Friday, March 23, 2012

A footnote on Sanford, Florida

I have been, like so many others, mourning the death of Trayvon Martin and feeling outrage at the failure of authorities to bring charges against his confessed killer George Zimmerman. Martin's murder have brought new attention to the southern town of Sanford, Florida. Many have written of the recent history of racial injustice in the town. Sports columnist Dave Zirin has reached back to the first-half of the twentieth century to tell the story of the town’s harassment of baseball player Jackie Robinson. The town of Sanford has another less well-known history worth recovering as its founder and namesake, Henry Shelton Sanford, collaborated with King Leopold II of Belgium in his successful efforts to establish his brutal personal dominion over the Congo.

Abraham Lincoln appointed Sanford as a minister to Belgium during the Civil War. Sanford purchased thousands of acres of cheap land following the war and was one of the pioneers of the Florida citrus industry. He developed his businesses there erratically during the next two decades, while he pursued other imperial ambitions in central Africa.

Sanford tried to get another diplomatic post. After having his appointment as Ambassador to Belgium rejected by the Senate in 1877, Sanford took advantage of his political connections to get himself appointed as a lobbyist on behalf of Leopold’s International African Association, imagining a unique American relationship to the enterprise:

Near 5,000,000 of our people are of African race, descendants of slaves [....] The idea of this people, by the aid of the descendants of those who held them as slaves, returning to colonize and regenerate their parent country to extirpate the slave trade and introduce in that fertile region the cultures which they were told from their home to toil at across the ocean, is utterly attractive and one worthy of earnest promotion in the United States.[1]

One year later, in 1878, in a letter probably to U.S. Secretary of State William Evarts, Sanford was even more candid, “I think we more than any other country, will profit of it and an outlet will be found for the enterprise and ambition of our colored people in more congenial fields than politics.”[2] Following the end of the post-Civil War period of Radical Reconstruction, Sanford saw the Congo as an opportunity to redirect African American attention away from domestic political participation.

Sanford’s racist colonization plans were the linchpin for the involvement of his most important American ally, Senator John Tyler Morgan of Alabama.[3] Morgan, who advocated the removal of African Americans to Africa, also put forth a Senate resolution to task the Committee on Foreign Relations, on which he served, to investigate the potential for American commerce “in the Valley of the Congo River in Africa.”[4] The resolution passed unanimously in January 1884, and Morgan served on the two-member subcommittee charged with the assignment.[5] With Sanford and Morgan leading the way, the U.S. campaign on behalf of the Congo began a year before the Berlin Conference gave European sanction to Leopold’s supposedly philanthropic dominion over the Congo.

Remarkably, these extensive deliberations all took place before the formal establishment of l’État Indépendant du Congo at the Berlin Conference (where there were no Africans present).[6] Early recognition of Leopold’s dominion gave the United States a special relationship with and, activists would later argue, responsibility to, the Congo. Explorer Henry Morton Stanley, who Sanford recruited in 1878 on behalf of Leopold to undertake an expedition to the Congo and who quickly became the king’s most famous and important ally, was duly appreciative of U.S. support in the face of domestic and international opposition[7]: “The recognition of the United States was the birth unto new life of the Association, seriously menaced as its existence was by opposing interests and ambitions; and the following of this example by the European Powers has affirmed and secured its place among Sovereign States.”[8] President Arthur appointed Leopold’s lobbyist Sanford to lead the U.S. delegation, with the assistance of Stanley. Not surprisingly, under their leadership, the delegation approved the General Act at the Berlin Conference in February 1885.

In 1886, Sanford was granted a concession by a grateful Leopold to establish the Sanford Exploring Expedition in 1886 in the Congo, which was a failure and in 1888 it was taken over by Albert Thys’s Société Anonyme Belge pour l’Industrie et Commerce du Haut Congo, which became one of the great profiteers of the brutal rubber collection practices which took off in the 1890s.[9] Sanford died in 1891, but his legacy in the Congo and elsewhere remains.

[1] Qtd. in Francois Bontinck, Aux Origines de l’État Indépendant du Congo: Documents tirés d”Archives Américaines (Louvain, Belgium: Éditions Nauwelaerts, 1966), 16.

[2] Qtd. in Bontinck, Aux Origines de l’État Indépendant du Congo, 28-29. Though the letter is addressed to an unnamed recipient, Bontinck believes it to be Evarts. According to Sanford’s biographer, Joseph A. Fry, Evarts was a guest at Sanford’s Washington dinner parties in 1877. See Joseph A. Fry, Henry S. Sanford: Diplomacy and Business in Nineteenth-Century America (Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1982), 134.

[3] Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1999), 79-80; Joseph O. Baylen. “Senator John Tyler Morgan, E. D. Morel, and the Congo Reform Association.” Alabama Review 15 (1962): 118-120. See John Tyler Morgan, “The Future of the American Negro,” North American Review 139 (July 1884): 81-84.

[4] Qtd. in Bontinck, Aux Origines de l’État Indépendant du Congo, 162.

[5] Bontinck, Aux Origines de l’État Indépendant du Congo, 162-63.

[6] As a result of Berlin, European governments recognized either the International African Association or the International Association of the Congo, which Leopold unilaterally renamed l’État Indépendant du Congo in May 1885. See Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost, 87.

[7] Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost, 59-60.

[8] Henry M. Stanley, The Congo and the Founding of its Free State: A Story of Work and Exploration (1885; Detroit, MI: Negro History P, [1971]), 2:383.

[9] Fry, Henry S. Sanford, 157; 163.


daFunkDealer said...

Thanks for this piece, Prof. Dworkin.

Btw, where can one check out your 2003 (CUNY) book, _American Hearts_?


cairad said...

You're welcome. Thanks for the comment. The book is a dissertation, but I am happy to share what I have. Send me an email.


daFunkDealer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
daFunkDealer said...

Hey, Ira,

Thanks for letting me check out your diss. I will certainly cite you, no doubt. My email is

Have a good day, and I wish you well.

Kelvin Monroe.