When ships left those shores, I followed them. I heard people inside, though there was nothing I could do. No matter how strong I became, I could not turn the sea back. I saw black bodies jump from the decks and sink like stones into the ocean below. In the bottom of the deep, there is a city of stones where those ancestors linger. There were many ships that crossed, though one of them was different. And I followed that different ship to the Americas.
First, the large steamer arrived in Key West, Florida, battered by the long journey from an African coast, farther south than Monrovia. Inside, some hundreds of shaking black and naked bodies huddled together to keep themselves warm and guarded from whips.
“Take care, my darlings,” I hummed. Although there was no sleeping there. No peace in the bellies of those vessels. The ship anchored in Key West in 1845, long after 1808, when slave trading had been outlawed in America. Shortly following the capture of the guilty slavers, the men in Washington held a summit to decide what would happen to the ship and the rescued Africans.
“Send the matter to Polk!” was the resolve. “To Polk!”
Polk, the new president, had many concerns of greater importance than this problem of Africans captured after slavery was outlawed. Annexing Texas, for instance, expanding the United States, taxes, Britain’s hold on Oregon, and a barren wife. Southerners would always worry about the rights of their property, the sustenance of their wealth and their wives and daughters amid a more and more attractive and intimidating Negro male lot. Northerners also would worry that the free Negroes would distract from the natural progress of their cities and would remain suspicious that the rumors of barbarism and insanity among Negroes would prove true and one day endanger them, or, worse, would prove false, and the reformed Negroes would one day hold them accountable for past ills. Runaways. Property ownership. Slave education. Slave marriage. Fugitive slaves. Now Africa was added to the list.
Polk would have to justify his decision at every turn, especially a decision that included money from Congress and taxpayers for Negroes. He wanted little to do with the American Colonization Society and what he considered the self-righteous, vitriolic Quakers behind it. In fact, Polk believed they most certainly hated Negroes the most. To spend the money and time required to send them back would be as maniacally racist as the man who brands his slaves as cattle, as the patrol who hunts for the thrill of seeing black flesh burn, the bigot, the motherfucker.
If the ACS wanted them to have the land, then they would pay for it. No more government funding.
“Send them back,” he finally agreed. “Settle them in Monrovia. And if other ships are found or captured, send them there also. Send them all back.” The response was great: objections from the black free Negro population that refused to leave the United States, a disgruntled South that argued that Polk had indirectly criticized the ownership of slaves, a suspicious North that believed that Polk was acting in the best interest of the South and Southerners. Send them back.
The ship set sail for Africa on a clear blue morning. Inside, some four hundred Africans headed back across the Atlantic after their freedom was granted and the American Colonization Society petitioned their return to the free colony. A grant paid for full meals and water, and the ACS made sure that they were provided with clothing and livable accommodations. The ship lost nearly one hundred Africans from illness before landing in Grand Bassa, eighty miles or so south of Monrovia. There the Africans were unloaded from the ship onto a beach of mingled dust and sand. The ACS decided that the Africans would be divided among the settlers to be civilized and Christianized, to work on farms and add to the overall economy and diversity of the free colony.