On the night of December 31, 1862, a day before he issued the final Emancipation Proclamation to effectively end slavery in America, President Abraham Lincoln signed a contract with Bernard Kock, an entrepreneur and Florida cotton planter. Their agreement: to use federal funds to relocate 5,000 formerly enslaved people from the United States to Île à Vache (“Cow Island”), a small, 20-square-mile island off the southwestern coast of Haiti.
Since the early 1850s, Lincoln had been advancing colonization as a remedy for the gradual emancipation of the nation’s enslaved. While he strongly opposed the institution of slavery, he didn’t believe in racial equality, or that people of different races could successfully integrate. And unleashing nearly 4 million Black people into white American society—North or South—was a political nonstarter. So despite the fact that most Black Americans in the 1850s had been born on U.S. soil, Lincoln advocated shipping them to Central America, the Caribbean or “back” to Africa. “If as the friends of colonization hope…[we] succeed in freeing our land from the dangerous presence of slavery; and, at the same time, in restoring a captive people to their long-lost father-land,” Lincoln said during his eulogy for statesman Henry Clay in 1852, “it will indeed be a glorious consummation.”
“Lincoln saw colonization as a practical solution to the millions freed by the Emancipation Proclamation,” wrote Jayme Ruth Spencer, a scholar of the Île à Vache effort. “Thus the proclamation would satisfy those who wished for emancipation of the Negro as well as those who feared that the freed slave would overrun the North.”
The Haiti Experiment
Nearly a month before he signed the contract with Kock, during his second annual message to Congress, Lincoln had proposed a constitutional amendment to colonize African Americans outside the United States. The amendment included federal compensation for slaveowners who lost their human property due to emancipation.
Looking for proof of concept, Lincoln settled on Kock’s Île à Vache proposal after serious consideration of another colonization plan that would have sent freed Black Americans to the Chiriquí province of Panama. 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. Colonization was voluntary for former slaves but deeply encouraged by Lincoln, Kock and its many other proponents.
“The intelligent negro may enter upon a life of freedom and independence, conscious that he has earned the means of livelihood,” Kock wrote in his proposal, “and at the same time disciplined himself to the duties, the pleasures and wants of free labor.”
Lincoln Met with Black Leaders to Debate Colonization
The colonization movement was never popular with most African Americans and abolitionists. "Shame upon the guilty wretches that dare propose, and all that countenance such a proposition,” wrote Frederick Douglass, the famed abolitionist orator and publisher, in his newspaper The North Star in 1849. “We live here—have lived here—have a right to live here, and mean to live here."
On August 14, 1862, Lincoln met at the White House delegation of Black leaders to make his case for the voluntary emigration of African Americans to countries outside the U.S. “Your race suffer from living among us, while ours suffer from your presence… It is better for us both, therefore, to be separated,” Lincoln told the delegation.
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Douglass, who wasn’t invited, and who read about the meeting in a newspaper, wrote in his Douglass’ Monthly that the proposal “reminds one of the politeness with which a man might try to bow out of his house some troublesome creditor or the witness of some old guilt.”
Colonists Set Out for Île à Vache
Lincoln was undeterred by these complaints from Douglass and other African American leaders. On April 14, 1863 the vessel Ocean Ranger departed from Fortress Monroe, Virginia, with 453 hopeful African American emigrants aboard, headed to Île à Vache.
The mission proved an “unmitigated failure” from the start, according to Graham Welch, an historian and attorney.
By the time the Ocean Ranger reached Île à Vache in early May, at least 30 of its Black passengers had died from smallpox. A second ship, which was supposed to follow the Ocean Ranger with building and living supplies, never set sail. Kock, the self-appointed superintendent of the island, had misled the government and the Black settlers about the living conditions. On a visit to the island, a government official found the African American settlers with “tears, misery and sorrow pictured in every countenance.” Instead of the homes they were promised, the families slept on the ground in small huts made of palmetto and brush. Kock offered wages in a self-printed currency, which workers were obliged to spend on exorbitantly priced food and goods in a kind of company shop. There was also a “no work, no rations” policy. When the emigrant workers threatened revolt, Kock fled.
Abandonment of Île à Vache—and the Failure of Colonization
By the summer of 1863, news of the inhumane conditions in Île à Vache reached Lincoln, who confided in Union army chaplain John Eaton that the “Negroes in the Cow Island settlement on the coast of Hayti were suffering intensely from a pest of ‘jiggers’ from which there seemed to be no escape or protection.” On February 1, 1864, the President ordered his secretary of war, Edwin Stanton, to commission a naval vessel to rescue the Île à Vache group. A month later, the Navy’s Marcia C. Day carried the 350 surviving emigrants back to America, arriving in Alexandria, Virginia on March 20. Also in March, Lincoln signed a bill withdrawing the $600,000 appropriated for colonization, of which the administration had spent only about $38,000.
According to Welch, Lincoln’s signing of the bill signaled that he was finally abandoning colonization as a viable option for those freed from slavery. “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,” Welch wrote. Instead, Lincoln began exploring ways to integrate those he had freed into a post-emancipation society.
While Île à Vache was a disastrous failure that led to the deaths of many African Americans, the end of colonization as government policy with the affair heartened many African Americans who had opposed emigrating to another country. “This turn to assimilation, rather than displacement,” Welch wrote, “found support within Black communities, particularly those who saw enlistment as an avenue to support the nation and president that had granted them freedom.”