Barnes on Burrowes, 'From Virginia Slave to African Statesman: Hilary Teage'

Author: 
C. Patrick Burrowes
Reviewer: 
Andrew E. Barnes

C. Patrick Burrowes. From Virginia Slave to African Statesman: Hilary Teage. Bomi County, Republic of Liberia: Know Yourself Press, 2019. 198 pp. $19.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-70113-047-0

Reviewed by Andrew E. Barnes (Arizona State University) Published on H-Africa (January, 2022) Commissioned by David D. Hurlbut (Independent Scholar)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=56902

From Virginia Slave to African Statesman presents what is best appreciated as an intellectual biography of Hilary Teage, a free African American who as a boy, at the age of sixteen, left the United States with his parents and sister as part of the first contingent of black repatriates sailing to West Africa, ultimately to establish the colony of Liberia. Teage was among Liberia’s founding fathers, writing Liberia’s “Declaration of Independence” as well as writing and publishing its first Constitution and Laws of the Commonwealth. Teage later served as a senator in the Liberia legislature and then as attorney general and secretary of state. As author C. Patrick Burrowes ambitiously seeks to show, Teage deserves greater scholarly appreciation not simply for his political accomplishments but also for his writings and ideas.

The fifteen thousand or so African Americans who resettled in Liberia have not garnered much attention for the intellectual ideas behind their collective decision to relocate. When the push behind Liberian resettlement is spoken about by scholars, it is taken for granted that the colonists wanted to escape slavery and racism in the United States. When the pull behind Liberian resettlement is considered, typically it is assumed to have sprung from a mentality similar to the one that prompted Europeans to cross the Atlantic in hopes of free land and access to the free labor of indigenous peoples. Burrowes posits that over and above these motivations was what he calls from one perspective “black nationalism” and from another “Republicanism,” both terms signaling a desire on the part of African American settlers to live as modern (post-Enlightenment) Protestant Christians in a land of their own.

Teage was born a slave in Virginia, but his father, Colin Teage, earned enough wealth from his saddle-making business to purchase his own freedom and the freedom of his wife, son, and daughter. Colin Teague, along with his fellow Baptist minister, Lott Carey, led a group of Virginians who left Richmond for the the West African coast. Burrowes repeatedly calls attention to the extent to which Hilary Teage emulated Thomas Jefferson and saw himself as walking along a similar path to that trod by that more famous son of Virginia, Burrowes’s point being that there was expressed in early nineteenth-century Virginia an idea of nation building that transcended racial boundaries. The African Americans who went to Liberia went to build their own version of the United States, primarily because they embraced an idea of the United States as a paradigm of Christian nationhood.

From Virginia Slave to African Statesman is a slim volume, with only eighty-five pages of text, but an impressive sixty pages of bibliography and notes. The slimness is in part a function of the paucity of historical materials on Teage and his life. The slimness is also a function, however, of Burrowes’s focus on elaborating Teage’s ideas as opposed to the situating of those ideas in historical context. Burrowes is determined to show that Teage, an autodidact, was an intellectual of note. Burrowes accomplishes this goal. Teage was simultaneously an ordained Baptist minister, newspaper editor, and poet (as well as a businessman who amassed and lost at least one fortune). Working through the corpus of Teage’s available writings, Burrowes identifies what he labels as the “Republican” values that animated Teage’s thought. Burrowes leaves wanting, however, an understanding of Teage’s intellectualism as a reflection of Teage’s cultural milieu. In Burrowes’s defense, he does an outstanding job of illustrating his main point, that at least some in Teage’s generation of repatriates saw Liberia as an opportunity to prove their bona fides as Protestant Christians, implicit in that identity being the mastery of the political and economic attributes of the world created by European capitalism. Burrowes mentions, but does not develop, the evangelical dimension of this mindset, that is, the commitment to spreading the identity to other peoples of African descent. Overall, however, Burrowes makes a case for an ideational inspiration for Liberian repatriation that future scholars of Liberia’s origins will have to consider.

Burrowes recognizes and dismisses two counterarguments as challenges to his interpretation of what Teage and other African American settlers saw themselves as doing in Liberia. Burrowes locates in the writings of Edward Wilmot Blyden, the best-known African intellectual hailing from Liberia, the ideas that the first generation of repatriates were people of mixed racial descent and that these “mulattoes” went to Africa seeking to create a racial pigmentocracy with themselves on top. Burrowes rejects this argument, insisting that color prejudice among the African American settlers was mostly a figment of Blyden’s imagination. Teage, who rose to be the secretary of state from the colony, was a dark-skinned person, and Burrowes notes a number of examples of dark-skinned and light-skinned African American settlers working together, though Burrowes does concede that categorizing individuals as dark skinned or light skinned based on available documentation is problematic.

Another indictment of the African Americans who repatriated to Liberia was that as settlers, they saw indigenous Africans as people to be exploited. Burrowes offers Teage as proof that this indictment was not necessarily true. In his understanding of Liberia as a polity, Teage recognized at least the potentiality of indigenous peoples as fellow citizens, for example, using pidgin English in his newspaper and advocating for the constitution and laws of the land to be published in pidgin as well.

It must be acknowledged, however, that both counterarguments need much more development. Burrowes’s use of Teage’s writing as his only proof for his arguments about Teage limits the utility of From Virginia Slave to African Statesman for other scholars. Still, the book remains a pioneering introduction to an important perspective on Liberia and African American repatriation that future scholars should explore.

Citation: Andrew E. Barnes. Review of Burrowes, C. Patrick, From Virginia Slave to African Statesman: Hilary Teage. H-Africa, H-Net Reviews. January, 2022. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=56902

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.