John Kizell, "Apology for For the Conduct of John Kezell And His associates Occasioned By the Strictures And Denunciations by the Rev. Daniel Coker In His Journall Letters and Informations In the fourth Annual Report," a manuscript pamphlet in the Ebenezer Burgess Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston.

During the summer of 1821, John Kizell decided to defend his reputation. A native of present-day Sierra Leone, he had been sold into South Carolina as a child but escaped bondage by joining the British during the Revolution. Following the war he settled briefly in Nova Scotia before returning to the region of his birth as an early settler in Britain's Sierra Leone Colony. He offered his talents as a cultural broker to the first expedition sent out by the American Colonization Society (ACS) to found a black American settler society in Africa. The leaders of the group followed Kizell's advice and settled at Sherbro Island, about one hundred miles south of Freetown, Sierra Leone. The island proved unhealthy, the white leaders of the expedition had difficulty negotiating with native headmen for land rights, and the expedition collapsed in the face of high mortality and uncertain security. Surviving settlers followed Daniel Coker, a black minister from Baltimore, back to the British colony at Sierra Leone. Coker made Kizell a scapegoat for the expedition's failure.

Upon learning that he was taking the blame, Kizell wrote what must be one of the earliest English-language books written by an African American in Africa. He folded large sheets in half and sewed them together. In large and decorative cursive, he inscribed the title on the front, "Apology for For the Conduct of John Kezell And His associates …" Using creative spelling, unsystematic punctuation, and passionate argument, he expressed his anger and sense of betrayal. His text shines new light on the history of Liberia and the ACS, but it shines even brighter light on the cultural power of the book for people who struggled to acquire literacy. In his belief that a self-bound pamphlet would carry greater authority than a mere letter, Kizell provides a glimpse of the battles that many forgotten victims of slavery must have fought to influence debates over their fates. That his manuscript pamphlet sat in the Massachusetts Historical Society waiting to be discovered by a twenty-first century scholar reminds us how high were the barriers keeping them out of those debates.

James Sidbury

James Sidbury is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin and author of Ploughshares into Swords: Race, Rebellion and Identity in Gabriel's Virginia, 1730-1810 (1997) and Becoming African in America: Race and Nation in the Early Black Atlantic (2007).

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