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The “Black Poor” and the Sierra Leone Colony
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In 1786, a group of businessmen led by Jonas Hanway organised the “Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor” to help the many poor and unemployed black men who were stranded in London at this time. The Committee offered free medical treatment and food to poor blacks from January 1786, and in April added a small cash payment of 6d per person (six old pence; maybe £2 in today's money). But the numbers of people needing help were much larger than they expected, and by May they had run out of funds. At this point the government stepped in with extra money.

The government were not just helping out of charity. A plan was already being discussed to resettle London 's increasing numbers of poor black people in some other country, and by May that year a businessman named Henry Smeathman had persuaded both the Treasury and the Committee for the Black Poor to help him set up a colony in Sierra Leone . Smeathman, who had lived in Sierra Leone, made glowing claims for the climate and the fertility of the soil there, which the British government did not check in their eagerness to get rid of a group of people they saw as such a burden on them. They continued to put up the money for the daily payments of 6d, but announced that in future anyone accepting this payment was agreeing to be “resettled” overseas.

Smeathman died unexpectedly in July, but the scheme eventually went ahead under his associate, Joseph Irwin. Several hundred black men and women had by now been named as potential settlers, and Hanway chose eight of them as “Head Men” or "Corporals”, who agreed to help recruit others to the scheme. However, large numbers of the recruits were having doubts. Ottobah Cugoano , a black community leader, pointed out one reason for this: Sierra Leone was still a notorious slaving area, and “the wiser sort” would not go there “without some better plan for their security and safety.” When ships were provided for the colonists, only 259 – fewer than half the expected number – actually appeared. They were made to wait aboard the two ships while the authorities tried to find more settlers: they stopped giving money to anyone who had not signed an agreement to be resettled, and ordered the arrest of any black person found begging.

In November another important man in the black community, Olaudah Equiano, was appointed as Commissary of Provisions and Stores for the expedition – that is, put in charge of arranging for the clothing, food and other supplies needed for the settlers. He quickly realised that Irwin was guilty of “flagrant abuses”, leaving the people already on the ships without clothes or bedding while he pocketed the money. When Equiano complained about this he was labelled “turbulent and discontented”, and dismissed.

The colonists were forced to wait on board the ships for over four months, during which time many died from cold and disease. Around 400, including a number of whites, finally left England in April 1787, but 35 died on the voyage. On arrival in Sierra Leone they found that there had been no proper preparation for their arrival: their seeds would not grow; several were kidnapped by slavers and their town was burned by a local ruler. Four years later, only 60 of them had survived.




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