Picturing Freedom's Shores: The Visual Culture of Liberian Colonization, 1821-1861

Schade, Jill, History of Art and Architecture - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Nelson, Louis, Department of Architectural History, University of Virginia

This dissertation examines how different actors used visual culture to promote and respond to the African colonization movement in the United States from 1821, the year of Liberia’s establishment by the American Colonization Society (hereafter, ACS), to 1861, the start of the American Civil War. Exploring a wide range of material including popular prints, book and newspaper illustration, paintings, settler architecture, daguerreotypes, and indigenous African material culture, I consider how Liberia functioned as an idea in the popular imaginations of various people on both sides of the Atlantic, including colonization promoters, Liberian settlers, abolitionists, the American public, and indigenous Africans. In doing so, I seek to fill noticeable gaps in two fields of literature: the study of race in antebellum American visual culture, which has yet to consider how colonization pictures were in conversation with popular antislavery imagery; and the history of the African colonization movement, which has overlooked the role of the visual in the Liberian settlement project.

Exploring the process of Liberian place creation that took place beyond the boundaries of written discourse, this dissertation demonstrates that the creation, reproduction, and transatlantic circulation of visual and material culture shaped the colonization movement and antebellum American culture in ways that scholars have yet to acknowledge. Examining how colonization iconography developed in conversation with popular anti-slavery visual culture, I argue that the colonization and abolition movements, though often antagonistic toward one another, were nevertheless more fluid and entangled than historians have traditionally recognized. Through an analysis of early maps of Liberia, I also demonstrate that the ACS’ desire to “civilize” the African continent was articulated in terms of spatial transformation using strategies that anticipated those of later European imperialists. While historians have been reticent to frame Liberian colonization within the context of early American imperialism, Liberian maps as well as the collection and public display of African artifacts in the United States – which contributed to the development of the myth of a “Dark Continent – reveal that the ACS’ settlement project indeed embodied a goal of establishing a “United States of Africa.” After Liberia’s transition to independence in 1847, I further contend, popular representations celebrating the young republic as a “coloured America on the shores of Africa” also reveal the contradictions and ironies inherent in the settlement process, as elite settlers ultimately established plantation landscapes dependent on the exploitation of indigenous labor.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Liberia, American Colonization Society, African Colonization Movement
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