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Black Settlers and Native Africans

In what came to be called the Americo?Liberian community, an early distinction was made by the settlers and others between themselves and the "natives," as they called the indigenous population. Native Africans in turn labeled the Americo? Liberians kwi, <; term also applied to Europeans. The term was picked up by the settlers and used as a synonym for "civilized." The meaning of the term civilized changed through time and was characterized by a certain ambiguity; in addition to Americo? Liberians, it was applied to those recaptives and indigenous Africans who had given up their tribal identification and had assimilated into the Americo? Liberian community (see The Social Order, ch. 2).

From Liberia's inception there was an exclusive identification of the state with the immigrant experience of the American settlers, which was emphasized in its national symbols. The young country's motto, for example, expressed the conviction that "The Love of Liberty Brought Us Here," and the seal of the republic featured the images of an immigrant ship and a settler's plow. The Liberian Declaration of Independence affirmed that "we the people of Liberia were originally the inhabitants of the United States of North America," and the early Americo?Liberians habitually referred to the United States as "our country."

Colonization had in part been conceived of as a missionary venture by the church groups that had been its sponsors. Not surprisingly, organized religion was an important factor in Americo-Liberian society. All of the major Protestant denominations in the United States were represented in Liberia. The Methodists, followed by the Baptists, were numerically the largest and were socially the most significant. The Episcopalians, Congregationalists, and Presbyterians all had churches in the settlements. These were Americo? Liberian rather than missionary churches, however, and missionary activity among native Africans was carried on by foreigners, who for many years were not permitted into the interior by the Liberian government.

Interconnected with the churches but of even greater political and social influence in the Americo?Liberian community was the Masonic Order, established in Liberia in 1851. Five presidents of the republic, beginning with Roberts, were brand masters of the order, which came to be seen as the repository of community ideals and the symbol of Americo?Liberian solidarity. The lodges offered a forum in which political discussions were carried out in a nonconfrontational atmosphere, and compromises were worked out among fellow members before being announced to the public. Membership also opened up avenues to advancement in politics and business.

Although no caste system existed as such within the ranks of the Americo-Liberians, a small number of mulattoes, mainly from Virginia and Maryland, formed an elite group set apart by their "means and education" from black Americo?Liberians. They were prominent in commerce and for more than 50 years dominated the political leadership of the country. Some of the mulatto merchants maintained close business contacts in the United States. Roberts, for instance, had a partnership in a firm in his hometown of Petersburg, Virginia, to which he exported wood, palm oil, and ivory for sale in the United States.

A report on the activities of the colonization societies prepared for the United States Congress in 1843 provided detailed information?including names, places of origin, and occupations?about those who had settled in Liberia by that date. Since 1820, according to the report, a total of 4, 771 black Americans had been transported under the auspices of the societies. Of these, only 2,388 were still living in Liberia in 1843, yet less than 10 percent of the immigrants had chosen during that time to return to the United States. About 1,900 had succumbed to tropical diseases?by far the leading cause of death?although chances of survival were considered much improved once a settler had passed through the "seasoning" period, or first few years of exposure to the new and difficult environment. Nearly 100 settlers had been victims of drowning in the region's swift?flowing rivers. The rate of infant mortality was extremely high.

The settlers' early expectations of making fortunes in trade had been deflated by the time of the 1843 report. Out of 1,100 whose occupations were given, fully 700 were listed as semiskilled workers and nearly 200 as farmers. About 125 were employed as skilled craftsmen, and only 70 were identified as engaged in commerce or as practicing a profession. It was not uncommon, however, for farmers?particularly those upriver?to double as traders, for businessmen to serve as estate owners, or for employed persons to do subsistence farming on the side.. It was estimated thtat about 10 percent of the settlers were literate, but only 42 persons were identified as being"educated." Settlers came to Liberia from almost all the states then composing the union, but had provided a disproportionately large number of emigrantsmore than one?third of the total?followed at a distance by North Carolina and Maryland. '

The support of the United States government for the colonization effort had been contingent on the creation in Liberia of a refuge for Africans recaptured from the slave ships by the American naval patrols. Initially, the settlements in Liberia were seen as providing temporary shelter for recaptives until such time as they could be returned to their home regions. It was soon apparent, however, that such an undertaking would be impractical, if not impossible, because of the large number of locations from which they had been taken as slaves?even when these could be identified by naval authorities. Nor were recaptives particularly anxious to be repatriated.

As of 1843 only about 300 recaptives had been resettled in Liberia, a number small enough to be assimilated readily into the Ain erico?Liberian population. Almost all were baptized, took English names, adopted the dress and manners of the settlers, and were accorded recognition as members of the community. Known collectively as the "Congoes," the recaptives referred to themselves as "Americans" and considered themselves socially superior to tribal Africans.

The number of recaptives brought to Liberia increased dramatically in the 1840s and 1850s as a result of stepped?up vigilance by the naval patrols, and by 1860 more than 5, 000 had been introduced into the country, a number almost equal to that of settlers from the United States then living in Liberia. Once accepted as "civilized," the Congoes enjoyed the full rights of Liberian citizenship on an equal basis with the settlers. Particularly after the founding of the True Whig Party in 1860, the Congoes assumed importance as a political constituency that was much courted by politicians.

The Cangoes were also a key factor in the expansion of the frontier, where they worked in lumbering and on upriver farms. They mixed more easily with the indigenous population in settings that were probably not too different from those from which they themselves had come. Typically, they married women from a neighboring people?usually bY marriage payments?establishing kinship ties with the group from which the woman came but raising their children as Americo?Liberians.

By 1870 Liberia had attracted 13,000 immigrants from the United States. About 60 percent of them were emancipated slaves, many of whom had been freed or had purchased their freedom in order that they might emigrate to Liberia, and the remain der were freeborn blacks. Over and above this number were several hundred West Indian blacks, mostly from Barbados, who had arrived during the 1860s. In addition to the recaptives who had been received and integrated, as many as 3,000 Africans from local tribal groups had been "civilized" and "adopted" into the Americo?Liberian community.

Emigration decreased rapidly after the 1870s as the realities and hardships of life in Liberia became better known to potential settlers. Even at the height of enthusiasm for colonization, the response to appeals from the white?organized societies had been meager in relation to the size of the free black population in the United States. Sorne had actively opposed the recruitment of fellow blacks for colonization, which they equated with deportation from a country that, as one prominent critic of the movement remarked, "we have enriched. . .with our blood and tears."Typical, perhaps, of the motivation for many of those black Ainericans who did take the opportunity to emigrate was that expressed in a letter from an early settler to her former mistress in the United States: "It gives me great satisfaction that everything I do is for myself and for my children."

The Americo?Liberians never represented more than a minuscule portion of the population of the "black republic" that they claimed as their own. Real contact between their government and the people of the interior occurred only after the beginiiing of the twentieth century. Even in the coastal region where their settlements were concentrated, they were a small minority. It was ironic that in their social separateness, in the assumptions that they made about native Africans, and in the manner in which they sought to impose their authority, the Americo?Liberians were, at least until the 1940s, uncomfortably similar to white minorities that dominated colonial territories elsewhere in Africa.

Two articles in the 1847 constitution were of particular significance in the development of the definition of Liberia as a black republic. Article V, section 12, for instance, stated that "no person shall be entitled to hold real estate in the Republic unless lie be a citizen of the sane." Article V, section 13, orginally provided that "the great object for forming these Colonies being to provide a home for the dispersed and oppressed children of Africa, and to regenerate and enlighten this benighted Continent, none but Negroes or persons of color shall be admitted to citizenship in this Republic." Subsequently, a person of North African but nonblack origin claimed the right of citizenship on the basis of long residence and, consequently, the right to hold property. Because this claim was judged to be contrary to the apparent intentions of theframers of the constitution and of later governments, section 13 was amended in 1907 to read: "none but persons of Negro descent shall be eligible to citizenship in this Republic," thus excluding the applicant.

In making the distinction between black and nonblack Africans, however, the amenders of the constitution overlooked the continued distinction that they implied between "persons of Negro descent," i.e., Americo?Liberians, and indigenous tribal Africans, who were officially designated "aborigines." The'latter were alluded to in only two articles of the constitution, one of which gave then a vague guarantee to their communal lands and another which directed the government of the republic to promote their "advancement and improvement." Nowhere in the constitution, however, was it stated whether "aborigines" could become citizens.

For at least 40 years the settlers were constantly in conflict with chiefdoms from one or another of the African tribal groups. The wars between them were small in scale but intense, and in the 1820s and 1830s the very existence of the settlements was sometimes at stake. A succession of administrators from Ashmun to Roberts tried to mediate the interclan conflicts that disrupted Liberia's trade with the interior or formed alliances with some chiefdoms against others that threatened to become too strong. Usually, the settlers could depend oil the superiority of their weapons to offset the greater numbers of the native Africans. In the early years of the colony, however, the king of the Kondo confederacy, Sao Boso (called "Boatswain" by the settlers), could reputedly call up an au?ioy of 8,000 warriors armed with muskets. Sao Baso remained a serious threat to the settlers until his death around 1836, after which the Kondo confederacy began a decline.

The principal cause of resistance by native Africans was interference in their trade by the settlers who had first attempted to stop the slaving and then prevented there from dealing in legitimate goods with foreigners with whom they had commercial relations long before the settlers arrived in West Africa. The most common tactic used by indigenous Africans was to cut off` trade and supplies of food to the settlements, compelling the settlers oil several occasions to call oil the United States Navy for assistance. In 1843, for example, a squadron of American warships, commanded by Commodore Matthew Perry, was summoned to break an embargo imposed oil the Maryland colony by the Grebo.

If the native African clans had difficulty accepting LIberian regulation of trade, neither were they able to understand how title to their communal land could be alienated through purchase for use as private property from which they were excluded. The chiefs with whom the colonization societies had dealt did not have authority to dispose of the land and probably did not realize the consequences of their action in agreeing to sell it. Title to land therefore became another source of conflict between the settlers and native Africans. As a way out of the impasse, the Grebo chiefs suggested that if the Americo?Liberians wanted the use of the land, they could join the tribal group.

The Americo? Liberians did very little to fulfill the "civilizing mission" that the colonization societies had proposed for them. Where assimilation did occur, it was most often the result of intermarriage or informal unions between "civilized" men and "native" women.,Intermarriage forged kinship ties between local communities and Americo? Liberian families; a child produced by an informal union was usually recognized by its father and became part of his family.

Another means by which native Africans were integrated into the Americo ?Liberian community was by adoption through "pawning." As practiced traditionally by indigenous Africans, an individual?usually a child or a woman?might be given as a "pawn" in security for a loan or as payment for a debt. The holder had the right to the pawn's labor or, if a woman, to cohabitation. At its worst, the custom could easily become an excuse for domestic servitude. At its best, however, young pawns were taken into prominent settler families as wards or apprentices, were baptized, educated with the children of the family, inherited the family mine, and gained entrance into the Americo?Liberian community.

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