'The Lincoln Colony': Aaron Columbus Burr's Proposed Colonization of British Honduras

Article excerpt

In August 1860, Aaron Columbus Burr, a leading New York jewelry merchant and importer, received a letter from James Grant of British Honduras, offering land for sale in Stann Creek and Belize.(1) He had sold some of his property in 1858, but the buyer failed to deliver the promised amount. So Grant repossessed the property and wrote to Burr, who had written to him earlier with an inquiry about the land, presumably with an eye to expanding into some international holdings.

Grant's letter details the crops and benefits of the land and surrounding territory. The major crops for export were mahogany and coconuts, and the settlement of Stann Creek, located on the water, promised an ease of transportation that the other mahogany companies in the area, cutting two hundred miles inland, did not enjoy. Grant pointed out to Burr that those companies suffered extraordinarily high costs of transportation that anyone who invested in his lands would not suffer. The lower transportation costs Grant enjoyed with his coastal location meant any buyer could undercut the competition, and the popularity of mahogany in building nineteenth-century furniture seemed to promise any new owner considerable profits.(2)

Grant asked $65,000 for a lot in the capital city of Belize, the land in Stann Creek, and the mahogany works. The available labor supply, he wrote, could be provided by Carib Indians who already lived on the land. Not only were they experienced loggers, but the brickworks at Stann Creek also employed them. Despite any racial concerns, it would be cheaper, said Grant, to hire them than to pay them to move away and hire white workers.(3)

Burr continued to pursue the purchase of land, but by the following spring, he introduced the idea that the land would be promoted as a haven for freed blacks. Political matters in the United States were heading toward civil war by February of 1861, when Grant reiterated his price to Burr, and Burr must have requested more information on the political status that would be enjoyed by any free black emigres. Grant explained that an 1855 act granted immigrants a twenty-one-year process for achieving naturalization, but that aliens could own property as long as they paid their taxes.(4) This important fact established, Aaron Columbus Burr began to contemplate founding the "Lincoln Colony," a federally sponsored colony in British Honduras for freed slaves. Burr's attempt to found a colony for freed African Americans in South America exemplifies the complexity of motivations that characterized many supporters of the various colonization movements in the United States in the years prior to and during the Civil War.(5) He combined humanitarian motives with economic self-interest and included an awareness of national security concerns in his drive to found the Lincoln Colony.(6)

The prospect of colonizing freed blacks outside American territory had a long history and had sparked the formation of the American Colonization Society in 1817. The idea had strong support and equally strong opposition from its inception. Supporters argued that racism in America precluded any integrated society and that freed African Americans would be better off in a nation located within the "homeland" of Africa. Opponents argued that America was the native land of blacks, who ought to be granted all the privileges of their birthright, and that attempts to remove them were not only unfair but also absurd, since most black Americans by the nineteenth century were native-born and came from families that had been in the United States for generations.

Various colonization schemes were undertaken in the years prior to the civil war, the most famous being the west African colony of Liberia, which was settled in 1822 and was an independent republic by 1847. By the 1850s, some black writers such as the Reverend Lewis Woodson of Pittsburgh and Martin R. Delaney, a physician and newspaper editor, had linked black emigration with a black nationalist movement. …