Racism, Empire, and Africa in Uncle Tom‘s Cabin
For two hundred and twenty-eight years has the colored man toiled
over the soil of America, under a burning sun and a driver’s lash—
plowing, planting, reaping, that white men might roll in ease, their
hands unhardened by labor, and their brows unmoistened by the
waters of genial toil, and now that the moral sense of mankind is
beginning to revolt at this system of foul treachery and cruel wrong,
and is demanding its overthrow, the mean and cowardly oppres-
sor is mediating plans to expel the colored man entirely from the
country. Shame upon the guilty wretches that dare propose, and all
that countenance such as a proposition. We live here—have lived
here—have a right to live here, and mean to live here.
—Frederick Douglass, The North Star, 26 January 1849
UNCLE TOM’S CABIN (1852) ends with George and Eliza Harris and their children, plus George’s sister, mother, and half brother, as well as Topsy—all free at last and safely residing in Canada—departing for Liberia as colonists. With Tom dead, a martyr to the system of U.S. slavery that Harriet Beecher Stowe has attacked for almost four hundred pages, the author sends these free blacks “back” to Africa, despite abolitionists’ vehement and wellknown objections to the very idea of African colonization. Why?
This essay examines how antislavery perspectives, mainstream white racism, Christian evangelicalism, and unwavering belief in the righteousness of Western imperialism come together in Uncle Tom’s Cabin to create a narrative conclusion that at best compromises and at worst undercuts the novel’s liberatory claims.1
During the decade that led to Stowe’s antislavery novel, Western imperial powers invaded what seemed to be every corner of the earth in the name of capitalism, Christianity, and “civilization.” In 1842, the Treaty of Nanking