(1895) John H. Smyth, “The African in Africa and the African in America”

Americo-Liberian settlements, 1874
Map of Liberia (Philadelphia: A. Finley, 1830)
Courtesy U.S. Library of Congress (96680499)

Virginia-born John Henry Smyth, late 19th Century lawyer and diplomat, had spent nearly five years as the U.S. Minister to Liberia, representing both President Rutherford B. Hayes and Chester A. Arthur.  He was given an L.L. D. degree by Liberia College and appointed Knight Commander of the Liberia Order of African Redemption by Liberia’s President H. Richard Wright Johnson.  In the speech below, given in 1895 at the Cotton States Exposition (where Booker T. Washington made his most famous address) Smyth discussed the nexus between Africans and African Americans.

The fact will be readily admitted by those most familiar with the sentiment of a large and not unimportant portion of our American citizenship, who, by the fortunes and misfortunes of war, viewed from the standpoint of one or the other combatants of the sanguinary struggle of 1861—62—63—64, were made equal before the law with all other citizens, that as a class they are averse to the discussion of Africa when their relationship with that ancient and mysterious land and its races is made the subject of discourse or reflection. The remoteness of Africa from America may be a reason for such feeling; the current opinion in the minds of the Caucasians, whence the American Negroes’ opinions are derived, that the African is by nature an inferior man, may be a reason. The illiteracy, poverty, and degradation of the Negro, pure and simple, as known in Christian lands, may be a reason in connection with the partially true and partially false impression that the Negroes, or Africans, are pagan and heathen as a whole, and as a sequence hopelessly degraded beings. These may be some of the reasons that make the subject of Africa discordant and unmusical to our ears. It is amid such embarrassments that the lecturer, the orator, the missionary must present Africa to the Negro in Christian America.

In view of recent newspaper articles about migration of Negroes to Liberia, so much has been recently said by men of African descent of prominence, and by men of like prominence of uncertain descent, and by men of other races than the Negro, of Liberia and Africa generally, that I deem it a duty as an American citizen and a Negro, in vindication of the men and women of like descent with myself, citizens of the United States, to state some facts explanatory of and in rebuttal of much that has been said, ignorantly, unwisely and un sympathetically, to the detriment of the effort being made at self- government in Liberia, West Africa. The people who constitute the inhabitants and citizenship of Liberia (the largest portion of the latter class are American Negroes from the Southern part of the United States) are possessed of and imbued with the sentiment and the civilization peculiar to this section of our country. That these immigrant Negroes who migrated to West Africa, or began migrations as far back as 1820, and who continue to go thither, have a better field there, with less embarrassing environment, to prove their capacity for self-government, for leadership in State-craft than their brethren in the northern, western and southern portions of the United States, will scarcely be seriously denied or questioned. This conceded, it seems to me that wisdom, self-respect, race loyalty, and American patriotism would show themselves richer to withhold judgment as to the success of the experiment being made in Africa for self-government until such time as this immigrant people and their descendants have lived in Liberia, Sierra Leone, the Gold Coast, the Camaroons and other parts of West Africa long enough to assimilate the sentiment of liberty and rule, the general heritage and possession of the native African, than it has shown itself in echoing the expression of opinion of white men, whatever their learning or literary capacity, who estimate the progress of the Negro by the standard of their own race with its superior opportunities, advantages and facilities.

Until we have demonstrated ability for organization, for government, and have shown effective cohesiveness and leadership here in the United States, it may be a little immodest to hastily and unadvisedly make up the record adverse to our immediate kith and kin, who less than sixty years ago made the first step on lines of independent form of government of themselves, and have successfully maintained themselves against the greed of Spain, the aggrandizement of France, and the envy and cupidity of the merchant class of England without active assistance or defense of our formidable North African squadron; without an army and without more than one gunboat, the property of the Republic.

Liberia is the only democratic republican form of government on the continent of Africa of which we have any knowledge. The civilization of the people constituting the majority of the citizenship of Liberia is American. It embraces that phase of our American system which has made the autonomy of the south distinct from that of all other parts of our common country. This is the resultant of the outgrowth of the laws and customs of the severalty as well as the jointness of that system of government which exists in the South. In so far as the civilization of the United States on analysis is differentiated as northern, southern, eastern, and western, and in the south as Virginian, Carolinian, Georgian, it may be said, that the people composing the nation have transferred such American phases of goverfln1t to this part of Africa.

The pioneers of this colony, the descendants of them, and the immigrants that have gone from here at varying periods of time within sixty years, like those of us who have remained, have been the unhappy victims of the influences of an alien, racial oppression; are fragme1ts of races and tribes, and lack much in capacity for maintaining a stable form of government without the aid which comes from the moral support of the United States. But notwithstanding the embarrassments and difficulties of this youthful nation, the elements of success are being gradually, surely and deeply laid in industrial and agricultural concerns. The masses of the people are directing their effort to agriculture, the development of the soil, and are leaving the matter of coast-commerce or barter to the few.

No epitome or summary of Liberia would be worthy of the name which failed to take note of the renaissance of education under the scholarly Blyden and Freeman, both of whom have been presidents of Liberia College. When the former scholar came to the presidency of the college, then was commenced the work of the adaptation of the training of the youth for the definitive and distinct purpose of advancing the nation on the line of race. This institution has sent forth strong Negro men, who are unperverted in their instincts, strong in their race loyalty, and unhampered by a civilization upon which the individuality of the race is not stamped. Such a civilization, unmodified, is unsuited to the African in Africa, or out of Africa and although it may develop him religiously, in manly, self-reliant feeling, it will make him a weakling and will be destructive of true manhood, self-respect and race integrity.

It is lamentable that two hundred and fifty years have removed us to a far greater distance from Africa than the geographical measurement which separates America from Africa, and to-day that continent is perhaps of less interest to the educated and refined Negro of America than to his thrifty, industrious and adventurous white fellow-citizen.

The wrong done us here in America, the wrong done us in Turkey in Asia, and Turkey in Europe, and Constantinople, is being recognized at the center of Anglo-Saxon civilization, as is honestly indicated by utterances such as these: “It is too late to ask, ‘Are we our brother’s keeper?’”  Three centuries ago the plea might have seemed specious, but since then Europe has made itself guilty towards Africa of the blackest series of crimes that stain the foul record of civilized history. The actual appalling state of things in Africa is the result of the policy of Europe towards the African races. European contact has brought in its train not merely the sacrifice, amid unspeakable horrors, of the lives and liberties of twenty million Negroes for the American market alone, but political disintegration, social anarchy, moral and physical debasement, the decay of the simple arts and industries which had been developed during centuries of undisturbed and uneventful existence. Christian Europe, it is true, no longer openly tolerates the slave trade, but Christian Europe furnishes the arms by means of which the slave trade is carried on. The European explorer paves the way for the Arab man-hunter; in his track follow not the blessings of civilization, but conflagration, rapine, and murder, and European trade, while extinguishing native handicrafts, places within the African’s grasp the power of self-destruction by spirits and of mutual destruction by firearms.

I am aware that it will be insisted by some who have failed to give this matter the consideration which it merits, that we are a part of the greatest composite nationality, and therefore, any influence that would make the Negro less American and more African than he is, would be injurious to the best interest of our American nation. I would gladly impress upon persons entertaining such thoughts, that race allegiance is compatible with patriotism, with love of the land that gave us birth. This has been abundantly shown to be true with reference to the Jews. Whatever doubts may be entertained upon this point on account of their wide religious divergence from other religionists, must undergo a change in the presence of the admonition given in a missive sent to Israel by the Prophet Jeremiah, and which has been faithfully conformed to by Israel and the descendants of Israel: “Serve the King of Babylon, and live. Build ye houses and dwell in them; and plant gardens and eat the fruits of them. And seek the welfare of the city whither I have caused you to be carried away captives, and pray unto the Lord for it; for in the peace thereof shall ye have peace.”

Though we are a part of this great national whole, we are a distinct and separate part, an alien part racially, and destined to be so by the immutable law of race pride, which is possessed by our white fellow-citizens, if not by us. The sentiment, the something stronger than sentiment which makes an English American proud of his connection with Britain, a French American proud of his connection with La Belle France, and a German American fondly attached to the memories of the fatherland, and all European races of their Aryan descent, has something that partakes of the moral sublime. Truly “language and religion do not make a race.”

The characteristics, peculiarities, idiosyncrasies and habits have been determined by what has been displayed and noted of Negroes under influences foreign to them and beyond their control. This has been the cause of inaccurate knowledge of the races of Africa on the part of the whites, and inaccurate knowledge on the part of the negroes themselves.

The Civilized Negro here has but recently emerged from slavery and been recognized a freeman; and though guaranteed in the possession of political rights, is still hampered by his inability to understand himself, by the conviction that on account of the political unity of the races here, his end must be reached by pursuit of the same line followed by the controlling races.

The condition of the race past and present here makes the American Negro African, without the peculiarities of his race; and African only as to the hue of his skin and his blood. The black man here is Americanized, and as a sequence, sectionalized.
Now the difference between Africa in America, and Africa in Africa being recognized, let us look to Africa in Africa. The races of Africa have not been a subject of Caucasian study.

The Egyptian, Carthaginian, and Moorish people are imperfectly known, and the interior, eastern, western races, are still more imperfectly understood, and for very prudential reasons,—the uncompromising conditions of climate toward European peoples, and the almost insuperable difficulties of ingress to the country.

The testimony of Africans, distinguished for their knowledge of their countrymen, for their learning and character, should be looked to, and consulted as authorities in these matters. The Arku and Ebo races are not to be known through the flippant and inconsiderate statements of some ignorant European who finds to his surprise and annoyance that he cannot successfully take advantage of them in a business transaction, and as a consequence declares the former people a deceptive, ignorant class, and the latter an insolent, lazy set. You are to read the history of these races in the light of what the learned Dr. Africanus Horton has written in his “Africa and the Africans,” and what his lordship Bishop Crowther experienced in his successful labor of love among his own and other races.

A comprehensive knowledge of the Christian, Mohammedan, and heathen Africans of Central and West Africa must be read in the light of the full and exhaustive information to be found in the writings of Edward W. Blyden, D.D., LL.D., late president of Liberia’s college. Christianity in the third and fourth centuries among the Africans must be studied, in the Africans’ fathers, and in Lloyd’s North African Church and in Abyssinian traditions.

The missionary work in West Africa in the fifteenth century may be read in the voluminous Spanish and Portuguese and Italian state papers and travels. A few most valuable ones as to the Congo races are to be found in an English translation made during the reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth. Bishops Crowther and Colenso may be read on African character with profit. There are two classics, African, which should be read: A. H. L. Heeren, African Researches, and a portion of Herodotus.

For quite fair treatment of African character, French and German explorations are interesting, and in English, Mungo Park, Livingstone, and Gordon Pasha.

Having directed attention to the means and some of the sources to be relied on for facts concerning native African character, I now point to some illustrations of error and wrong in dealing with the African in Africa.

It is not to our century alone that we are to look for active but mistaken effort to christianize Africa. There has existed no African mission, which, in the same period of time, attained to such proportions as the Portuguese mission in the Congo region (luring the fifteenth century. A cathedral and churches adorned, beautified, and glorified that portion of West Africa, and a Congo gentleman, after pursuing the necessary course of study in Spain prescribed for the priesthood, was made a bishop, and returned to his country to carry on the work of christianizing his people through the religion of Catholic Rome. All this work passed away. The ships which brought priests as outward passengers took the human product of the race back as homeward cargo. The theory and practice of the European being in opposition, the one to the other, tile work perished. The fetich of the cross in the hands of the Portuguese did not deter them from knavery and theft and murder, and the Congoes concluded that their fetiches were less harmful than the alien Portuguese.

Africans cannot be influenced by aliens, who, however Christian, seek to subvert their manhood. With the African at home, service to God and service to his fetich will not be yielded if manhood be the sacrifice.

He may be forced to accept a dogma or a religion, but will not receive either under such circumstances. Alien races can aid the progress of Christianity and civilization among Africans, but cannot control it with hope of ultimate success in Africa.

In the British colony of Sierra Leone opportunity is afforded to study native character, as at no other place with which I am acquainted. The representatives of not less than a hundred tribes may be seen here and of not a few races. Here one may see the stately and grave Mandingo, the diplomatic Sosoo, the frail but handsome Foulah, and the paragon of men, the magnificent Jollof, “his complexion free from any taint of Abyssinian blue or Nubian bronze, intensely, lustrously, magnificently black.”

Of the foregoing races there has been no acceptance of anything of foreign civilization. These races represent a very high and unique type of Mohammedanism and Arabic training. They have adopted the religion of the Prophet and made it to conform to themselves. They have written their own commentaries on the sacred book. They are not controlled by the Arab, the Persian, or the Turk as to their conception of the Koran. Their women share in common with the men in the instructions of the masters. But there are two distinct races here, and some of each of them in Liberia, the Ebo and Arku races, among whom is displayed the highest type of English civilization, with their free, unhampered peculiarities and idiosyncrasies. These two races control and direct commercial interest in Sierra Leone, on the Gold Coast and at Lagos, and have brought peace to war and order from confusion in the independent Negro nations of Abeokuta.
Among these races, in religion are the Crowthers; in medical and surgical science, the Davises and Hortons; in jurisprudence, the Lewises and McCarthys; in pure scholarship, the Blydens, Coles, and Quakers; in the mercantile profession, the Boyles, Williams, Grants, and Sawyers. The time was when these two races were opposed to each other, but happily much of the tribal hatred has been destroyed by contact and education. These people are distinct in their bent of character. The Arku race is marked by a suavity of manner, a disposition to please, which borders on obsequiousness, and are industrious. They live upon a very little that they may save very much. They are never found to be improvident. The women make most affectionate wives, and have no peers in the world in their disposition to prove themselves helpmeets. It is said that the refusal by a husband to allow an Arku wife to help him, not infrequently causes marital difficulties. She prefers to trade than to remain indoors attending to her domestic affairs and babies. In complexion this race represents the average dark complexion of the American Negro.

The Ebo is a proud, daring race. They are always industrious are fond of display, and in their hospitality are ostentatious. j may be asserted that there exists no evidence to show these people ever to have been pagan, in their home on the Niger or elsewhere As a race they have never received either Christianity or Mohammedanism, but claim to believe sincerely in God. Those in the British colony have assimilated Christianity and some have attained to the highest culture and refinement. The first Negro graduate of Oxford was an Ebo. The most distinguished physician—Negro physician. living up to 1884 was Dr. Horton, an Ebo. The knowledge of reading, and writing and ciphering, in short, rudimentary training in this colony, has been very thorough. To Wilberforce and Venn be lasting honor and praise for their effective work in the British colonies of West Africa.

The principal races here are Mandingos, Kru and Graybo and Bassa people, cognate races; Veys, Golas and Pesseys. My contact has been with these races in the civilized settlements, and in their own towns and villages. It would be a task to describe them with the accuracy their tribal and racial differences merit.

The Golas as a race are courageous and intrepid, and kindly in their relation with the Americo-Liberian, preferring peace with them to war. The Pesseys, once a martial race, have by internal dissension and wars with other races, to an alarming extent lost their independence and many of that once noble race have been made captives to other peoples and slaves. As slaves they are highly valued, being indefatigable laborers, and therefore admired bondsmen by their masters. Their language has the softness and liquid sweetness of Italian, being in striking contrast to the harshness of the Kru and Greybo tongue.

I should perhaps leave an impression which would be misleading as to Liberia and Africa unless I be more explicit. if you have observed, in any utterance of mine, anything about Africa which seems to possess in itself or as to the races of that continent, a roseate hue, be pleased to remember that 1 have faintly, and with unartistic hand, shown you a part of this garden of the Lord and limned its inhabitants with the pencil and brush of an amateur; and I appeal to Mungo Park, the sainted Livingstone, Barth, Schweinfurth, Nachtigal, and I may risk Stanley in the rear of this galaxy of friends of Africa, for more accurate data and for larger and fuller experiences. But I may astound you when I say that Africa fears not the invasion of her shores by Europe and the rightful acquisition of her territory, and that no Negro who knows Africa regards the European’s advent there as a menace to the progress and advancement of her races, except when they bring with them rum and fire-arms. I am profoundly, and have been since I first stepped upon the soil of my fatherland in 1878, an African colonizationist, but I am so in a strictly qualified sense, as is shown in the official statement made to my and your government—-made from the United States Consulate General, Monrovia, under the date of February 21, 1883.

It may not be inopportune or out of place to say, in the interest of the prospective immigrant and in the interest of Liberia, that it is perhaps unwise for persons to emigrate here simply for the purpose of being free and enjoying complete civil liberty and social equality. The State is young, and, though poor in developed resources, is vigorous in purpose and effort, and needy only of additional influences of civilization which are possessed by those who, at their homes, have displayed the ability of independent labor and proprietorship. That is to say, that the man needed as an immigrant here is one who, in his home, displays industry and fixedness of purpose sufficient to cause him to stick at work of some kind until he has earned and saved enough to purchase a comfortable home, is competent to control it and does control it, or a man who has entered upon a business and has self-denial enough to continue in it to the end of respectably supporting himself and family, or who has made himself a boss of some supporting trade—a man who is not directly dependent upon being a common servant, and who is not an ignorant laborer incapable of turning up something by his innate good sense and the God-given push within him.

As a clear understanding of the conditions of labor here is important to that class of foreign Negroes who contemplate settlement here. The possession of a few hundred dollars, skill in labor, and executive ability, constitute a capital that cannot but secure a most comfortable living here with a probability of wealth.

Unless the Negro out of Africa goes to Africa seeking a home because he has none; goes of his own volition, with as correct a knowledge of Africa as may be obtained from the writings of trustworthy African travelers and explorers and missionaries, reinforced by race loyalty, and with greater confidence in himself and his race than in any alien self and alien race; goes from a sense of duty imposed by his Christian enlightenment, and not unprovided with ability and previous experience to organize and control labor, with as ample means as he would go with from the Atlantic coast of the United States to the Pacific slope for the purpose of engaging in business, he is wholly and entirely unsuited for Africa, and would impede by his presence not only the progress of Liberia (if he went thither), but any part of Africa by his unprofitable presence, and ought to be denied the right to expatriate himself.

If by anything that I have said you have been impressed with the fact that you are descendants of African races and as a consequence that you are a separate and distinct people from Caucasian races, and that the highest excellence to which an individual can attain must be to work according to the best of his genius, and the other to work in harmony with God’s design in his creation, on his race line; if I have impressed you at all with the wisdom or propriety of confiding in the highest Negro authorities and the best alien writings, for reliable data respecting our race in the fatherland, and thereby awakened in you an interest and sincere desire for the well being of Africa and her races, for our people, and for accurate information that most ancient, and most mysterious of lands; then I feel conscious of having made a contribution of information not wholly valueless to my countrymen that may tend to modify and dissipate general ignorance of us and of our antecedents and their country; and I have done something toward awakening your dormant self-respect, and given you some conception of the dignity which attaches to Negro manhood, and created in you a preference for your race before all other races; and this sentiment, if produced, will place you en rapport with the Negroes in Africa, who have no conception of any land greater, more beautiful than their own; any men braver and manlier than themselves, any women better, lovlier, and handsomer than African women. Then you will retire from this place with a feeling of stimulus rather than of satiety, of unrest rather than of repose; then shall I retire from my effort to interest you in Africa in Africa, and Africa in America with satisfied pride in having performed something of duty as a Negro—clear in his conviction of the high destiny in reserve for Africa and its races, and of your duty to be loyal to the race, since true allegiance will make us sharers in that glory which the sacred writing declares shall come, when Ethiopia shall stretch forth her hand unto God.