Abraham Lincoln first approached Lord Lyons, the British minister to the United States, about colonizing the British West Indies in January 1863. Over the next several months Lincoln met with colonial representatives from Belize as they hammered out the details of the scheme. The resulting agreement authorized British agents to recruit settlers from the freedmen population and transport them to the Caribbean. Although the purpose of the British agents was occasionally the subject of political gossip during their stay in Washington, their negotiations with Lincoln were almost exclusively conducted within the backchannels of diplomatic secrecy until the end of the summer.
The public received its first, and as it later turned out only, hints of Lincoln’s agreements with Great Britain in September 1863 when J. Willis Menard returned from Belize after inspecting the proposed colony site. James Mitchell, Lincoln’s emigration commissioner, wrote a brief description of the project in the following letter to the New York Observer, which ran on September 10, 1863.
The letter’s contents are characteristically vague, as tended to be the case for Mitchell’s public correspondence. It refers, however, to the recent conclusion of negotiations with the British government and its submission to the State Department for approval, which occurred on August 10.
Aside from providing one of the only public glimpses at the scheme, Mitchell’s letter illustrates the complex and seldom-examined motives behind the colonization movement. The paternalistic character of this document will almost assuredly strike the modern reader as bigoted, to say nothing of its troublesome anti-egalitarian sentiments. It is nonetheless reflective of a recurring viewpoint in colonizationist thought, and illustrates the state of the British Honduras project at its most developed stage before collapsing amidst political wrangling in early 1864.
Aug. 19th, 1863
Editor of the New York Observer:
Dear Sir – You ask me, “What are the plans of the Government in giving the negro race a separate home?”
So far as plans are concerned we may say that the various schemes proposed by individuals have been rejected, inasmuch as the Government desires to deal with States, and not with individuals, as the work is one of great magnitude.
The theory that has received the sanction of this office, and been chiefly endorsed by the President, is to give what money the nation may appropriate for emigration and colonization purposes to the two colored nations or republics, Hayti and Liberia, through officers recognized by their respective Governments, or organized by their proper representatives here. It is true that we expect but a slender emigration to those countries for some years to come, but such is our resolve not to grant money unless it fosters a colored nation.
There is a third power coming to the aid of our work, much more important and powerful than Hayti or Liberia – I mean the British colonies of Tropical America – which have sent their representatives to this city to negotiate plans for giving our freedmen secure homes in Tropical America. Those representatives have the sanction of the home Government, and have been aided by Lord Lyons to the extent of his power.
This office has gladly entertained those propositions, and after maturing a plan, free from complications, which permits those colonies to send their properly accredited agents (being mostly colored men of intelligence and prudence) into our country, to canvass for emigrants amongst freedmen and free men, said colonies bearing all the expenses of the work, and of the emigration and proper settlement of their colored colonists – the whole being conducted without cost to the U.S. Government. We submitted it to the President, who has given endorsement thereto. This plan will no doubt go into effect so soon as the State Department has fully adjusted the matter with the British minister.
The motives which have prompted us to accept the agency of the British power in this matter are few and patent to all. Great Britain has proved, in the hands of Providence, the best foster-mother for infant colonies that this latter age of the world has produced. For reasons clear to your readers, that I have not time to name nor you space to publish, she has been more successful in bringing young nations up to maturity than any other empire, and the destiny of all her wards is to become free and independent States in course. Her statesmen know this, and whilst they grumble at the ingratitude, they admit the destiny.
Further, recognizing the embarrassments of our republican system, which absolutely requires a homogeneous population as a basis for its institutions: and the further fact that a mixed population needs a strong central government, and is sure to superinduce it in the end, a political necessity we would avoid; therefore we have judged that of all the centralized forms of government existing at this day, that of Great Britain is the most limited but guarded, and most marked in republican tendencies, whilst her Christian civilization is our own; and inasmuch as the Africans owe much to her, we have hoped that she would prove our best auxiliary in the works of giving a national being to our colored population. She has the skill, she has the needed wealth, and above all her Colonial Office has the experience of long centuries of success.
In addition to those three auxiliaries of which I speak by authority, there is a fourth locality to which I have ventured to ask the attention of our statesmen in a letter, published in May, 1862 – the Republic of Mexico; but the unsettled condition of that country forbids my pressing that plan on their attention now: yet I hold myself ready to advocate the plans that will result in the greatest good to our people of color, whilst preserving the homogeneous character of our own population.
So far as the work of emigration is concerned, we have made no effort to stimulate it in any direction, contenting ourselves with settling the necessary plans and theories, and fixing them in the legislation of the country – leaving the leading colored men to exercise their own judgment as to the time to assume a national existence. However, it is well for the country to know that the above national agencies stand ready to aid in the work of placing an oppressed minority race in lands where they will be the majority race, and consequently their own masters and governors, which they cannot be according to the law of majorities in the United States; for the ruling race that now governs will continue to direct the destiny of this nation.
Commissioner of Emigration