Charting the journey in the journals of Daniel Coker, a descendant of Africa
by Rhondda R. Thomas
Daniel Coker (1780–1846), born Isaac Wright, was an African American and the first Methodist missionary to the British colony of Sierra Leone. Coker is one of the founding organizers of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) as well as the founder of the West Africa Methodist Church. Coker was born a slave in 1780 in Baltimore, Maryland, to a white Indentured servant mother and a black slave father in Baltimore. Coker received a primary school education because his white half brother refused to go to school without him. In 1802, Francis Asbury ordained Daniel Coker to be a deacon in the Methodist Episcopal church. He actively opposed slavery. In 1810, he published Dialogue between a Virginian and an African minister. (wikipedia)
On January 31, 1820, hundreds of well-wishers packed the African Church in New York City to commemorate the first voyage to Africa undertaken by the American Colonization Society (ACS). When the ceremony ended, the attendees joined thousands of spectators outside of the church in escorting the emigrants and ACS agents to the wharf where their ship the Elizabeth was anchored in the icy North River (Ashmun 241-42). While the passengers waited for their journey to begin, Rev. Daniel Coker, one of the emigrants, began writing in the journal that he would keep throughout their transatlantic voyage and early settlement in Africa. In the first entry in The Journal of Daniel Coker, a Descendant of Africa, From the Time of Leaving New York, in the Ship Elizabeth, Capt. Sebor, on a Voyage for Sherbro, In Africa, in Company with Three Agents, and About Ninety Persons of Colour, With an Appendix (1820) that he recorded on Friday, February 4, 1820, Coker notes, “This evening Mr. Bacon, read Duet. [sic] c. 11, and made some very appropriate and feeling words on the same; and I feel that his remarks were felt by most present” (2). Bacon, a Harvard-educated lawyer and Episcopal priest, read the portion of scripture in which Moses reminded the Israelites of their miraculous deliverance from bondage and the protection they experienced during 40 years of wilderness wandering. Similarly, as the emigrants prepared to leave the United States, Bacon encouraged them to go forward fearlessly, obey God’s commandments, and teach His laws and the story of their Exodus experience to their children. Bacon thus posits Africa as free blacks’ new Promised Land, and inadvertently characterizes the US as Egypt. His appropriation of the Exodus narrative to justify the ACS’s removal of free blacks from the US ensured the survival of an unreconstructed white promised land supported by slave labor.
The black emigrants who embarked on this transatlantic journey also hoped that the trip would lead to an African promised land. The competing Exodus narratives that emerged during their voyage and early settlement in Africa reflected the mixed motivations of individuals whose divergent dreams for an African Canaan could not be reconciled. Unlike Europeans who had traveled to the New World and transformed it into their promised land, African American Israelites secured passage on a ship sponsored by an organization that affiliated itself with the Egypt they hoped to leave behind. As Coker and the emigrants struggled to escape the oppressive conditions in their native land, race complicated their attempts to merge sacred and secular worlds and thereby create a new space in which they could experience the Canaan promised by Exodus.
Coker had resisted the ACS’s recruitment efforts, but an unexpected turn of events led him to embrace emigration. At the 1816 meeting that he and Rev. Richard Allen called to organize the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, delegates elected him as the first bishop, but he resigned in favor of Allen for reasons that remain unclear. At the first AME Conference in Baltimore later that year, Allen rebuked Coker for publicly criticizing his preaching style. In 1818, church leaders found Coker guilty of undisclosed charges and dismissed him from the Connection; Coker also filed for bankruptcy that year (Phillips 138). (1) During the AME Conference in 1819, church officials accepted Coker’s petition for readmission to fellowship, but restricted his access to the pulpit, allowing him to preach only at the invitation of a local elder. This decision severely hampered Coker’s efforts to unify the AME churches in Baltimore. He continued teaching at a school for black children but was not able to support his family (Corey 177-78). (2) In 1820, Coker sought new opportunities by accepting passage on the ACS’s first voyage to Africa. He chronicled his journey in his Journal and later recorded in an unpublished journal (Daniel Coker, Diary, April 21, 1821-September 21, 1821) the difficulties the voyagers faced in establishing the West African colony.
This essay argues that in his journals, Coker creates a new vision of Africa by narrating his transatlantic journey from black America’s Egypt to the border of the promised land of Africa in the language of Exodus. By constructing himself as a leader who mediates differences between the emigrants and agents, and participates in planning sessions with the agents for the colony, Coker positions himself as a Moses who can ensure that agents meet the emigrants’ needs. In so doing, Coker disrupts the conventional secular-sacred binary by situating the journey within a complex biblical framework in which he struggles with white agents and black emigrants to control the purpose and establish the goals of the expedition. Through his manipulations of competing Exodus narratives, Coker demonstrates the challenges of performing as Moses, positing Africa as promised land, and presenting race as a presence in his biblical reinterpretations of the journey to Africa.
Coker, the Exodus Story, and the African American Literary Tradition
Scholars such as Allen Dwight Callahan, Eddie Glaude, Jr., David W. Kling, Wilson Jeremiah Moses, Albert Raboteau, and Renita Weems have noted the importance of the Exodus narrative in African American culture. (3) African Americans appropriated the Exodus story to challenge one of white Americans’ most prominent “official stories,” the national narratives that identified whites as God’s people and African Americans as slaves or inferior freedmen. Exodus evolved into “a big story,” according to Michael Walzer in Exodus and Revolution (1986), “one that became part of the cultural consciousness of the West–so that a range of political events … have been located and understood within the narrative frame that it provides. This story made it possible to tell other stories” (7). In Constituting Americans: Cultural Anxiety and Narrative Form (1995), Priscilla Wald argues that such stories “surface in the rhetoric of nationalistic movements and initiatives–legal, political, and literary…. Neither static nor monolithic, they change in response to competing narratives of the nation that must be engaged, absorbed and retold: the fashioning and endless refashioning of ‘a people'” (3). The Puritans first appropriated the Exodus story to justify their flight from religious persecution in England. During the Revolutionary War, colonial writers further refashioned their Exodus narratives by equating their desire for independence from England with the enslaved Israelites’ cry for deliverance from Egyptian overseers. Colonists characterized themselves as “slaves” liberated from tyrannical England, rendering invisible enslaved blacks who were toiling in their communities. (4) Members of the black community viewed the Exodus story as a narrative that depicted God’s love for oppressed people and His willingness to intervene on their behalf, however, and they appropriated fragments of the story to augment their personal narratives. In Liberation Historiography, African American Writers and the Challenge of History, 1794-1861 (2004), John Ernest asserts that black writers’ “mode of reading history … respects the authority of fragmented communities of experience, and … arranges those fragments according to the guidance of biblical narratives that themselves become comprehensible through the various experiences of the communities of the oppressed” (18). By invoking the Exodus story, African Americans encouraged white Americans to re-read the biblical narrative and reconsider which race constituted the “true” Israelite community.
Coker tapped into an African American literary tradition in which writers appropriated the story of Exodus to chart their journey out of physical and spiritual bondage. African Americans began to write Exodus stories in the mid-eighteenth century during the First Great Awakening, a religious revival that swept through the United States, when they began accepting Christianity in large numbers for the first time. Attracted by stirring sermons of evangelical preachers and biblical narratives of God’s miraculous deliverance of His people, African Americans devoted themselves to a religion that promised spiritual, political, and economic transformation in this world and the world to come. The Exodus narrative especially attracted their attention. The story began when Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery and his slave-trading cousins the Ishmaelites transported him to Egypt, where he labored in bondage but eventually became prime minister. When Joseph’s brothers traveled to Egypt to purchase food during a famine, they were reconciled with their younger brother and the entire family relocated to Joseph’s adopted homeland, where they became numerous and prosperous. The Israelites were enslaved by a new Pharaoh who took the throne without the memory of Joseph’s contributions to the realm. After 400 years of slavery, God sent Moses to lead His people to the Promised Land. A 40-day trip became a 40-year journey after the Israelites expressed disbelief that God could settle them in a land filled with giants and fortified cities. After Moses’s disobedience resulted in his being barred him from entering the land, Joshua directed the Israelites in the conquest of Canaan. (5)
Coker had embraced the Exodus narrative to promote freedom and equality for blacks in the US before invoking the story to characterize Africa as a Promised Land in his Journal and Diary. His 1810 antislavery pamphlet, A Dialogue between a Virginian and an African Minister, Written by Daniel Coker, a descendant of Africa, minister of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Baltimore, Humbly Dedicated to the People of Color in the United States, features an African minister who convinces a Virginia slave owner to honor legislation that required masters to manumit their slaves (Dialogue 56-57). Coker represents himself as a minister-teacher who deftly appropriates Scripture to refute many of the biblically based arguments that masters used to justify slavery. The African minister reminds the slave owner that God had commanded the Israelites to circumcise all males born in their household, including slaves, making them heirs of the covenant promises (Gen. 17). (6) The Law of Moses forbade the Israelites from permanently enslaving their relatives (Lev. 25:39-55). Moreover, God never instructed the Israelites to travel to a foreign country and enslave innocent people. Thus Christian slaveholders had wrongfully enslaved a people who deserved spiritual and physical freedom and equality.
Coker and Colonization
After taking such a public antislavery stance, it seems curious that Coker aligned himself with a group that planned to relocate free blacks to Africa to transform the US into a slave society, and then explicitly appealed to free blacks to remedy their woes by joining ACS expeditions. Coker’s experience with slavery and freedom provide important insights into his decision to participate in the ACS’s colonization scheme. Bore Isaac Wright to Susan Coker, a white indentured servant, and Daniel Wright, an enslaved African, he faced 31 years of servitude because his parents’ relationship was illegal in the state of Maryland (Brackett 32-34). (7) Nevertheless, he gained an education because his half-brother Daniel Coker reportedly refused to attend school without him. As a teenager, Coker escaped to New York, where he converted to Methodism and received his license to preach from Bishop Francis Ausbury. Moving to Baltimore, the light-skinned youth passed for his white sibling Daniel to avoid detection. Friends purchased his freedom so he could teach at the city’s first school for black children. Coker soon joined the integrated Sharp Street Methodist Church. He also became involved in local community activism but found limited professional opportunities for free black American men in the early nineteenth century.
Lack of professional opportunities and his concern for the spiritual welfare of Africans led Coker to become interested in colonization in 1812 when his friend Captain Paul Cuffe shared his plans to relocate free blacks to Sierra Leone, a British colony. Like Cuffe, Coker may have felt a connection to Africa because his father was an enslaved African. Cuffe, a merchant, ship owner, and devout Quaker, promoted colonization because he believed blacks would never enjoy their rights as US citizens. He viewed colonization as an opportunity for black Americans to introduce Christianity to Africans, establish business ties with Africans, and eradicate the slave trade (“Forten Letter”). In 1815, Cuffe transported 38 black emigrants to Sierra Leone at his personal expense. When he returned to the US, he appointed three men (Coker in Baltimore; James Forten, a wealthy black sailmaker, in Philadelphia; and Rev. Peter Williams, Jr., in New York) to organize African Institutes to support his colonization efforts and recruit free black emigrants (Harris 153-54; Winch 32). While Cuffe planned his next expedition, Rev. Robert Finley, a Presbyterian minister, began circulating ideas for a US government-sponsored colonization effort. On February 14, 1816, Finley wrote a letter to John P. Mumford in which he outlined his rationale for colonizing blacks. He explained: “Every thing connected with [black Americans’] condition, including their color, is against them, nor is there much prospect that their state can ever be greatly ameliorated, while they shall remain among us” (Brown 99). He believed that “rich and benevolent” contributors could fund the development of a colony in Africa so that “We should be cleared of them;–we should send to Africa a population partially civilized and Christianized for its benefit:–our blacks themselves would be put in a better situation” (99-100). As the Israelites returned to Canaan, the land of their fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Finley asserted that “… only in Africa, the ‘land of their fathers,’ could Africans find true freedom and equality” (Staudenraus 1920). By December 1816, Finley had enlisted the support of several leading politicians, executives, and clergy, including Henry Clay and Francis Scott Key, and organized the ACS. While some colonizationists were concerned about the welfare of black Americans, others believed they could strengthen the institution of slavery by ridding the country of “our blacks.”
Finley and Cuffe advocated an idea that had been circulating since the late eighteenth century, but an undercurrent of racism continually threatened the success of colonization efforts. Prominent white American leaders, including Thomas Jefferson and Rev. Ezra Stiles, had considered colonization as an ideal means to provide a suitable home for a group they deemed to be an inferior race. Experience with colonization led Cuffe to support the ACS plan, and he convinced several prominent black leaders, including Forten and Allen, to back the new organization. In January 1817, Forten’s and Allen’s enthusiasm waned when 3,000 black men who had gathered for a community meeting at the Bethel AME Church in Philadelphia voted unanimously to condemn the expedition. After the meeting, Forten drafted a resolution decrying colonization as a scheme designed to rob African Americans of their right to US citizenship:
Whereas our ancestors (not of choice) were the first successful
cultivators of the wilds of America, we their descendents feel
ourselves entitled to participate in the blessings of her luxuriant
soil, which their blood and sweat manured … Resolved, That we
never will separate ourselves voluntarily from the slave population
in this country; they are our brethren by the ties of
consanguinity, of suffering, and of wrongs; and we feel that there
is more virtue in suffering privations with them, than fancied
advantages for a season. (Forten 9)
African Americans and ACS organizers differed on the application of the Exodus narrative to black relocation efforts from the earliest days of Finley’s colonization efforts. Like Moses who rejected the luxuries of Egypt to lead his people out of slavery, black Philadelphians vowed to “… suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season” (Heb. 11:25). Forten further argued that the ACS’s plan to relocate all free blacks “into the savage wilds of Africa” was a “circuitous route through which they must return to perpetual bondage” (Forten 9). Historians have not been able to determine if Coker attended the Philadelphia meeting, but he did not endorse Forten’s resolution. During his trip to New York to join the emigrants who were heading to Africa, however, he reportedly stopped in Philadelphia and met with Allen, Forten, James Matthews, Prince Saunders, and leaders from the St. Thomas Episcopal Church to solicit support for the ACS expedition during his trip to New York to join the emigrants who were heading to Africa (Graham 76).
Coker, Colonization, and Competing Exodus Narratives
By 1820, Coker and hundreds of other free blacks who had submitted applications due to weariness in seeking the illusive “blessings” of the “luxuriant soil” of the US shifted their gaze to an African promised land (Ashmun 241-42). Coker began writing in his Journal approximately four days after the passengers boarded the Elizabeth. The ACS’s support of Coker’s work is evident throughout the Journal. A line on the title page informs readers that the Maryland Auxiliary Colonization Society provided funds to help print the 53-page pamphlet. The “Introduction” offers a brief history of the ACS, emphasizes the organization’s commitment to enforce the 1808 bill that abolished the African slave trade, assuring readers that black emigrants voluntarily joined the expedition, and vouching for Coker’s respectable and pious character. The ACS successfully relied on Coker’s Journal as a recruiting tool until the early 1830s (Graham 76). Coker did not write in his Journal every day, but entries included daily activities, weather conditions, religious services, spiritual reflections, and his personal readings during the voyage, as well as descriptions of some of the challenges that the emigrants and agents faced as they sought to establish a colony after arriving in Sherbro. When the ACS published Coker’s Journal, they included copies of his letters to friends in Baltimore in an Appendix. Conversely, in his Diary, Coker detailed the disorder, disease, and death that plagued the colony and convinced him to relocate his family to Sierra Leone.
As they sailed to Africa, Coker soon discovered that the ACS had embarked on their venture with limited experience working with African Americans, so they needed a black Moses to help them lead the emigrants. Coker, a well-educated, articulate, and experienced minister, teacher, and administrator, quickly emerged as a liaison between the agents and the emigrants. The ACS’s preference for Coker had been evident in their recruitment efforts. They reportedly told him that he was “too intelligent to remain in [the US]. They said he should go to Africa where his talent could be exercised in the interest of his race” (Smith and Payne 36). When Coker hesitated, they promised to appoint him president of Liberia (36). Shortly after setting sail for Africa, the ACS agents granted Coker permission to establish an official religious society that AME church officials had forbidden him on reinstatement (Handy 331; Wright 68).
Promises and privileges won Coker‘s allegiance, and he eagerly carried out his new responsibilities. More than 20 years of ministry in Methodist and AME churches had prepared Coker to take a leadership role in ministering to the emigrants’ needs. In the late 1700s, Bishop Francis Asbury of New York licensed him to preach after he completed religious studies. In Baltimore, he had joined the integrated Sharp Street Methodist Church. When church officials limited black congregants to minor leadership roles, he helped establish a separate black congregation that later became the African Methodist Bethel Church. A majority of black members decided to stay at the Sharp Street Church rather than align themselves with a fledging black religious organization, leading to a contentious relationship between the two congregations (Phillips 135-36). Some historians argue that Coker’s frustration with his inability to convince Baltimore’s Methodist and AME congregations to form one church influenced him to participate in the ACS sponsored journey to Africa (Williams and Dixie 45). Coker supported this view in his Journal and expressed hope that emigrants who joined them in Africa would not foster competition by professing allegiance to a particular church or denomination (43).
On the Elizabeth, Coker ministered to his 25-member AME congregation and other passengers, providing for their spiritual welfare but also protecting their political and economic interests. As the voyage progressed, the agents invited him to sleep in their berth and included him in planning meetings for the colony. In his Journal Coker recalls, “I think the Lord has ordered it, that my lot should be cast in the cabin, that I might witness the deep concern of the agents for the good of poor afflicted Africa. I have often been laying in the birth [sic], at the midnight hour, and witnessed them pouring out their souls in supplication” (19). By asserting that God arranges for him to stay in the agents’ cabin, Coker claims divine authority for his role as mediator. As he observes the agents’ piety, he seems convinced of their sincerity in relocating free blacks to Africa. In turn, the ACS agents publicly acknowledged his value to the expedition. In the Memoir of the Life and Character of the Rev. Samuel Bacon (1822), Jehudi Ashmun, an ACS agent in Liberia, writes:
It is due to the zeal, good judgment, and uniform fidelity of the
Rev. Daniel Coker … the value of whose services, both during the
voyage and on the coast, the agents made very honourable mention,
and the society have received the most substantial proofs to
observe in anticipation, that he continued to the present time, to
justify by a consistent course of upright and discreet conduct, the
confidence reposed in him. (253)
With the support of the agents, Coker was poised to emerge as the black emigrants’ Moses.
In his Journal, Coker invokes the Exodus story to highlight the mixed motivations of his sponsors and reveals a more realistic view of their community building efforts. Nearly two months after he records ACS agent Bacon’s appropriation of the Exodus narrative, Coker references the same passage from Deuteronomy 11 in an entry that confirms his view of the voyage as a transatlantic exodus. On March 3, 1820, Coker writes:
May these children ever cherish a grateful remembrance of the
benevolent and humane act of the country that gave them birth, and
tell it to their children, and their children to their children;
and the Lord grant that this, and every subsequent exertion may be
to the increasing of our faith in the sincere determination of
America, to heal the wounds that have been made in bleeding Africa.
Like Bacon, Coker positions the emigrants as emancipated Israelites who will share the story of their deliverance with future generations (Deut. 11:18-19). There is a twist of irony in his reference, however, for Coker hints at the ACS’s unscrupulous motives for colonizing free blacks to develop the US as a slave society. In contrast to Bacon, Coker claims the US, not Africa, as African Americans’ homeland. Yet the “country that gave them birth” could not truly be their homeland because slavery has transformed it into Egypt. Furthermore, the promised land that black emigrants are traveling to is a “bleeding Africa,” wounded by the same nation that sponsors their resettlement and relies on them to “heal the wound” it has caused. While the Israelites needed to conquer Canaan, black emigrants faced the challenge of transforming Africa, a land ravaged by slavery and tribal rivalries, into a promised land. Nevertheless, Coker instructs his readers to tell the colonization story to their children, just as Moses had commanded the Israelites to teach their descendants about their miraculous deliverance from slavery in Egypt. As they write a new Exodus narrative for their families, Coker encourages the emigrants to create a history that casts colonization in a positive light, especially because many of their brethren have denounced the initiative. He further praises America’s role in Africa’s transformation by positing himself as a prophet who heralds the change just as the prophet Simeon publicly acknowledged Christ as the long-awaited Messiah: “Surely America is about to shine forth among the nations of the earth in building up the waste places of that land which I hope in a few days my eyes will behold with transporting joy. At that sight, methinks the language of Simeon will be mine: ‘Now Lord, lettest thy servant depart in peace for mine eyes have seen thy salvation.’ Has not the day of Africa’s salvation already begun to dawn?” (20-21). Coker suggests that like Israel, Africa needs a savior. Ironically, that savior is the nation that has enslaved African Americans and destabilized Africa. America has given African Americans life and it creates the organization that offers them a future–in Africa.
The dangers of sea travel led the spiritually minded emigrants to join Coker and the ACS agents in expressing a desire for a Moses to lead them on their journey to the promised land of Africa. In his entry dated “At Sea, Feb. 21, Monday,” Coker recalls the passengers singing a Methodist hymn by Isaac Watts while the sea rises up like mountains around them:
If but a Moses waive the rod,
The sea divides and owns its God,
The stormy floods their Maker know
And led His chosen armies through. (15)
The passengers find comfort in remembering how Moses stretched his rod over the Red Sea and the waters divided, creating a path for the Israelites to escape the pursuing Egyptian army (Exod. 14:13-31). They express a need for God’s protection even though a hostile army is not following them and seeking to take them back to the United States. They further envision themselves as God’s “chosen army” led by a Moses out of a racist country to their promised land of Africa. At this point in his Journal, however, Coker does not name a Moses appointed by God to help them navigate their perilous journey.
By recollecting the Methodist hymn, Coker subtly sets himself up as a Moses figure. In an entry written three days after they survive the storm, Coker reports that the emigrants decide to fast and pray for the success of their trip. They had increasingly come to rely on his leadership and seek his opinions about the colonization project (Shick, “Rhetoric and Reality” 49-50). Echoing the challenges of the Israelites’ Exodus, Coker writes, “May He that was with Moses in the wilderness, be with us; then all will be well.–This is a great undertaking, and I feel its importance more and more, daily” (Journal 15-16). According to Scripture, after the Israelites left Egypt, they embarked on a 40-day journey through the wilderness to the Promised Land. God provided water and food, delivered them from a hostile enemy, and protected them from the extreme desert temperatures with the pillar of tire and cloud. As a minister, Coker understands the implications of describing the 19th-century transatlantic journey as a passage through the wilderness. The Israelites’ trek through the wilderness had been the most difficult part of their journey; thousands died because of their disobedience. Coker’s prayerful request for divine guidance acknowledges his awareness of conflicts aboard the Elizabeth as the ACS agents distance themselves from the emigrants while maintaining control of their plans for the colony, and his need for divine assistance to resolve them.
Neither Coker nor the ACS agents realized the limitations of Coker’s role as a Mosaic mediator. In accordance with the Exodus narrative, Coker records a time filled with murmurings and miracles as the emigrants and agents travel through their wilderness. Initially, Coker indicates that he is effective in resolving disputes. His job becomes more difficult about halfway through the voyage, after the agents finally inform the emigrants about their plan to set up the colony. The emigrants are particularly displeased over the stipulation that agents will manage the settlement. They had believed that the ACS would be a “means of transporting them to a land where they hoped to live free from the intrusions of white domination” (Miller 56). The exchange between the ACS agents and emigrants became so contentious that Bacon fears the emigrants’ “mutinous spirit” might lead to a fight that would leave the ship without its crew (Ashmun 249-50). Just as Moses had functioned as an intercessor between God and His chosen people, Coker calls the male emigrants aside for a private meeting and convinces all but two to cooperate with the agents. By attempting to resolve differences between the white agents and his brethren, Coker inadvertently elevates the ACS agents to god-like stature and casts the emigrants as disobedient Israelites. Thus, the truce Coker negotiates could only be a fragile, temporary one.
Coker’s difficulties in mediating conflicts between the emigrants and ACS agents did not decrease his view of himself as a Moses, however. As they neared Africa, he discovered a thriving slave trade off the coast of Africa and jotted down a verse from a hymn to express his dismay. On March 18, 1820, he writes:
When will Jehovah hear our cries?
When will the sun of freedom rise?
When will for us a Moses stand,
And bring us out from Pharaoh’s hand? (31)
By quoting this hymn, Coker affirms that the “bleeding Africa” he has described earlier in his Journal is Egypt rather than Canaan because Europeans and Africans are still engaged in a lucrative slave trade. He intimates that he could be the Moses who would deliver them. Although the US Congress and British Parliament had outlawed the slave trade by 1808, the business flourished because slave traders still purchased Africans, and European and American authorities did not aggressively enforce the ban. Coker reminds his readers that the continued practice of slavery prevents Africa from being a promised land for people of African descent. Whereas Moses had enforced restrictions on slavery without instituting abolition, Coker refuses to sanction slavery in the new communities that blacks would establish in their African Canaan. As a Mosaic leader, he believes he can also work for the abolition of the African slave trade that has destroyed native communities and will threaten the stability of the ACS colony.
Once they reached Africa, the ACS agents helped Coker develop an even larger role as Moses by appointing him Justice of the Peace in their new colony. Like Moses who had mediated differences between the Israelites during the early days of the journey to the Promised Land and faced continued complaints, even from his siblings Aaron and Miriam (Num. 12), Coker begins to face challenges to his authority as he works with the emigrants. (8) In his March 25, 1820, entry, he describes an incident involving Francis Creecy, an emigrant whom ACS agent Samuel Crozer charges with stealing supplies. Creecy does not want to be “examined by a mulatto,” Coker recalls in his Journal (36). Coker later reports that John Kizell, a trader from Sherbro who had helped the emigrants establish their colony, affirms his authority, stating, “Mr. Coker was a descendant of Africa, and was appointed a justice of the peace and that he would surfer no such reflection to be cast; and if we had not men enough to support Mr. Coker, he had, and it should be done … the civil authority must and shall be obeyed” (36). Crozer appears to acknowledge his continuing inability to enforce rules among the emigrants. Rather than seek the assistance of another ACS agent, Crozer allowed Kizell to uphold Coker’s authority to try the case. Coker initiated the proceedings, found Creecy guilty, and ordered him punished with 12 lashes. The verdict angered Creecy, and he assaulted Crozer (Miller 63). By directing his ire against Crozer, however, Creecy temporarily strengthens Coker’s role as a Mosaic mediator between the emigrants and agents.
Coker, Colonization, and the Promised Land of Africa
In his Journal, Coker portrays himself as a Moses to appeal to potential emigrants to join him in contributing to the development of communities in a continent the slave trade has nearly destroyed. The Exodus story becomes the exemplary narrative for relating the difficulties of the journey and emphasizing the local bounties that could help them transform Africa into a promised land. During his first few days in Africa, Coker writes about the fruits that grow plentifully in the woods throughout Sierra Leone. He recounts a successful fishing outing where the emigrants see thousands of fish, oysters, and shells. He details the wealth of produce in the markets. He recalls a lavish dinner at a minister’s home where the table is laden with food harvested in Africa that would have “satisfied the taste of an epicure” (22, 25, 31, 35). Such a land of abundance appealed to many free blacks struggling to feed their families and sustain a living in the US.
Just as Moses had assured the Israelites that they would enter the Promised Land, Coker insisted that opportunities awaited emigrants to Africa. In a letter to Jeremiah Watts included in the Journal’s Appendix, Coker encourages black Baltimoreans to sell their possessions and emigrate to West Africa. He instructs them to bring goods to sell, such as tobacco, calico cloth, handkerchiefs, pocket knives, and pins, to use to purchase property and supplies or to hire workers. He invites black Americans to introduce Christianity to the natives and, through struggle, help rebuild Africa as a great nation: “I expect to give my life to bleeding, groaning, dark, benighted Africa. I should expect to pass through much, if I should live. I rejoice to see you in this land; it is a good land; it is a rich land, and I do believe it will be a great nation, and a powerful and worthy nation: but those who break the way will surfer much” (44). By describing Africa as a nation, I suggest that Coker is signaling his intent to unite tribal groups that had been fragmented by the slave trade into a strong, cohesive unit. Unlike Moses, Coker expects to enter his promised land, but his “good land” is filled with life-threatening challenges. The work of transforming a nation ruled by competing African and European factions into Canaan, rather than leading a perilous journey to the Promised Land, may cause his death. Black emigrant pioneers would undoubtedly face difficulties in settling in Africa just as the first generation of Israelites had fought to possess the Promised Land. Coker remains optimistic about Africa’s future, however, as he draws parallels between God’s promise to make Israel a “great nation” and his belief that hard-working, knowledgeable people of African descent could make Africa “a powerful, worthy nation,” perhaps even rivaling the US (44).
Coker’s involvement in economic and political pursuits did not dampen his enthusiasm for Christianizing Africans. His spiritual zeal for the colonization never faltered. In a letter to “African Brethren” that he writes shortly after arriving in Africa, Coker pleads for missionary minded emigrants: “There is a great work here to do. Thousands, and thousands of souls here, to be converted from Paganism and Mahometanism to the religion of Jesus. Oh! brethren, who will come over to the help of the Lord?” (Journal 42). The Israelites did not seek to proselytize the Canaanites, whom God had legendarily promised to drive out of the land. However, Coker characterizes the African promised land as a mission field although he does not officially represent the AME church as its first missionary to Africa. He devotes himself to this work and urges free blacks who want to participate in missionary endeavors to emigrate to Africa. The establishment of Africa as a Christian nation would strengthen its chances for political and economic success by giving its citizens a value system that Coker
believed offered the best means to achieve freedom and equality.
The ACS published Coker’s Journal before death, disease, and defiant emigrants and Africans brought about the failure of its first colony. After ACS agents Bacon and Crozer died from illness, Coker became the leader of the colony. The emigrants refused to accept his leadership, however. Suspicious of anyone who had been appointed by ACS agents, they sought guidance from Kizzel, the local African leader who had supported Coker when the emigrant presided as the colony’s justice of the peace (Miller 62-63). Despite the colony’s initial failure, the ACS continued to send emigrants, including Coker’s wife, Maria, and sons, Daniel Jr. and Samuel, on the Brig Nautilus in 1821 (Shick, “Roll of Emigrants’). Coker and his family soon moved to Sierra Leone, the British colony where his friend Cuffe had settled free black emigrants nearly 10 years earlier.
This disastrous start did not diminish Coker’s dream of an African promised land for his people. In his unpublished Diary of this period, a more reflective, experienced Coker muses, “Moses was I think permitted to see the promised land but not to enter in. I think it likely that I shall not be permitted to see our expected earthly Canaan. But this will be of but small moment so that some thousands of African children are safely landed.” Unlike Moses who peered into the Promised Land from Mt. Pisgah, Coker was trapped in the wilderness, unable to climb the mountain and catch a glimpse of Canaan. The promised land that he had envisioned in his Journal never materialized because he was unable to fulfill his role as a Moses for the emigrants onboard the Elizabeth or in their settlement in Africa. The mixed motivations of emigrants, Africans, and agents, coupled with the unhealthy living conditions in the colony thwarted his plans. Nevertheless, Coker experienced a portion of his vision for an African Canaan when Sierra Leone Governor Charles McCarthy appointed him superintendent of the village of Hastings where he established an AME Church (Coan 30). (9) Black emigrants continued to relocate to Liberia and Sierra Leone throughout the nineteenth century. But the problems that plagued the first settlement persisted, preventing Coker’s dream of an African promised land from coming to fruition.
Coker’s unfulfilled Exodus narrative epitomizes the challenges African Americans faced as they explored colonization as a means of finding a safe home in the early nineteenth century. As the struggle for freedom and equality intensified, prominent black emigrationists emerged who shared Coker’s belief that African Americans could discover civil rights and economic opportunities only by settling in foreign Canaans. Instead of encouraging African Americans to affiliate themselves with white-led black colonization organizations, however, they developed competing Exodus narratives that advocated voluntary emigration to a variety of promised lands. Black Philadelphians who had rejected the ACS’s offer of passage to West Africa soon looked to Haiti as a potential promised land. Other activists, notably Mary Ann Shadd and Henry Bibb, encouraged fugitives and free blacks to settle in Canada where they would be close enough to continue supporting the American abolition movement. Still others, for example, Martin Delany and James T. Holly, took a nationalistic approach, advocating relocation to black nations, particularly Haiti and Africa, where African Americans could pressure foreign governments to abolish the international slave trade. But some black leaders believed Central and South America were the most suitable Canaans for their people because of the nations’ proximity to the United States, absence of slavery, and abundant natural resources. Whether competing with whites or their brethren for control of Exodus narratives that cast African Americans as liberated Israelites bound for the promised land, neither Coker or any other 19th-century black leader constructed a story that enabled blacks to overcome the obstacles that blocked their path to freedom and equality in a foreign Canaan.
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Coan, Josephus R. “Daniel Coker: Nineteenth Century Black Church Organizer, Educator and Missionary.” Journal of the Interdenominational Theological Center (1975): 17-31.
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–. Daniel Coker, Diary, April 21, 1821 -September 21, 1821. Unpublished manuscript. The Peter Force Collection. Microfilm, Series 8D/Number 23. Manuscript Division. Library of Congress. Washington, DC.
–. The Journal of Daniel Coker, a Descendant of Africa, From the Time of Leaving New York, in the Ship Elizabeth, Capt. Sebor, on a Voyage for Sherbro, In Africa, in Company with Three Agents, and About Ninety Persons of Colour, With an Appendix. Baltimore: Edward J. Coale, 1820. Edward G. Howard Collection of Marylandia, Albin O. Kuhn Library and Gallery, University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
Corey, Mary F. “Daniel Coker.” African American Lives. Eds. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham. New York: Oxford UP, 2004. 177-78.
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Weems, Renita. “The Hebrew Women Are Not Like the Egyptian Women: The Ideology of Race, Gender, and Sexual Reproduction in Exodus 1.” Semeia 59 (1992): 25-34.
More Articles of Interest
Williams, Juan, and Quinton Dixie, eds. “The Prince.” This Far By Faith: Stories from the African American Religious Experience. New York: Amistad, 2003.
Winch, Julie. Philadelphia’s Black Elite: Activism, Accommodation, and the Struggle for Autonomy, 1787-1848. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1988.
Wright, Richard R. 1816-1916: Centennial Encyclopaedia of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Philadelphia: Book Concern of the AME Church, 1916.
(1.) Phillips references the bankruptcy petition filed in the Baltimore City and Country Notes Commissioners of Insolvent Debtors. See Insolvency Docket.
(2.) For more biographical information about Coker, see Bragg, Jr., Graham, Handy, Payne, and Smith and Payne.
(3.) See Callahan, Kling, Glaude, Moses‘s Afrotopia and Black Messiahs, Raboteau, and Weems.
(4.) See Cherry.
(5.) Scholars generally use the “Exodus” to reference the ancient Israelites’ emancipation from slavery in Egypt and journey to the Promised Land under the direction of Moses. However, the biblical book of Exodus begins with the Israelites’ enslavement in Egypt, and then chronicles their miraculous deliverance, wilderness wandering, and arrival at the border of the Promised Land of Canaan. The books of Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy provide additional details of their wilderness experience.
(6.) Genesis 17 describes how God instituted this practice with Abraham, who circumcised his son Ishmael and all of the males in his household, including his slaves, making them heirs with him of the covenant promise.
(7.) According to a Maryland state statute of 1664, “… And Bee it further Enacted that all the Issues of English or other freeborne women that have already marryed Negroes shall serve the Masters of their Parents till they be Thirty years of age and noe longer” (“An Act” 48).
(8.) Numbers 12 details an incident in which Miriam and Aaron complained about Moses’s Ethiopian wife and expressed jealously that God spoke through their younger brother. Miriam was stricken with leprosy and healed when Moses interceded with God on her behalf.
(9.) Coan bases this assertion on information provided by Markwei.
Rhondda R. Thomas is Assistant Professor at Clemson University where she teaches courses in African American and American literature. Her research interests are Christianity and the African American literary tradition, African American identity formation, proslavery and antislavery literature, African American autobiography, and 18th-century Black British Writers. She is currently working on a project about black writers in the South Carolina Upstate.
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Rhondda R. Thomas “Exodus and colonization: charting the journey in the journals of Daniel Coker, a descendant of Africa“. African American Review. FindArticles.com. 29 Jun, 2012.