Benjamin Franklin Papers

To Benjamin Franklin from John Coakley Lettsom, 2 August 1783

From John Coakley Lettsom

ALS: American Philosophical Society

London Aug. 2. 1783

Respected Friend

Henry Smeathman, the bearer of this is an ingenious person, who was patronized by Dr. Fothergill and under the Doctor’s patronage he visited the coast of Africa, and in consequence of the knowledge he acquired, he seems capable of giving ample information respecting the present trade of Africa, and wishes I believe, to suggest, new sources of extending it into that continent:1 As I thought such a person might be acceptable to Dr. Franklin, I have taken the liberty of putting this letter of introduction into his hands and am very respectfully &c.

J. C. Lettsom

Addressed: To / Benjamin Franklin

1Smeathman (ODNB), the entomologist who had spent from 1771 to 1775 in Sierra Leone on a collecting expedition sponsored by Fothergill, Joseph Banks, and others, returned to England in 1779 and produced the study of tropical termites that established his scientific reputation. In July, 1783, he approached antislavery Quakers in London with a colonization plan for Sierra Leone. While Fothergill and Lettsom, among others, had argued earlier that free-labor plantation colonies in West Africa would be both more ethical and more profitable than the Atlantic slave trade, Smeathman was the first to combine antislavery principles and commercial interests in a concrete project. He proposed to settle 200 to 300 men and women—free blacks from England, America, and the Sugar Islands, along with white tradesmen—in a fertile, deserted area he had identified and cultivate a wide variety of produce for export to England and America. The colony would introduce Africans to civil and religious liberty, education, agriculture, and manufacture, as well as establish a sanctuary for former slaves; within 40 years it would “extend its saving influence … wider than even American Independence”: Smeathman to Dr. Thomas Knowles, [1783] and July 21, 1783, in New-Jerusalem Magazine (London, 1790), pp. 279–94; Stephen J. Braidwood, Black Poor and White Philanthropists: London’s Blacks and the Foundation of the Sierra Leone Settlement, 1786–1791 (Liverpool, 1994), pp. 5–6, 8–9; Christopher L. Brown, Moral Capital: Foundations of British Abolitionism (Chapel Hill, N. C., 2006), pp. 260–1.

When the London Quakers as a group refused to support the plan (despite a sympathetic reception by Granville Sharp, among others), Smeathman decided to approach BF and try to raise money in France. As a friend of his put it, “Master Termites is gone to Paris to tell Dr. Franklin of his plan for civilising Africa.” Though he stayed nearly a year and developed a friendship with BF and WTF, his efforts led nowhere. On the eve of his return to England he confided his discouragement to Lettsom: his hope of finding support among the wealthy blacks in Paris had dissolved, his attempts to interest Sweden had failed, and even though BF said “he has no doubt I should get it adopted at Boston,” Smeathman was loath to “carry my poor brat a-begging from continent to continent on uncertainties”: Braidwood, Black Poor and White Philanthropists, pp. 7, 10–11, 37; Thomas J. Pettigrew, ed., Memoirs of the Life and Writings of the Late John Coakley Lettsom … (3 vols., London, 1817), II, 270–6.

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