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Africans, African Americans, Great Britain and the United States: The Curious History of the Rio Pongo in the Early 19th Century

In the essay below, Bruce L. Mouser, Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, describes the conflicting goals of African Creoles, African Americans, and British and American colonizationists in the fate of the Rio Pongo Valley along the West Coast of Africa.  Mouser explores these conflicts in his history of the period called American Colony on the Rio Pongo: The War of 1812, the Slave Trade, and the Proposed Settlement of African Americans, 1810-1830.    

The Rio Pongo, on Africa’s western coast, was the center of an unusual history that briefly brought together slaveholders and colonizationists, Africans and African Americans, and British and American diplomatic interests in an attempt to decide the fate of the region. The slaveholders who were African and the white supporters of African-American settlement contemplated meeting in the unlikely setting of the Rio Pongo as each group sought to impose its vision on this small region of West Africa.

The Rio Pongo, which had its origins in the highlands of Fuuta Jalon in what is now the Republic of Guinea, had been a hotbed of the slave trade since the early 1700s. It eventually attracted a number of European and American traders who set up permanent residence in the area, marrying or partnering into commercial families, some of which were aristocratic. Over time the descendants of these unions created a mixed-race Creole population and culture which effectively dominated the region’s commerce by the beginning of the 19th Century.  

These powerful Creole families, although rooted in the Rio Pongo, extended their horizons far beyond West Africa.  Many of them regularly travelled the Atlantic trade routes between Liverpool and London, England; Charleston, South Carolina; Havana, Cuba; and the Rio Pongo. Some maintained separate residences and families in two or more of those places. Stiles Lightbourn, Paul Faber, and Zebulon Miller likely spent more time transporting goods across the Atlantic than they spent with family in the Pongo.

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