disposed to promote the immigration of industrious persons capable of contributing to the improvement and advancement of the country.

Molina went to great lengths explain the illegality of Ambrose Thompson's claim of Chiriquí land ownership, describing him basically as a well-known charlatan trying to "make gold out of that which has no value". Thompson had a $300,000 contract with the US Navy, a contract in which Thompson had gone so far as to grant the US inalienable rights of sovereignty over the territory, a right which he did not have and would not have even if he actually did own the property. The contract was later not sanctioned by Congress.

Despite all of the previous meetings and assurances, Molina wrote of his alarm at reading in that very Sunday's newspaper that Senator Pomeroy (image) had been granted full powers by Congress on the matter of settling people of color in Central America. He said that he had been assured by the Assistant Secretary of State that the reports were not true. He requested that the assurance be put in writing by the Secretary.

To further his concern, he wrote that the Pomeroy pamphlet indicated that Pomeroy himself would be leaving for Central America to accompany the first group of 500 colored settlers on October 1st to aid them in selecting a good location. The publicly distributed pamphlet said that they would be exploring the most promising areas, beginning with "Chiriquí, New Granada, and would also visit the numerous islands and perhaps the countries of Venezuela and Honduras."

Relying on the "aforesaid assurances and upon the good faith and integrity of the US government", Molina humorously wrote "I have no other alternative left but to attribute it .... to a misunderstanding on his [Pomeroy's] part .... or to "an inexplicable hallucination which makes him feign not to understand [his instructions] and to counteract them by embarking upon an expedition [which is] in every way aggressive and illegal, against which your excellency knows a protest has been made from the beginning in various forms, in the name of Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, Salvador and New Granada."

Seward responded five days later to acknowledge the protest and to inform Molina that Pomeroy had been instructed not to go to any country without prior permission and now that the protests of all six countries had been received, that Pomeroy had been instructed not to land on any of the territories, though he pointed out that Thompson claimed his land was not in Costa Rica or in the disputed territory, but entirely in New Granada.

Five days after that, on September 29, Molina replied in alarm again to inform Seward that on Saturday night, the 27th, Senator Pomeroy held a meeting with persons of color to urge them to join his proposed expedition, bound for Central America at the beginning of October and he "described to them in brilliant colors" the place on Lake Chiriquí at which he proposed to land and establish the colony. "However great my surprise, I must suppose the fact to be indubitable by supposing that the orders and instructions of your excellency's government may have got astray or been delayed for some cause....". Seward replied on October 1 with his usual reply.


Curious about this colonization scheme (which was variously called deportation and expatriation), I found this well-researched website which indicates that Abraham Lincoln was a long time proponent of emigration of blacks (estimated at 4 million in 1861) to other countries as the only solution for the vast numbers of newly emancipated slaves, who had been purposely kept in ignorance for generations and therefore would not be productive members of society, not to mention the importance of "maintaining the separation of the races".

This site also shows that the initial efforts to acquire land in Central America began in 1861, despite Seward's repeated assurances in 1862 that the the President and the US had no such plans. According to historian Warren A. Beck, on September 11, 1862, President Lincoln authorized a federal contract with Ambrose W. Thompson and Chiriquí Improvement Company to establish a colony by ex-slaves in Panama — during the very time the above correspondence was going on and Seward was denying any such acts!


As reported by historians on the above site, one black colony of a little more than 400 people was established in Haiti in 1863, with disastrous results. Lincoln entered into a contract with another shady character, Bernand Kock, despite warnings. Twenty to 30 of the passengers died of small pox on the voyage to Haiti, and as Riotti predicted, the blacks never received the promised assistance (materials to build homes, a church, and school and many other necessities). They were living in crude huts, sick and nearly starving to death before the remaining survivors ultimately were returned to the US less than a year later at the request of the Haiti government. Even the company agent, who assured the US government of the favorable conditions and that the cotton was "just springing from the ground" admitted that there were many reasons why colonization would never work, "prominent among which are the great dissimilarities which exist in language, religion, education, and government."

I found some other US State Department correspondence collections for other years, but brief searches did not yield more information on Central American colonization. Other than that, my admittedly limited research only discovered a few letters in which the topic was approached, notably by a US representative in Brazil whose lengthy, detailed plan included having the blacks pay for their own passage by indenturing them to their employers for 3-5 years while paying them 10 to 15 US cents per day for their work in the cotton and sugar fields. It seems there was a shortage of labor in Brazil due to Brazil's own abolishment of slavery. He felt that both countries could benefit without it costing them a dollar, while American investors could garner huge profits from this scheme.

If any readers have more knowledge about this topic, I'd love for you to share that with us in the comments along with any links, if possible.
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