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The Commonwealth of Liberia

Although there was rivalry among the several colonization societies, they found it beneficial to cooperate in the United States, where fund?raising and ,the recruitment of settlers had become more difficult. Out of this cooperation came, in 1838, the merger of the ACS colony (including the Virginia settlement) and Balsa Cove as the Commonwealth of Liberia. A new constitution responded to demands voiced by settlers for greater participation in government.

The commonwealth constitution was brought to Liberia by a new governor, Thomas Buchanan, to be approved by the settlers. (Buchanan, who had been active in the antislavery movement and had once served as the governor of Balsa Cove, was the brother of the future president of the United States, James Buchanan.) It provided for the governor, who was appointed by the ACS, to act as chief executive officer and also to preside over the Supreme Court. A lieutenant governor would be elected by the settlers, as would representatives to a legislative body, the Council of Liberians. The ACS, through the governor, retained the right, however, to veto any legislation that the Council enacted. Suffrage was granted to all male citizens over the age of 21. Citizenship was specifically limited to "persons of color," but, in practice, indigenous Africans were excluded.

The commonwealth was divided for administrative purposes into two counties: Montserrado, comprising the original ACS colony of Liberia, and Grand Balsa (Balsa Cove). The new arrangement claimed sovereignty over all the settlements between Cape Mount and the Cestos River. A survey conducted in 1838 counted 2,247 colonists, 20 churches, 10 schools, and four printing presses; the ACS reported the following year that the right bank of the Saint Paul River presented an almost continuous line of cultivated farms up to the fall line. In 1842 the Mississippi colony was formally admitted as Sinoe County, leaving only the Maryland colony outside the commonwealth.

In 1841 a settler, Joseph Jerkins Roberts, was appointed to succeed Buchanan as governor of Liberia. A mulatto born in Virginia to parents who were themselves free persons, Roberts was a man of intelligence and vision. Within a few years his administration had consolidated the society's landholdings through additional purchases and could claim to exercise sole jurisdiction as far as the Grand Cess River, which was the western limit of the Maryland colony. Liberia also claimed sovereignty in the other direction up to the Sewa River bordering on Sierra Leone but exercised no authority beyond Cape Mount. An important aspect of this consolidation was Roberts' effort to put an end to the slave trade, but by asserting Liberian sovereignty over an even larger stretch of the coast he expected to counter similar claims that might be made by Britain and France (see fig. 2).

The British government warned further that the Royal Navy, which often in the past had protected the colonists, would be used to safeguard legitimate British commercial interests and to ensure the freedom of trade in those areas claimed by Liberia. The numerous incidents that followed the British refusal to recognize Liberian sovereignty convinced Roberts that the settlers' only course of action was to break their ties with the ACS and change Liberia's status in international law from that of a private venture to that of an independent state. Liberia Country Study

The ACS had envisioned that agriculture would he the principal economic activity in Liberia. Promoters expected the settler communities not only to feed themselves but also to produce cash crops to earn revenue. Many of the colonists, however, were craftsmen and workers from northern cities in the United States who showed little interest in agriculture, and even those who came from the agrarian South shunned farming, which they associated with slavery. Most sought to improve their circumstances in Africa by engaging in trade or by practicing the skills that they had brought with them. Liberian shipwrights and joiners, for instance, gained a reputation for the quality of the schooners that they built to ply the coastal trade. Rice and maize were cultivated, and livestock was raised around the settlements, but the settler communities depended for their food supply largely on purchases from African growers. Typically, cash crop farming was a sideline for those whose primary occupation was in trade or administration. Sugarcane was the first such crop to gen erate an interest among settlers who employed indigenous labor for fieldwork. A number of small mills operated to process the cane, and a thriving barrel?making industry developed in Liberia to produce containers for shipping sugar and rum. Coffee growing gradually developed, and palm oil also became an important export.

The principal source of revenue for the administration in Liberia consisted of customs duties levied on all imports and exports. To maximize its income from this source, the Liberian government took steps to regulate trade by limiting it to those ports where customs were collected. Efforts to impose these restrictions antagonized Africans whose trade with foreigners in legitimate commodities was interrupted. More seriously, attempts by Liberian officials to collect duties from foreign traders brought on a confrontation with Britain.

Trouble began when British merchants, who for many years had been trading with the tribes along the Liberian coast, complained to their government about the customs duties being demanded of them. They were advised, in effect, that Liberia had no right to levy taxes on their trade. The British governor of Sierra Leone sent a note to Liberian authorities explaining that Britain did not recognize the right of private persons?that is, the ACS to constitute themselves a government and exercise sovereignty.

The British government warned further that the Royal Navy, which often in the past had protected the colonists, would be used to safeguard legitimate British commercial interests and to ensure the freedom of trade in those areas claimed by Liberia. The numerous incidents that followed the British refusal to recognize Liberian sovereignty convinced Roberts that the settlers' only course of action was to break their ties with the ACS and change Liberia's status in international law from that of a private venture to that of an independent state.

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