Despite being born into slavery, John Lewis Waller became a prominent lawyer, politician, businessman, journalist, and military leader. He gained recognition as a diplomat when he became the United States consul to Madagascar.
Waller was born in New Madrid County, Missouri, on January 12, 1850. There is very little known about his enslaved parents. At the end of the U.S Civil War, Waller moved with his family to a farm in Tama County, Iowa. He began his education in 1863 and graduated from high school in Toledo, Iowa.
Interested in politics, Waller studied the American legal matters using the law library of Judge N.M. Hubbard. He studied for the bar and passed it on October 1877. The following year, Waller later to Topeka, Kansas, in response to Pap Singleton’s call for African Americans to colonize the state.
In the presidential election of 1888, Waller became the first African American to be selected for the Electoral College, supporting the Republican ticket. His responsibility was to transport the results of the Kansas vote to Washington, D. C. Following an unsuccessful campaign to become Kansas state auditor, Waller was appointed as U.S. Consul to Madagascar in 1891.
After Waller’s service in Madagascar had ended, the island’s monarch gave him a concession which consisted of 150,000 acres with mahogany, ebony, and rosewood. Waller developed the land into a thriving business. However, once France entered into a treaty with the Malagasy government, the French Resident objected to the granting of the concession without their approval. Waller was arrested and accused by the French of being a spy who gave sensitive military information to the Hovas, the indigenous people of Madagascar. The French believed Waller’s success in developing his concession was infringing on their efforts to colonize the island, so Waller was court-martialed and sentenced to twenty years in prison. U.S. President Grover Cleveland demanding Waller be set free. He was released after ten months’ incarceration in Marseille, and the chaos surrounding the entire incident came to be known as “the Waller Affair.”
After returning to the states, he became an officer with the Twenty-Third Kansas Volunteers during the Spanish American war. In 1900, he retired and lived with his family in New York City. Waller died of pneumonia in 1907.