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Lincoln's Dangerous Colonization Experiment at the Cost of Precious Black Lives: Île à Vache

Man's face on the American flag.
Abraham Lincoln/American flag

Eversince Haiti, under the leadership of Toussaint Louverture, valiantly won its freedom from France in 1804, colonizers have repeatedly tried to gain control over the Republic and its people throughout history...and even today. But we won't delve into the current situation in this article. However, we will get into Abraham Lincoln's horrible idea of a colonialization experiment at one of Haiti's satellite islands that led to the deaths of roughly 100 newly emancipated slaves, the traumatic experience of those who survived the ordeal, and yes, there was the threat of a revolt which sent a colonizer fleeing the island.

Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, is often revered for his role in ending slavery. However, his views on race and his proposed solutions for the post-emancipation era were far more complicated and nuanced than simple abolitionism. Wanting to take a play out of James Monroe's playbook - who procured government funding to support the resettling of freed Black Americans to Liberia; its capital Monrovia was named in his honor. Lincoln hoped to do the same in other lands outside of America.

The Roots of Colonization:

The idea of colonization wasn't new to Lincoln. It had been proposed by several people in leadership positions since the beginning of time, and often as a compromise between complete abolition and the continuation of slavery by another name. When Abraham Lincoln initially learned of the concept to uproot hundreds of emancipated humans to an uninhabited island, it is believed he thought of the concept was an alternative to the hostility faced in America, and to appease racist southerners who were vehemently against emancipation.

Île à Vache:

Lincoln explored various colonization schemes throughout his presidency, the most infamous being Île à Vache in 1863. This was a horrifically failed attempt to resettle over 400 newly emancipated Black Americans roughly 20 miles south of the island of Haiti. Lincoln didn't devise this plan of recolonization on his own, the concept was presented as a favor from his friend Bernard Kock - who appointed himself as Governor (overseer) of the colony and made empty promises to the newly freed Blacks as an alternative to keeping them in the United States of America. Although many of his advisors, Black Americans and other abolitionists warned him against the idea, he moved forward. Kock is quoted below from the Abraham Lincoln papers from the Library of Congress:

"I will give each family a comfortably furnished house, with a garden spot attached, and, without extra charge to them, supply all their provisions, provide a hospital and medical attendance, a church, and school-house, with a New England Christian minister, and New England school teachers. With each family I will make a contract for four years and will pay them more liberal wages than is now paid in any of the West India Islands. At the expiration of the term for which these persons are employed, the Government of Hayti, by a special law, will give to each family sixteen acres of good land, and to each single man eight acres, so that, with this grant, and the money earned during the four years of service, the intelligent negro may enter upon a life of freedom and independence, conscious that he has earned the means of his livelihood, and at the same time disciplined himself to the duties, the pleasures, and the wants of free labor. I will act as the Governor of the Island, and will personally superintend the operations of my colony, and, by the enforcement of wise and paternal regulations, I will see to the physical and moral wants of those entrusted to my care." - (Kock, 1963)

This image depicts plantation workers, working the fields. An overseer is mounted on horseback.
Plantation workers

The Return:

Lincoln's colonization plan ultimately failed to achieve its intended goals, as the people suffered from the harsh conditions on the island, many fell ill, and the experiment proved to be a complete failure which resulted in the United States recovering the survivors from the island. In addition, Lincoln's colonization plan was a deeply flawed and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to address the challenges of emancipation. In fact, his act of resettling freed Black Americans was a way to avoid everything the promise of emancipation.

"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." (Evans, 2022)

Editor's Note & Possible Connections:

As a Northern Virginia native, my mind takes me to the founding of Lincolnia Virginia in Fairfax County. Lincolnia's origins trace back to the aftermath of the Civil War. As enslaved people gained freedom, many, like those in Lincolnia, sought to establish communities where they could build new lives. This burgeoning settlement, initially referred to as "Freedom Hill," became a haven for formerly enslaved families seeking self-determination and belonging.

Considering the survivors of Lincoln's experiment were sent to Alexandria, Virginia, at the same timeframe, I'm curious to make the connection between the experiment and the settlement of Lincolnia Virginia. Attempts to find documented connections between these two moments in history did not result in any firm connections.

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Thus, I conclude this article with a Call to Action: If you your family has roots in the Lincolnia community and if there's a family member who can recall the oral history, please reach out by emailing (or click the link below) as we'd like to follow up with oral histories. Think about it, a Baby Boomer in your family may remember the stories passed down from their grandparents. We need to document this information.

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