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How Britain impeded the first 'Back to Africa movement': while today's migratory patterns reveal an outward flow of people from Africa seeking better lives for themselves in Europe, there was a time when people living in Europe desperately sought asylum in Africa. Carina Ray continues her Tales from the Archives.

The "Back to Africa" movement is virtually synonymous with Marcus Garvey (1887-1940), the Jamaican-born activist and founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). Outraged by the oppression of people of African descent in every corner of the globe he travelled to, Garvey envisioned UNIA as an instrument to uplift the black masses. His rallying cry, "Africa for the Africans", was both a demand for African independence and a call for Africans in the Diaspora to return to the motherland.

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His plan to repatriate large numbers of Diasporan Africans to the continent was, however, not without precedent. Understudied in comparison to Garvey, Chief Alfred Charles Sam launched the "African Movement" in 1914, which attempted to resettle African-Americans in West Africa. Chief Sam was born around 1879 in the Gold Coast (now Ghana) and spent his early years in Akyem Takyiman and Akyem Swedru. Schooled by the Basel Mission, his parents hoped he would become a missionary, but Sam had other plans. At the turn of the century, he entered into commerce, specialising in the cocoa and rubber trades. Success in the cocoa industry allowed him to travel to New York in 1911 where he founded the Akim Trading Company to promote trade between Africa, Europe and the United States. Among the company's chief aims was the purchase of a ship to transport freight and passengers to and from West Africa. In 1912, Sam returned to the Gold Coast where he set up several branches of his company. He also purchased land from Okyenhene Kwamin Dokyi in Apoli near the meeting point of the Pra and Birim rivers.

News of Sam's land purchase in the Gold Coast filtered back to America through the African League newspaper, headquartered in Mississippi. Several leading African-Americans, involved in an Oklahoma-based emigration society, contacted Sam to find out whether his land could be used for the settlement of African-Americans from Oklahoma. In turn, Sam enquired with a number of chiefs in Akyem who apparently agreed to receive the African-American settlers and to make land available to them.

It was at this point that Sam turned his attention away from trade to focus on an immigration scheme. Such was the enthusiasm of the prospective African-American immigrants that upon Sam's return to the United States in 1913, he was quickly able to raise large sums of money to fund the scheme. Potential settlers purchased stock in his newly constituted Akim Trading Company Limited which entitled them to free passage to the Gold Coast. By January 1914, Sam had accumulated $69,000 to purchase a German-built steamer, Curityba.

As his plan picked up speed, he was beset by a series of criminal charges levelled by state and national authorities in the US who were suspicious of his activities and motives. British officials in the Gold Coast were also wary of Sam's business dealings, but none of the accusations proved to be true. When legal impediments failed to curb Sam's plans, the British authorities launched a campaign to discourage African-Americans from joining Sam's "African movement".

Amongst the African-Americans who contacted British officials in an attempt to verify the credibility of Sam, was Dr. James E. Guess of Clarksville, Oklahoma. Guess wanted to be sure that "this country Gold Coast Africa desires the emigration of negroes from the USA". Furthermore, he wished to ascertain whether "Chief Sam is acting in good faith and by authority of your kingdom or by your knowledge or consent".

The British Colonial Office informed Guess that Sam was not "acting under the direction of the government of the Gold Coast Colony, nor with the knowledge or consent of HM's government." To this, it was added that "for climatic and other reasons the emigration of American negroes to West Africa could not be arranged".

The British government's efforts to dissuade the hopeful immigrants from settling in the Gold Coast largely failed. The campaign of harassment launched against Sam by American and British authorities did, however, succeed in slowing the pace and shrinking the size of the movement. Conceived originally as a plan to resettle upwards of 500 immigrants, in the end Sam was only able to transport 60 of them to the Gold Coast.

On the morning of 21 August 1914, the Curityba, renamed Liberia by Sam, departed from Galveston, Texas, for the Gold Coast. Who were the trailblazing settlers onboard the Liberia? The vast majority came from proud and often prosperous all-black towns in Oklahoma, which at the time were being eroded by white encroachment that was intensely racist in character.

Noted scholars of Sam's "African Movement", William Bittle and Gilbert Geis aptly characterise the immigrants' desire to "escape" to the Gold Coast as a pro-active solution rather than a reaction to defeat: "Faced with bitter ambiguity, no longer certain of the direction which they should take, Oklahoma [blacks] fell upon Sam as they had upon no other person in their history. To them, Sam represented an escape which they believed was a solution, but he also represented removal to a land where they could continue their conceived roles as leaders, pioneers of prestige and importance. They were not skulking off to Africa as beaten men and women, but they were instead returning proudly to their homeland, full of the ideas that residence in America had taught them and equipped with the skills which had made their nation famous."

Although many of the returnees were agriculturalists, there were quite a few who came from other occupational backgrounds. M.A. Sorrell was a former state court judge, Owen J. Parker was a chapel minister and B. Taylor was a carpenter. Two other men were listed as cooks and one as a mechanic. Of the female returnees, a Mrs. Hall was identified as a school-mistress and Lucile Garrett a stenographer. Significantly, three women appear to have embarked on the journey alone: two being single, while the third may have been a widow. Approximately 10 married couples were among the returnees.

The Liberia's cross-Atlantic journey took four months and was made more perilous by the outbreak of World War I. In December 1914, the ship reached Bathurst (now Banjul, the capital of The Gambia) and shortly thereafter proceeded to Freetown, Sierra Leone. Sam and the immigrants were warmly welcomed by the Freetown branch of the Anti-Slavery and Aborigines Protection Society and were hailed by the city's elite as a shining example of the kind of immigration scheme that could foster the development of the African continent independent of European intervention.

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The group proceeded to the Gold Coast in January 1915. The independent Gold Coast Leader newspaper, which enthusiastically supported the "African Movement", reported that Sam's party was cordially received by a number of Gold Coast chiefs and leading citizens of Saltpond, where the Liberia had anchored. In marked contrast, the British colonial authorities went out of their way to prevent the immigrants from leaving the ship. During the course of the Liberia's voyage, the British colonial government in the Gold Coast had hastily passed "The Regulation of Immigrants Ordinance, 1914" in response to their impending arrival.

While the colony's governor, Sir Hugh Clifford, readily admitted that he had no power to "exclude aliens from the colony", he stated that "at his discretion under Ordinance No. 4 of 1914, [he could] require a money deposit to be made where immigrants are landed, so that their repatriation, if they become destitute, can be paid for without any charge being made upon public funds". He subsequently used the order to require the African-American immigrants to deposit [pounds sterling]25 in order to get off the ship.

That this ordinance was enacted in a discriminatory manner towards Sam's party is further suggested by the colonial administration's cotemporaneous welcoming of a proposal to accept Chinese labourers into the colony without payment of a deposit. While the colonial government stood on firmer ground in its assumption that Chinese labourers, by the very nature of their contractual obligations to work in the Gold Coast, would be less likely than African-Americans to become destitute, its concern that climatic factors would adversely affect African-American settlement was bigotry disguised as altruism.

Surely Chinese men who were being encouraged to come to the colony to perform hard labour in the goldmines didn't have a better chance of survival than African-Americans who were returning home primarily to do agricultural work. While the colonial government was clearly trying to avoid a situation whereby the immigrants became a financial liability, it is not unlikely that they also feared that the immigrants' presence might destabilise colonial race relations. After its inception in 1914, the Ordinance was continually amended in ways that expanded its power to prevent a range of "undesirable immigrants" from entering the colony. Chief on the list of those defined as "undesirable" were those that posed a threat to the colony's racial hierarchy.

Only 18 settlers were able (or willing) to pay the deposit and "legally" entered the colony. They were joined by another 22 settlers who evaded the authorities and headed inland to Akyem Swedru to survey the land that Sam had acquired for them.

While there, four of them died and another succumbed to malarial fever in the settler encampment at Anamabo. Those who did not pay the deposit were eventually rounded up and taken back to the ship at Saltpond; the rest set up a camp at Apoli on the banks of the Birim River where they planned to build a town with the help of the local inhabitants. The number of those who paid their deposit eventually rose to 33, but in the end 12 requested to have their deposits refunded and returned to Saltpond. Conditions aboard the Liberia quickly deteriorated as the ship had sustained considerable damage over the course of the journey and the food supply dwindled rapidly.

Recognising how desperate their situation had become and hoping to avoid an upsurge in discontent, Acting Governor Slater allowed the 50 or so passengers on the ship to land regardless of whether or not they could pay their deposit.

With few available solutions and even fewer resources, Sam travelled to Axim on the border with Cote d'Ivore in an attempt to arrange for an American steamer to transport the immigrants back to the United States. The Central Province's commissioner further urged the government to cover the cost of their repatriation if Sam were unable to. In the meantime, the Omanhene of Anamabo provided the immigrants there with food, while those in Saltpond were maintained by Sam's business associate, Kwamin Baah.

By late June 1915, Sam appears to have cut his ties with the immigrants. Shortly thereafter most of them returned penniless and with dashed hopes to America aboard the HMS Abosso. Several remained in the Gold Coast, while others travelled to Nigeria, hoping to make their homes there.

Sam's "African Movement" indisputably fell short of its visionary aims, but its unfortunate end should not overshadow its pathbreaking antecedents.

Further Reading:

1) William Bittle and Gilbert Geis, "Alfred Charles Sam and an African Return: A Case Study in Negro Despair," Phylon, 23, 2 (1962).

2) William Bittle and Gilbert Geis, "The Longest Way Home: Chief Alfred C. Sam back-to-Africa Movement" (Detroit, Wayne State University Press: 1964).

3) J. Ayo Langley, "Chief Sam's Movement and Race Consciousness in West Africa" in Phylon, 23, 2 (1971).
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Title Annotation:Tales from the archives
Author:Ray, Carina
Publication:New African
Geographic Code:60AFR
Date:Dec 1, 2005
Words:1889
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