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Bernard Kock: King of Cow Island

Bernard Kock was an opportunist and entrepreneur who probably started out with good intentions. His grand plan for colonizing Ile A'Vache (Cow Island), Haïti with 5000  American black slaves was conceived when he attended the 1862 Great Exhibition in London. Kock was reported to own a cotton plantation in Florida and in his words,  "was impressed by seeing two bales of excellent Hayti cotton on display in London. Having knowledge of President Fabre Nicolas Geffrard's (18.1.1859 - 13.3.1867)  interest in promoting immigration of American blacks to Haïti.4 Kock left Southampton, England for Haïti on 17 May 1862 arriving there on 3 June. President Geffrard also had  grand plans for improving the country, including the development of a true middle class using black immigrants from America. This was an insightful goal at that time but to  this day it has still been unrealized. Kock proceeded from Jacmel to Port-au-Prince on horseback where he was given a warm greeting from President Geffrard. His  subsequent meetings with cabinet members were not so cordial. Kock felt great reluctance by the cabinet to rent National Lands to a white man. Their hard fought war of  independence from Spain, Britain and France was now part of the national psyche. Kock then began difficult negotiations with cabinet members and on 8 August 1862,  "in the 59th year of independence," an agreement was reached for him to lease A' Vache Island for 10 years, with an option to renew for another 10 years.

The agreement required Kock to pay the Haitian government rent of 5 Gourdes (about $0.50 US) per carreau (3.5 acres) under cultivation or the equivalent of $0.15 per  acre. In addition, he was also required to give the Haitian government 35.25% of the lumber he cut on the island. In return Kock was given exclusive use of the island but as required to start operations within six months. He was to be provided with the "protection and assistance of the République d'Haïti" as well as being given an exemption  from "tonnage" for any lumber cut or any "customs house duties" for importing food and other items for use on the colony. Kock was allowed to have 10% white  overseers but in keeping with the spirit of the colonization plan, was required to use only farm workers of “African or Indian races.” The émigrés would be immediately  naturalized as Haïtians upon arrival and at   the lease expiration, they were to be given preference to become farmers or landholders. The Haïti  constitution  allows only  people of African or Indian races to own property.4

While in Haïti Kock says he formed a relationship with Dr. Leopold Müller, the Surgeon-General of the country, who also owned a cotton plantation near Aux Cayes, about  eight miles from A'Vache. Dr. Müller's partner, Mr. E. Dutertre examined Ile a'Vache and reported that it was suitable for growing 'sea island' cotton. Dutertre had  apparently viewed Kock's Florida plantation and stated that the conditions on A'Vache were as favorable as on Kock's plantation. Kock enlisted Müller and Dutertre to  conduct a trial cotton planting on the island, then left for New York on 14 August 1862 arriving on 28 August 1862. A few days later he left for Washington to meet President  Abraham Lincoln (1809 - 1865) who was already considering a scheme to colonize blacks in New Granada, (now Panama) and Liberia.5

Lincoln was an abolitionist but held a long standing belief that colonization could play a role in solving the slavery problem. After Lincoln  abandoned the Central American colonization plans, Kock  felt his chances with Lincoln would be good. But he ran into great difficulty with the Secretary  of State William H. Seward (1861-1869) who opposed colonization. Seward was the recipient of many complaints lodged from Central American governments  about the possibility of millions of blacks coming to their area. Kock was very determined and after being stonewalled by the administration, went directly to President  Lincoln to ask why his proposal was not being acted upon. Kock said Lincoln told him he had received reports of his questionable character and others felt Kock would  "clear out" after receiving the bonus of $50 for each person of "African extraction" he colonized. Kock refuted the allegations and stated that he would relinquish all  payments until he actually had the colony in operation, as verified by the local American agent in Haïti. Kock touted his vision of A'Vache: churches, schools,  medical facilities, fair labor laws (only ten hours a day, six days a week with worship on the Sabbath) and profit sharing for the workers. This seemed to satisfy Lincoln  and he told Kock he would review his proposal the next day. The agreement was signed by Lincoln and Kock on 31 December 1862. This was Lincoln's last attempt at colonization,  as described in the Emancipation Lecture by Edward Steers, Jr., "On January 1, 1863, Lincoln pulled the trigger and  signed his  Emancipation Proclamation with no mention of colonization."   Kock then looked into possible  recruitment of black  émigrés in the  Washington area, then left for New York to seek funding partners for the venture Kock had an office at 17 Broadway and found three partners, Paul S. Forbes, L.W. Jerome and Charles H. Tuckerman, whose offices were just around the corner  at 50 Wall Street. All professed abolitionists, they agreed to put up $70,000 to fund the venture in return for 50% ownership. An agreement was drawn up but not immediately  signed. Kock proceeded on trust to charter the British ship Ocean Ranger and had it fitted-up to house 500 workers. He also hired a Mr. W. J. Watkins as one of the plantation  supervisors who began interviewing, contracting and assembling the émigrés at Fort Monroe, New York where they were to await the arrival of the ocean liner. Kock says he planned  the project in great detail and had suppliers of each required item awaiting orders. One of the most critical items was a sawmill which was needed to produce lumber to house the workers and to derive immediate revenue.

Then the first serious obstacle occurred. Mr. Forbes advised that Washington would not execute the Kock agreement because they still had concerns about his character.  Kock had no alternative but to sign over the rights to the US and Haïti agreements to his partners. With this change, Secretary Seward drew up a new agreement, inserting  a powerful clause requiring the Haïtian government to "guaranty the performance of the contract." The partners knew the possibility of obtaining Haïtian government  approval to this clause was remote and they would probably not receive the $50 bonus. Kock insisted on proceeding with the venture and the agreement was executed  with the US government on 3 April 1863. Kock, feeling pressure from his partners, volunteered to reduce his stake to 25% and a new partnership agreement was drawn up.  He made a critical mistake by trusting his partners to execute this agreement. Kock had already passed the 6 month period for starting the venture called for in the Haïti  agreement and on 13 April 1863 embarked on the Ocean Ranger with some 500 workers for Haïti. The precise number of workers was to be later questioned and reported  differently on several occasions. The partners said they would send a second ship shortly with the sawmill and other critically needed supplies. During the voyage some of the workers had contracted smallpox. Upon arrival Kock set up a small temporary hospital at the west end of A'Vache where he enlisted Dr. Müller to treat the patients. While his partners had verbally agreed to the level of overall funding required, they initially invested the minimal amount  to get started, hoping to recover that investment immediately with a payment of the bonus from the US government. When that fell through they under funded the venture  and didn't send enough food, medicines or lumber to properly start the operations. Then Kock received another blow - a letter from Tuckerman dated 20 April 1863  stating that no additional supplies would be sent until the Haïtian government confirmed that the 500 initial workers were properly in place. In this letter Tuckerman<  spelled out in great detail how he expected Kock to treat the workers, that they should be properly housed and clothed while still expressing confidence in Kock. Kock was  perplexed since he had little possibility in complying without the necessary resources or credit from the partners. He was able to get the requested certificate but the partners  continued to stall.

he contract Kock had made with the workers was for 4 years at a rate of $0.16 per day including board. In addition they were to be paid 10% of the yearly profits according  to the amount of hours they worked. Kock's plan was to pay the workers with his currency, seen above, which could only be used in his stores on the island. The initial printing of currency was dated 1.1.1863 and the "stones (dies) from which it was struck (printed) were kept in New York by Jerome Tuckerman and Paul S. Forbes." Additional issues of currency could only have been done  with the approval of the partners. It is believed that only one production of currency was printed since almost from the beginning, the venture was very shaky with the partners questioning  every expenditure. A 1 Gourde Haïtienne/1 Haïtian Dollar is also reported to have been printed at the same time.

It was later learned through Mr. W .S. Skinner, Kock's plantation superintendent who stayed behind to shepard the second shipment, that the partners had little concern for Kock' or the colonists' well being. In an affidavit he made on 26.12.1863 Skinner said Forbes told him "how can I send out another ship without knowing if the Ocean Ranger with all on board might be lost?"  Skinner protested saying that Kock left with only 6 weeks of food to which Forbes replied "Kock is smart enough to take care of himself; there is plenty of fish, wild animals, and wild fruit on  the island, and if they do not know how to help themselves under such circumstances, they deserve it." The partners did agree to send some additional provisions but would only consider  the sawmill if W. S. Skinner reported favorably on the viability of the project. Skinner then proceeded to A'Vache and submitted a good report but the partners continued to hesitated to invest  additional funds.
In early June 1863 a Mr. A. A. Ripka arrived on the island announcing that he was a new partner in the venture and displayed to Kock his full power of attorney to run the island operations.  He further stated that Kock would not be getting a signed contract for his share of the venture and the critical sawmill would not be sent until the partners could ascertain the ventures viability. Some additional food and clothing arrived but the lack of housing and supplies caused an armed rebellion of the workers. Kock had to enlist 15 Haïtian soldiers from Aux-Cayes  to quell the rebellion and had a dozen of the "ringleaders" arrested and sent to the mainland. From this point forward he employed extreme measures to control the restless workers. Kock agreed that they had many valid grievances but they seemed most concerned about success of the venture. Starting in July of 1863 Kock admitted that he stopped giving the workers  rations "in order to avoid their shirking work with full stomachs." but agreed to pay them the equivalent of the meals missed. He states exceptions to this policy were made for any worker  who was sick.

In August of 1863 Kock received a request from New York to obtain a certificate from the Haïtian authorities attesting that the workers were naturalized and the colony was functioning  properly. Kock drafted a certificate which the government promptly signed. This was to be sent to the US government in order to try again to obtain the $50 bonus per head. Then the deal  began to quickly unravel. Kock learned that his partners, through their agent Mr. A. A. Ripka had approached the Haïtian government and offered them a 1/6 interest in the venture instead of rent.  Kock was incensed and went to President Geffrard to try to stop the transfer of his rights. But the President told him the power of attorney was proper and he had no legal rights, however, he  also said he would not accept this new deal. Dejected, Kock was determined to press on with the plan. The on 24 October 1863 Kock received a letter from Brown, Ross and Co. of Port-au-Prince  on behalf of the partners relieving him of his duties. Kock was advised that he should go to the mainland until his status could be determined and during that period he would be paid  $300 per month.

Kock states that this money was never paid to him. His final status was read to him on 31 October 1863 by Mr. A. A. Ripka saying that the decision was that his position was at an end. Kock then wrote a letter to the partners reiterating their deal and his continued belief in the viability of the venture. He mentioned that he had found a high grade of valuable rosewood  on the island, which he was promoting as "West Indian Rosewood" that being the equal of Brazilian rosewood. In addition he said he had obtained approval from the Haïtian authorities  for a similar lease on Grand Cayemite Island and was holding it with a friend, later announced as that of Surville Toussaint, a Senator and planter, who was a signatory of Kock's contract  with Haïti.  Kock ended his letter by stating that if he was not re-instated within 8 days, he would sue and he threatened to expose them by publishing all the facts surrounding  this debacle, something  he ultimately did in 1864. Mr. A. A. Ripka then tried to sell the partners interest to Brown, Ross & Co. but the Haïtian government would not sanction the transfer. Upon learning this the partners abandoned the venture.

Kock then tried to make a new contract with the government but they refused. On 20 December 1863 Kock visited the island for the last time. When he arrived at the  island  he found the workers demoralized and "many of them had gone actually mad, under the influence of some religious excitement, to which they had surrendered themselves" perhaps a veiled  reference to Voodoo. Kock also found an agent of the US government on the island who he was told by the workers "had endeavored to persuade them all to return to the United States,  and enlist in the army under him as their colonel."

On 22 December 1863 President Lincoln sent a ship to Haiti and brought the remaining 453 workers back to the US. No colonization plans have been found after this venture.