The African Background
The inland rain forests of present?day Liberia had been very sparsely populated until the first waves of peoples seeking refuge from the upheavals that affected the great Sudanic kingdoms on the upper Niger River began moving into the region, mainly from the north and east, between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries. Although these kingdom s?Songhay, Ghana, and Mali anu>ng them?extended their control into neighboring territories, none encompassed any part of present?day Liberia. The arrival of new groups and their dispersal throughout the region continued into the early nineteenth century, when the first American settlers landed on the coast. In the competition for living space, the strong grew stronger and occupied the choice areas; the weak were either absorbed or driven into the deeper recesses of the rain forest.
The indigenous population with whom the settlers came into contact belonged to three main linguistic categories: tribal clusters of Kwa?, Mande?, and West Atlantic?speaking peoples. These were branches of the greater Niger?Congo family of languages. The Kwa speakers comprised those groups that later came to be called the Balsa and Dey on the western coast, the Kru and Grebo on the eastern coast, and the Krahn in the interior (see Ethnicity and Language, ch. 2). The Mande speakers were found in eight distinct tribal clusters that included the Vai on the western coast and the wide?ranging Kpelle in the interior. The Mandingo, Muslims whose tribal heartland lay farther to the north, were relatively few in number in the region, but as traders and in well?organized warrior bands they exercised considerable economic and political influence.
There were no political or social units larger than small?scale chiefdoms, which were isolated from other groups in the fragmented tribal clusters and tended to be culturally parochial. Geographical features, such as the swift?running rivers that cut through the region, were often barriers to interaction between ethnically related communities. It was not unusual for chiefdoms of one tribe to fight each other in alliance with those from other tribes. The clearest evidence of attempted state?building by conquest in the region was the Mandingo?dominated Kondo confederacy, which had its center at Bopolu in the early nineteenth century. Parties of Mandingo warriors also formed ruling elites in chiefdoms of other tribes whom they had defeated and among whom they settled. There were, however, short?lived confederacies of chiefdoms, often of different ethnic composititon, in western and northern Liberia.
At least from the eighteenth century, external social control was imposed on many of the chiefdoms by the Poro, a secret society that operated independently of the local chiefs. The pan?tribal society has both religious and judicial functions, not only bringing together the peoples of different communities in ritual observances but also regulating trade among them (see The Social Order, ch. 2). The Poro influenced the selection of chiefs and determined whether or not a chief remained in power. It also served as a forum in which rival chiefs who were members of the Poro TI settled their differences. ~
The coastal people were mostly fishermen and farmers. Those who lived inland and along the rivers engaged in sub sistence agriculture, but hunting and gathering was also a major activity. In the uplands, rice was cultivated and, in the dry savanna of the northwest, millet and sorghum were grown. Trade was conducted through Mandingo intermediaries, whose com pounds were located near large village clusters. The Mandingo brought slaves, ivory, and forest products from the region to the caravan routes that crossed the savanna to the north, exchanging them for salt, cloth, tools, glass heads, and the cowrie shells that were used as currency.
Norman-French traders sailing from Dieppe may have set up depots to acquire spices at sites on the coast of present?day Liberia in the fourteenth century, but the first documented visit by a European to those shores was that of the Portuguese navigator Pedro de Sintra, who in 1461 anchored at the mouth of the junk River while charting that stretch of the West African coast. Trade, which developed between the coastal Africans and the Portuguese, reversed the former orientation of commerce inland toward the caravan routes and attracted greater numbers of people to settle along the coast. During the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, ivory and melegueta pepper (a pungent seed used as a spice) were the principal items of trade that interested European merchants. As a mark of the importance of the latter commodity to them, it was from the melegueta pepper? the "grain of paradise"?that the region including the coast of present?day Liberia derived its name, the Grain Coast. 13y the seventeenth century, French, English, Danish, and Dutch traders had displaced the Portuguese along the Grain Coast, while slaves to supply the new plantations in the Americas had become by far the most important trade item.
Few people of the coastal tribes were ever sold into slavery, but they prospered as middlemen, selling slaves taken on raids in the interior by the Mandingo and others, e.g., the Gola, to the European traders who established posts in their territory. The coastal tribes became so dependent on the slave trade that clans formed confederacies to protect their share of it from competing clans and provoked wars in the interior to increase the supply of captives available for sale. It is estimated that about 12 percent of the slaves shipped out of Africa to the Americas in the eighteenth century came from depots on the Grain Coast.
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