From slaves to settlers

  • Follow News

Seven weeks at sea.

Back | Next
  Jonathan Ernst/File
Jonathan Ernst/File

More than 4,000 miles.

Sixty people.

Eleven mules: four jacks and seven jennies.

A dozen children.

One boat.

The Tubmans finally arrived at Cape Palmas on the Fourth of July - Independence Day, to be sure. Old Dembo Tubman, over whom Emily had fretted, survived the voyage, but Cesar Cummings, 60, did not. He was the lone casualty on the voyage, dying before he could turn the rich African soil with the new spade he had bought in those hopeful days in Baltimore.

Immediately upon their arrival, Cyrus and Benjamin Tubman wrote to Latrobe at the Maryland society in halting, uneven script. Benjamin was in want of his wife, flour, sugar and a dozen pairs of socks: ''the number 11 will fit me the best, and let them be fine not coarst.''

Cyrus wrote that on their passage they had used a good deal of corn meal (three barrels), beef (three barrels), pork (2 1/2 barrels) and potatoes (two barrels). The rest, he said, had spoiled and was thrown overboard.

The letter reads more like a shopping list than anything else, but on the bottom of the second page Cyrus wrote simply, ''We like the colony.''

They had arrived during the ''dries'' - a short period of reprieve in the middle of the rainy season, which had been particularly brutal that year. Even the natives said that they had never seen such constant rains at the cape.

George McGill, the assistant agent at Harper, the town on the cape, reported to the society at the time that its community farm was starting to look presentable: ''The plough has passed over it, and its beautifully undulating surface clothed with dark waving corn, is a source of wonder to the astonished natives of Cape Palmas.''

But largely, he said, the settlers' farms around Harper were a source of neglect, either from a lack of seed or the time to sow it. Because of their haste to leave Georgia, the Tubman people arrived in Cape Palmas before houses could be built for all of them and, because of the ''want of plank,'' it would be some time before they were all situated.

In December 1837, about five months after their arrival, Benjamin Tubman, a carpenter, wrote to the Maryland society from Harper, Cape Palmas. He was still waiting for his socks.

''I took pleasure in writing you a few lines. But I never received what I sent for,'' he wrote. He added to his list this time, asking for a small bake oven, bacon, ham, a bag of shot, a keg of powder, a set of knives and forks, and a coffee mill, among other items. Oh, and socks. Send socks.

''Since I have been in the colony I have built 3 houses. The fever did not go so hard with me as I thought it would,'' he wrote. ''I have got out on the farm, but no body has not got out on the farm but me. I believe cotton will grow here. We planted some since we come & we have picked it over once.

''I have cut down 1 acre of land and planted it in potatoes,'' he wrote of his progress. ''We are going very well with our building. The (society's) Agent tries to assist as much as he can and the Agent is well at the present.

''I remain yours truly, Benjamin Tubman.''

As of early the next year, only seven of the families had built houses. But they had an abundance of good land around their new township, called Mount Tubman, several miles inland from the coast.

''The land is equal to the best hitherto settled by the Americans, and taken in a body, is perhaps superior,'' reported John Russworm, the Maryland State Colonization Society agent at Harper.

They seemed pleased with the land, he said, and believed that the next season they could raise enough to support themselves, and raise cotton for profit. He wanted to purchase some working cattle for them, he said, but felt they could really benefit from 25 or 30 more mules.

They were doing, he wrote, ''generally speaking, better than emigrants from any other state.'' And his report, as printed in the official Maryland Colonization Journal, fairly glowed. But expunged from the published record had been the lone rebuke the Tubmans earned from Russworm: ''Whenever I propose the expediency of their taking their saws (and) cutting plank in the colony, most of them exclaim against the excessive heat of the sun and the hardship of their lot to be obliged to cut plank for themselves! Such is poor human nature!

''In the United States, they could work from morn till night in the burning sun of Georgia for another's benefit; but, here, in Africa, when told they must be more diligent for themselves, they murmur.''

Still, there were a few who prized their new freedoms, he said, and he hoped the others would soon become as enlightened.

In those first six months, the group lost only two adults: one 26-year-old to fever and 80-year-old Jeremiah Tubman to ''debility.''

Two or three very young children also died, including an infant, Martha Tubman, who was born in the colony and died two weeks later. But the group had yet avoided the heavy death toll that had struck other groups of colonists.

For instance, the very next Maryland society expedition after the Tubmans', in the fall of 1837, lost four adults and five children in the first two months. Those colonists also were reported to be lazy and discontented, and Russworm said it would not astonish him if, by the time of his next letter, two or three more would be dead from ''overeating and want of exercise.''

The Tubmans, however, pulled together and prospered, and by early 1838 were singled out again by Russworm - this time for their industriousness in farming.

As for the other settlers, he wrote, ''We find the rest stationary.'' And he was growing tired of their cries of ''hard times.'' He was content to let those others hunger a little, so long as it drove them to work.

The Tubmans clearly were determined not to suffer from hunger, planting about 24 acres that first year with potatoes, cassava (a starchy root) and plantains, with other tropical fruits and vegetables in smaller quantities, too. Only four acres had been planted in cotton, with which the society was still experimenting to find the right varieties to plant and the right planting season for them.

The new property owners

The Tubmans' virgin land in the Maryland settlement was on a palm-dotted plain of emerald grass - lush even in the dry season - that slopes gently down to the sea. Under tall coconut trees that lean out across the sand, the beaches are broken up here and there by massive rock formations, pink and smooth to the touch.

The Maryland colony at Cape Palmas, unlike the land at Monrovia where guns and swords were used to extort the land from the tribal chiefs who governed it, was purchased outright from three tribal kings. The deal was written up in a proper deed, detailing the boundaries of the land: ''commencing on the sea beach about three miles to the N. West of Cape Palmas at a cocoa nut tree known as the large cocoa nut'' and wrapping around again to the sea.

That first deed, drawn up in 1834, reads like a Sears catalog, listing the goods the chiefs received as payment and bringing to mind the trading of Manhattan to the Dutch for a string of beads.

Four cases of muskets, 20 kegs of powder, cloth, kettles, hats, beads, scores of housewares, fish hooks and 50 Spanish dollars.

The coasts along the belly of Africa's bulge were famously named for the treasures they held: ivory, gold and slaves. Liberia was known as the Grain Coast of Africa, and European traders rounding Cape Palmas, would anchor there and trade for food and other goods.

The land the colonization societies had chosen there had always been green from one end to the other, and the colonists would discover its varied gifts: the palms that would yield oil, wine and delectable hearts, sugar cane, oranges, limes, lemons, bananas of ''uncommon size,'' pineapples, pepper, pawpaw, guava, rice and yams, not to mention the corn, millet, peas, beans, tomatoes, beets, carrots, melons, cucumbers, squashes, pumpkins and cabbages that the colonists brought with them from America.

This would be a bounty rich enough for the Tubmans, added to the cotton they planned to cultivate and sell to mills in Europe. Agents from the Maryland society already had taken samples of the cotton they grew to England, to find out which variety they would approve.

George McGill, the Maryland society agent, had written at the end of 1837 that, ''Their settlement already wears a pleasant aspect. Looking from the top of Mount Tubman, over the plain on which the settlement is located, you have a delightful view of more than 150 acres of land in cultivation.

''It is the general expression of the (Tubman) colonists that they must turn their attention to agriculture in preference to everything else, or never be independent. The ablest of them are now leading the way, and by their noble example, stimulate others to pursue a similar course.''

That was certainly welcome news to Latrobe and the managers of the society, who desperately needed the Tubmans and the other colonists to succeed. The conditions in the colony were such that it was a hard sell to recruit new settlers, and the whole system depended on free blacks wanting to go to Liberia. They were resettled there only of their own accord, and it was, in fact, unlawful to send free blacks to Africa against their will.

They needed a showpiece. That's why there was such fierce competition for high-quality settlers like the Tubmans - even more so for them because of their abilities to run a prosperous cotton farm. That's why every effort was made to outfit them well, right down to the new husk mattresses in the brig Baltimore. That's why the report of their initial discontent was cleansed from the Colonization Journal, the society's recruitment magazine. In the coming years, Latrobe would feel a great deal of pressure to justify his state's expenditure on what he feared was becoming a ''pretty ... play thing'' and ''costly bauble'' for Maryland.

''The time is fast arriving,'' he wrote as if trying to convince himself of the fact, ''when it will be a favor to the colored man to allow him to go to the colony; not, as often now, a favor to the Colony for a colored man to go there.''

The Tubmans' first anniversary at the colony found them getting down to business, planting more considerable cash crops of cotton and coffee. And by that time, all of them had finally built their new houses in the settlement around Mount Tubman.

The society was encouraging the Maryland marketplace and printing paper currency: a 10-cent bill with a chicken on it, a 25-cent one with a duck, and the 50-cent bill with two ducks on it. The dollar bill had a goat.

The Tubmans became more involved with the colony and one of them, Cyrus Tubman, was a counselor to the society's agents when they made policy decisions about how the colony was governed. Different from the settlement at Monrovia, Maryland started out as a temperance colony - no liquid spirits allowed - and it was illegal to hunt on the sabbath, a crime that brought a fine of $10 ($5 for the town and $5 for the settler who snitched).

The colonists were intent on creating a little America for themselves, with the churches and the schoolhouses at the center of their lives.

''A large number of them, particularly the younger portion of the community, are instructed in the common branches of education, and some are truly intelligent and learned. The most eloquent preachers and the most successful physicians are coloured men,'' wrote one society administrator, a Dr. Hall, in answering a series of congressional inquiries brought by Francis Scott Key, then better known as a Maryland politician and colonizationist than as the author of the national anthem.

For years to come, there would be hardships for new immigrants coming to Africa's shores, but the Tubmans would prosper, in great part because of the preparations made by Emily Tubman before their departure.

Liberia was not for everyone. Not everyone prospered; not everyone survived.

''Hell on earth,'' was just one of the ways disgruntled colonist William Nesbit described Liberia in his 1855 book Four Months in Liberia: or, African Colonization Exposed. Nesbit had traveled to Monrovia with several other upperclass free blacks from the North to start a sawmill business that never quite got off the ground.

''On stepping ashore, I found that we had been completely gulled and done for,'' he wrote. ''The whole country presents the most woe begone and hopeless aspect which it is possible for a man to conceive of, and having lived in (America) and seen and enjoyed the blessings of civilization, he readily conceives that he has been... cast away into a region of darkness and desolation for which there is no hope.

''Tell all the people you see, not to come to torment, before they die, for when they come here they are coming to torment,'' wrote Nesbit, who regaled his readers with tales of corruption, squalor, snakes and rats.

Even in the sleepier Maryland colony, unprepared colonists faced a daunting change in lifestyle.

''Only a few of the immigrants possess any thing of importance on their arrival, and consequently are unable to contribute much to the relief of the suffering,'' wrote a clergyman at Cape Palmas, the Rev. Scott. ''A good portion of the colonists here are unable to provide themselves with much more than the necessities of life.''

Scott wondered how a small colony in its infancy, with a sometimes deadly climate, could ever supply its many needs. But the Tubmans made it work.

Visitors to their farms just two years after they first broke ground were afraid they might be suffering from hallucinations, the Tubmans were doing so well.

''The spot now called Mount Tubman, and the smiling village in its rear, was selected hardly two years ago by Mr. McGill, Mr. Seys (here on a visit) and myself,'' wrote John Russworm, the Maryland society agent. ''Now, on his present visit, he can hardly credit his eyes that the mount, on which is erected a comfortable dwelling, is the spot to which we clambered to have a view of the surrounding country.''

Another visitor, he wrote, was ''equally delighted with Cape Palmas; and when it was known that he wanted potatoes, a cart load was sent in from Mount Tubman, of the finest quality; even our Monrovians had to confess that our potatoes were finer than theirs, and in greater abundance. Mr. McGill calculates that the Tubmans could furnish 500 croos (about 250 bushels) in a few hours.''

The Tubmans had their own fort, a stockade fitted with a cannon which was used in the early years to greet the arrival of the colony's anniversary every Feb. 22 - first with a number of shots equal to the colony's age, and then 13 more - one for each of the original U.S. colonies.

A visitor to the Tubman settlement in 1841 found the immigrants ''cheerful, their countenances beaming with pleasure.''

But back in Augusta, Emily Tubman was disappointed not to have gotten dispatches from her people in Liberia, and wished to know more about their new lives. As well, she said, the Tubman slaves who had decided to stay behind were keenly interested to know more about how their family was faring in Africa.

In 1842, Cyrus Tubman made a voyage with the Maryland State Colonization Society back to Baltimore and had hoped to visit Augusta. But Emily would, in the end, be saddened by the Southern port's refusal to allow his entry.

''I regret it as much on account of his relations here, as on my own, as they are all anxiety to see him and learn more particularly about the African family than I can tell them,'' she wrote to Latrobe.

At first, she had thought to send a box with ''a variety of articles'' back to Cape Palmas with Cyrus, but she decided in the end to send him with $100 worth of ''flour, pork or other articles of provision'' for her former slaves. ''Let Cyrus understand, if you please, it is a present from me and not part of their money,'' she added, wanting to avoid their confusing it with the remainder of their inheritance, which had been invested in America for their possible future needs.

By the early 1850s, Harper was a small, yet thriving, harbor town. The colony had constructed a tower on the top of the point, and they imported a lighthouse mechanism from England, the beams from which could be seen by sailors 20 miles out at sea.

The town on the rocky promontory had a government house, offices and a public store for the 800 colonists. The main thoroughfare, Maryland Avenue, was the address for the Episcopal and Methodist missions. For the next five miles, the road was lined with the colonists' farmlands until it reached its end at Mount Tubman Village.

''Add to this the comfortable dwellings of the colonists scattered here and there throughout the settlement, and lovely as the spot was described to be in its earlier aspect, it had lost none of its beauty when civilization had set its mark upon,'' Latrobe would one day write when laying out the history of the colony.


Top headlines

Census: Augusta young adults struggling

A new report shows that young adults in the area today are better educated and on average, earn more money than 30 years ago, but are far more likely to be unemployed, unmarried and living with ...
Search Augusta jobs