Preface to The African American Odyssey of John Kizell

10-18-2019 Kevin G. Lowther 618


When we met at his London home in 2007, Christopher Fyfe—the late doyen of Sierra Leone historiography—urged me to write about the life and times of John Kizell. He had already gone to the trouble of preparing nine pages of handwritten notes on all of the references to Kizell he had found during twelve years of research for A History of Sierra Leone, published in 1962. Fyfe was not pleased that I proposed wasting Kizell’s story in a historical novel on the colonization movement. Kizell—and history—deserved better, he implied politely but firmly.

Fyfe saw, in John Kizell, an opportunity to begin explaining Sierra Leone’s early colonial era through African eyes. There are no serious biographical studies of African figures from this period in Sierra Leonean history. The historical void proved much broader than either Fyfe or I realized. This book, therefore, is as much about the evolution of the African-Atlantic diaspora, during the late 1700s and early 1800s, as it is about John Kizell. It also is about the forces linking South Carolina and Sierra Leone.

Kizell was born about 1760 near the southeastern coast of present-day Sierra Leone. He was carried to Charleston, South Carolina, shortly before the outbreak of the Revolution. When the city fell to the British in 1780, Kizell reclaimed his freedom and served with English and loyalist forces. At war’s end, he was evacuated to Nova Scotia with thousands of refugee whites and blacks.

The so-called “black loyalists” found life in Nova Scotia harsh and not far removed from slavery. Kizell and his young family were among nearly twelve hundred people who emigrated in 1792 to Sierra Leone, where British philanthropists hoped to establish a settlement for free blacks. Kizell and his fellow “Nova Scotians” were among the first Africans and African-Americans to return to their motherland. He would become a trader, peacemaker, and crusader against the slave trade. He would also play a seminal role in the colonization movement, which led to the creation of Liberia in 1822.

Kizell’s life is accessible largely because he was literate and left behind a body of correspondence and other writing. His reports to British governors at Sierra Leone in 1807-11 are the most detailed firsthand descriptions, by an African, of the slave trade and its impact on local societies. Although these were published in London in 1812 and again in 1824, historians have largely overlooked them.

The river of Kizell’s long life—he lived at least until 1830—was fed by several tributaries. He experienced the age of revolution in America and Europe; he knew the slave trade intimately during its peak decades; having seen more of the “known” world than most of his contemporaries, he probably understood the nature of man as well as many of the great thinkers of his time; he was a critical observer of the political and economic exploitation that would animate colonialism; and he was a pan-Africanist a century before the term was conceived. He also became a devout Christian and accomplished preacher.

Kizell’s odyssey allows us to consider several historical themes. His was a distinctly African and American journey. It reveals how West Africans shaped and informed their new world, especially in South Carolina. In Charleston, Kizell found a strong sense of community within the city’s black majority. Slaves controlled much of Charleston’s economic life, exercised a considerable degree of de facto independence and contributed substantively to the creation of an urbanized nexus which linked Europe, Africa, the Caribbean, the diverse American provinces to the north and indigenous nations to the immediate west.

Studies of the slave trade have focused on the obvious horrors of its logistics and economics. Less attention has been given to its impact on African communities. Even less has been devoted to the cultural-religious context of a world tangibly shared with ancestors and spirits, both beneficent and evil. Because Kizell’s life enables us to examine how the trade developed and flourished in this context and in a specific part of the West African coast, it is possible to discern why this happened with African complicity. It also is possible to consider how the slave trade and the colonial experience may still haunt Sierra Leone in very real and troubling ways.

Sierra Leone was the first colony consciously developed by Europeans in Africa. Almost from its inception in 1787, it prefigured Europeans’ arrogation of a “civilizing” mission during the next two centuries. Kizell and his fellow pilgrims had been promised that they would effectively govern themselves in Sierra Leone. Their English benefactors, thinking twice of such a radical notion, reneged.

Kizell was a “race” man. Nothing in his seven years as someone’s property in South Carolina, or in Nova Scotia’s inhospitable exile, prompted him to believe that black people had a tenable future in America. Blacks belonged in Africa, he said, and Africa belonged to black people. He was convinced that blacks, in effect trapped in America, would willingly return to their homeland if given the chance. His involvement in receiving the first African-American colonists in 1820 proved abortive, but he was nonetheless a godfather of the free black settlement of Liberia.

Researching and writing this book has brought me full circle to September 1963, when I arrived in Sierra Leone as a Peace Corps volunteer to teach history at a Freetown secondary school. I had been a history major in college, but knew nothing of Africa, not to mention African-American history. I owe my subsequent re-education to many: my former students in Sierra Leone, Africans from all parts of the continent, and African-Americans too numerous to name. I owe a special debt to John Kizell and to the remarkable life he lived.



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