Two hundred years later, a long-lost document sheds light on the purchase of Liberia

By Ray Cavanaugh | Washington Post |

The handwritten agreement details the sale of West African land that later became Monrovia, the country’s capital

The original purchase agreement for a tract of land that would become the Liberian capital of Monrovia was uncovered by historian C. Patrick Burrowes in August. (Chicago History Museum)

It was billed as a land of promise — a place where free Black Americans could obtain more political rights and a better quality of life.

Liberia did not receive its name until 1824, but the territory that became its capital city was purchased on Dec. 15, 1821.

Almost exactly 200 years later, a Liberian historian has discovered that original purchase agreement — a document missing since 1835 that sheds light on the acquisition of the only U.S. colony in Africa.

Patrick Burrowes, who was born in Liberia and has taught at Penn State Harrisburg and Marshall University, uncovered the handwritten document in August. It details the sale of a tract of West African land that later became Monrovia, the Liberian capital. The selling price was about $300 worth of weapons, rum and other merchandise.

The document’s whereabouts had been unknown for so long, Burrowes said, that there was speculation it had never existed at all. For the historian, finding the purchase agreement has been the most significant discovery of his career, he said. And for historical understanding of Liberia’s origins, this document helps debunk several prevailing myths about the acquisition of territory that became its capital.

“The details of the land transfer have been shrouded in some controversy, so the recent discovery by Dr. Burrowes is timely, especially so close to the 200th anniversary of the event,” said Herbert Brewer, a Morgan State University historian who studies slavery and the African American diaspora.

Borrowing a phrase from President Biden, Brewer called the find a “BFD” that “will give historians and Liberians an opportunity to rethink the country’s history.”

No land surveys of the territory were conducted, so its precise dimensions went unspecified. Various sources would later provide hugely inflated numbers, but Burrowes deduced from an 1824 map that the initial purchase involved only about 140 acres. He added that a similar piece of land in much of the United States would have sold for considerably less in that era.

The buyers were two White men: U.S. naval Lt. Robert Stockton and Eli Ayres, an agent of the American Colonization Society (ACS), an organization founded in 1816 that sought to encourage and facilitate free African Americans to return to their ancestral continent.

Burrowes, who has spent several decades researching the ACS, said the text of the 1821 purchase agreement matched Ayres’s handwriting on other papers and that Stockton’s signature on the document matched his signature on other letters from the period.

Stockton, who would later attain the naval rank of commodore and become a U.S. senator for New Jersey, “embodied antebellum America’s contradictory stance on slavery,” Burrowes said. As one of the first officers on the U.S. Navy’s anti-slavery patrol, Stockton was so dogged in pursuing foreign slave ships that he unsettled diplomatic relations with France, which filed a protest against one of his ship seizures. And yet for all his opposition to further importation of enslaved people, he had no objection to the South’s system of human bondage. In fact, he enslaved African laborers on his own Georgia sugar plantation.

Aside from Stockton’s convoluted relationship with slavery, much debate has persisted over the extent to which the ACS was truly an anti-slavery organization. Though the society did not pursue immediate abolition, it did rescue Africans from illegal slave ships and deliver them to Liberia.

The land purchase highlights the fact that opposition to slavery was not exclusive to clusters of outraged Americans. John Mill, a biracial West African native serving local rulers as a secretary at the purchase negotiations, had recently given up his lucrative slave-trade business because of a troubled conscience. The rulers were willing to listen to pro-slavery arguments, but they ultimately cast their lot with the opposing side by selling the land to the ACS, over the objections of local slave traders who saw the move as a threat to their business.

“One can say then,” Burrowes said, “that Liberia was founded as an abolitionist nation.”

With colonial Liberia as his main historical interest, Burrowes — who divides his time between Monrovia and Columbia, Md. — had recently turned his focus to the circumstances surrounding the 1821 land purchase.

This piece of history was sorely lacking in primary-source documents. Hoping to locate the long-elusive purchase agreement, he identified three people who might have possessed it, all lawyers who had served as ACS officials. Burrowes searched the archives of the first two lawyers without success. But when he turned to the files of Elias B. Caldwell, a U.S. Supreme Court clerk and part-time ACS secretary, he discovered the agreement in the microfilm archive of the Chicago History Museum’s Bushrod Washington collection.

The document helps rebut three misconceptions about the land purchase that gave birth to Liberia:

Myth 1: Local West African rulers rejected the contract because their societies prohibited the buying and selling of land.

Aside from the fact that the purchase agreement itself shows formal approval of the land sale, Burrowes pointed out that the nascent Liberian colony expanded through four additional land purchases between 1825 and 1828. Moreover, three of those four subsequent transactions involved land sold by the six local signatories to the original 1821 contract (known by the names Peter, George, Zoda, Long Peter, Governor and Jimmy).

Myth 2: The local rulers were unable to comprehend the content of the contract because they did not understand English.

This myth seems to ignore the historical reality that the region where the land purchase took place had already seen centuries of contact with European traders, their goods and their contractual documents. Some local African elites had borne Western names for hundreds of years, Burrowes said.

At the negotiations, one of the purchase agreement’s signatories spoke to Ayres in English. Additionally, Mill, the West African secretary, was fluent in English, having received almost a decade of schooling in Liverpool, England. The discovery of his signature on the agreement confirms that he was part of the negotiations.

Myth 3: The land was purchased at gunpoint.

This myth had some appearance of credibility: Stockton, a veteran of several duels, was no stranger to gunplay. And he did brandish two pistols during the negotiations. However, “popular accounts sensationalize his actions and strip them of context,” said Burrowes, who noted that Stockton pulled his guns in response to two pro-slavery outsiders who had come seeking to sabotage the negotiations. The date on the purchase agreement reveals that it was signed a full day after Stockton drew his pistols. So even if he had been sufficiently rash to threaten local rulers, they would have had more than enough time to mobilize their own gun-toting forces.

Burrowes said that growing up in Liberia, he and his classmates learned very little accurate information about the original 1821 purchase: “Mostly what I remember hearing and believing were myths about Stockton and the agreement.”

Though the African American settlers in Liberia (also known as Americo-Liberians) occupied a relatively small portion of land, they had a tense and complicated relationship with the native population.

“There were conflicts as well as collaborations, intermarriages and cultural mixtures,” Burrowes said. By the end of the 19th century, he said, about 15,000 African Americans had migrated to Liberia, along with 6,000 Africans rescued from illegal slave ships and 300 Afro-Caribbeans.

Letters written by African Americans who came to Liberia often detailed hardships, such as losing relatives to malaria and other tropical diseases. A few hundred people even gave up on their new life there and returned to the United States, but the vast majority chose to stay, despite high mortality rates.

Even with these often-lethal difficulties, the Liberian newcomers had more civil liberties and a better chance at self-determination than they had in their previous land. And their letters, Burrowes pointed out, also “express joy at being truly free.”


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