UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!


History of Liberia

Americans opposed to slavery back in the early 1800s were divided over the issue of colonization (forming separate colonies) for African Americans instead of integrating them into the United States. The roots of the colonization movement date back to various plans first proposed in the eighteenth century. From the start, colonization of free blacks in Africa was an issue on which both whites and blacks were divided. Some blacks supported emigration because they thought that black Americans would never receive justice in the United States. Others believed African-Americans should remain in the United States to fight against slavery and for full legal rights as American citizens. Some whites saw colonization as a way of ridding the nation of blacks, while others believed black Americans would be happier in Africa, where they could live free of racial discrimination. Still others believed black American colonists could play a central role in Christianizing and civilizing Africa. They knew the nation would face many difficulties in becoming a truly integrated country.

Paul Cuffee (1759-1817), a successful Quaker shipowner of African- American and Native American ancestry, advocated settling freed American slaves in Africa. He gained support from the British government, free black leaders in the United States, and members of Congress for a plan to take emigrants to the British colony of Sierra Leone. Cuffee intended to make one voyage per year, taking settlers and bringing back valuable cargoes. In 1816, at his own expense, Captain Cuffee took thirty-eight American blacks to Freetown, Sierra Leone, but his death in 1817 ended further ventures. However, Cuffee had reached a large audience with his pro-colonization arguments and laid the groundwork for later organizations such as the American Colonization Society.

The American Colonization Society (ACS) was formed in 1817, with members such as James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Daniel Webster, and Francis Scott Key. The American Colonization Society was formed to send free African-Americans to Africa as an alternative to emancipation in the United States. In July 1820, the ACS published The African Intelligencer, edited by Jehudi Ashmun (1794-1828), a young teacher who hoped to become a missionary to Africa. Its thirty-two pages contained articles on the slave trade, African geography, the expedition of the Elizabeth (the ship that carried the first group of colonists to Liberia), and the ACS constitution. Upset by the expense and the lack of public support for the journal, ACS managers canceled the monthly journal after one issue.

Ashmun went to Africa in 1822, where he became an early leader of the Liberian colony on the west coast of Africa. Jehudi Ashmun envisioned an American empire in Africa. During 1825 and 1826, Ashmun took steps to lease, annex, or buy tribal lands along the coast and on major rivers leading inland. Like his predecessor Lt. Robert Stockton, who in 1821 persuaded African King Peter to sell Cape Montserado (or Mesurado) by pointing a pistol at his head, Ashmun was prepared to use force to extend the colony's territory. His aggressive actions quickly increased Liberia's power over its neighbors. In the treaty of May 1825, King Peter and other native kings agreed to sell land in return for 500 bars of tobacco, three barrels of rum, five casks of powder, five umbrellas, ten iron posts, and ten pairs of shoes, among other items. Jehudi Ashmun dyied from a fever in 1828.

Selling life memberships was a standard fund-raising practice of benevolent societies such as the American Colonization Society. At thirty dollars each, the memberships were a popular gift for ministers. In 1825, one of the agents who sold the certificates in New England estimated that "not less than $50,000 have in this way been poured into the treasury of the Lord."

Beginning in the 1830s, the society was harshly attacked by abolitionists, who tried to discredit colonization as a slaveholder's scheme. And, after the Civil War, when many blacks wanted to go to Liberia, financial support for colonization had waned. During its later years the society focussed on educational and missionary efforts in Liberia rather than emigration.

Congress made the importation of slaves into the United States illegal in 1808. In 1819, Congress passed an "Act in addition to the acts prohibiting the Slave Trade." This act authorized the president to send a naval squadron to African waters to apprehend illegal slave traders and appropriated $100,000 to resettle recaptured slaves in Africa. At various times, the American Colonization Society [ACS] entered into agreements with the US government to settle these rescued victims of the slave trade in Liberia.

Britain abolished the slave trade in 1809. To avoid British interference, slave traders such as Don Pedro Blanco established his operations in the Gallinas and other parts of Liberia. Corrupt Liberian leaders looked the other way, allowing the operations of Blaco to proceed with impunity. One of the areas that Pedro Blanco operated was an island called "Lomboko." Lomboko was located somewhere in the Gallinas, and it was from Lomboko that the Africans of the Amistad embarked on their enfamous journey to the Americas. After the British instituted the quarantine on ships heading across the North Atlantic, the main route for the slavers became the South Atlantic, between Brazil and West Africa. Liberia was one of the countries hit the hardest by the slavers, during the second quarter of the nineteenth century.

Fishtown was a settlement in the Grand Bass[u]a area of Liberia, south of Monrovia, near the St. John's River. In June 1835, one of the bloodiest episodes in early Liberian history occurred at the nearby Grand Bass[u]a settlement, where unarmed African-American settlers were massacred by native Africans upset by disruption of the local slave trade. A month later, militiamen from Monrovia attacked the area's African villages. A treaty in November 1835 bound African King Joe Harris to submit future disputes to the colonial authorities at Monrovia and to pay for property destroyed in the massacre.

During the 1830s, William Lloyd Garrison's violent condemnations of colonization as a slaveholder's plot to perpetuate slavery created deep hostility between abolitionists and colonizationists. Intended to encourage emigration and answer anti-colonization propaganda, an ACS pamphlet answered questions about household items needed in Liberia, climate, education, health conditions, and other concerns about the new country. Citing abolitionist charges that colonizationists merely wanted "to get clear of the colored people of the United States from their political and social disadvantages . . . to place them in a country where they may enjoy the benefits of free government . . . and to spread civilization, sound morals, and true religion throughout Africa."

By the 1840s, Liberia had become a financial burden on the ACS. In addition, Liberia faced political threats, chiefly from Britain, because it was neither a sovereign power nor a bona fide colony of any sovereign nation. Because the United States refused to claim sovereignty over Liberia, in 1846 the ACS ordered the Liberians to proclaim their independence. The commonwealth received most of its revenue from custom duties which angered the indigenous traders and British merchants on whom they were levied. The British government advised Liberian authorities that it did not recognize the right of the American Colonization Society, a private organization, to levy these taxes. Britain's refusal to recognize Liberian sovereignty convinced many colonists that independence with full taxing authority was necessary for the survival of the colony and its immigrant population. In October 1846, Americo-Liberian colonists voted in favor of independence.

Joseph Jenkins Roberts (1809-1876), a wealthy Monrovia merchant who had emigrated in 1829 from Petersburg, Virginia, became the first black American Colonization Society governor of Liberia in 1841. In 1848, he was elected the first president of an independent Liberia. He achieved international recognition for the new country before leaving the presidency in 1856. After many years as president of Liberia College, Roberts again served as Liberian president from 1872-1876.

In 1849, President Joseph Jenkins Roberts of Liberia appealed to the government and people of the United States for aid in purchasing the territory of Gallinas, enabling Liberia to control the West-African coast from Sierra Leone to Cape Palmas. As incentive, Roberts boasted of the eradication of the slave trade in territories recently acquired by Liberia. He pointed out that adding Gallinas would enable the republic to keep the whole coast "free from the demoralizing and wilting influence of the Slave trade."

During the 1830s, the Maryland Colonization Society, which had broken away from the American Colonization Society, ran its own colony call "Maryland in Liberia" and issued its own currency. Cape Palmas, founded in 1834, was the original settlement of the Maryland Colonization Society, which purchased the peninsula with muskets, powder, cloth, pots, beads, and other items of trade. The peninsula became the site of three missions, established to Christianize and civilize the native Africans.

In 1854 Maryland Colony declared its independence from the Maryland State Colonization Society but did not become part of the Republic of Liberia. It held the land along the coast between the Grand Cess and San Pedro Rivers. By 1856 the independent state of Maryland (Africa) requested military aid from Liberia in a war with the Grebo and Kru peoples who were resisting the Maryland settlers' efforts to control their trade. President Roberts assisted the Marylanders, and a joint military campaign by both groups of African American colonists resulted in victory. In 1857, Maryland became a county of Liberia.

Before the Civil War, Robert E. Lee freed most of his slaves and offered to pay expenses for those who wanted to go to Liberia. In November 1853, Lee's former slaves William and Rosabella Burke and their four children sailed on the Banshee, which left Baltimore with 261 emigrants. A person of superior intelligence and drive, Burke studied Latin and Greek at a newly established seminary in Monrovia and became a Presbyterian minister in 1857. He helped educate his own children and other members of his community and took several native children into his home.

In many respects, emigrants to Liberia re-created an American society there. The colonists spoke English and retained American manners, dress, and housing styles. Affluent citizens constructed two-story houses composed of a stone basement and a wood-framed body with a portico on both the front and rear, a style copied from buildings in the southern American states from which most of the emigrants came. Liberia's president lived in a handsome stone mansion that resembled a southern plantation house.

Like the United States, Liberia used dollars and cents as its units of currency. Reflecting the many inhabitants engaged in agriculture, early Liberian currency pictured farmers and farm animals. Later currency included a ship and palm trees like those on the national seal.

By 1867, the American Colonization Society had sent more than 13,000 emigrants. The peak years were between 1848 and 1854, when the society chartered forty-one ships and transported nearly 4,000 colonists. After falling to the twenties in 1863 and 1864, the numbers went up again after the Civil War, when 527 people went in 1865 and 621 in 1866.

The Tubmans were a group of slaves set free by Augustan Richard Tubman in 1836 in Augusta, GA. With the help of his widow, Emily, they traveled to Africa, where they settled in the colony that eventually became Liberia. The Tubman people prospered in their new home, starting farms, churches and schools. And the grandson of two of those slaves went on to become the nation's president. William V.S. Tubman, the grandson of two of those Augusta slaves, was Liberia's president for 27 years. He received a hero's welcome during his historic visit to the United States in 1954.

After the ACS and the American government took possession of the coastal areas of Liberian, the indigenous peoples who owned the land rose up and attempted to evict the new emigrants through lethal means, but failed. For over 150 years, the struggle continued between the descendants of the repatriated African-Americans and "Congos" (those recaptured by the American navy and settled in Liberia) on the one hand, and the indigenous peoples who attempted to gain for themselves a prominent place in Liberian political and economic life. When African-American of pure African heritage permanently seized political control of the Liberian government in 1884, they continued the "old-boys network", of political dictatorship.

The Americo-Liberian leaders contacted with Spanish planters on the Island of Fernando Po for the shipment of surplus laborers from Liberia. This traffic in human beings became a means for capital accumulation by the political elite. Spanish colonials in Equatorial Guinea needed laborers for their cocoa plantations. In 1905, Liberia agreed to supply the workers on contract. Village chiefs rounded up young men and supplied them to the contractors; the laborers received no salary until they returned to Liberia.

In 1909 a commission appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt investigated conditions in Liberia and recommended financial reorganization. A loan of $1.7 million, secured by customs revenue, was raised by an international consortium of bankers in 1912, and a receivership of customs was set up, administered by appointees of the British, French, and German governments and a US Receiver-General. A frontier police force was organized by officers of the US Army, with the result that Liberian authority was better maintained. This new regime was upset by World War I. Revenues dropped to one-fourth of the pre-War level, and the financial situation steadily deteriorated.

Between 1926 and the outbreak of the Second World War, Liberia became a rubber dominated economy, which was based on a system of forced labor. The Firestone Tire and Rubber Company obtained a concession of 1,000,000 acres (400,000 hectares) for a rubber plantation in 1926. On 01 September 1926 a loan was arranged through the The Finance Corporation of America in Cleveland OH, a Firestone subsidiary. With this private loan, the Liberian government consolidated and bonded all its external and internal debts and placed the country's finances on a relatively stable basis. Administration of the customs and internal revenue was placed in the hands of a US financial adviser.

In 1930, the League of Nations appointed the "International Commission of Inquiry into the Existence of Slavery and Forced Labor in the Republic of Liberia". The committee could not substantiate charges of slavery and forced labor according to international law. They did find, however, that Liberian officials, including the republic's vice president, profited from indigenous people's forced labor. The League's scathing report equated the system to slavery, and implicated both President Charles D.B. King, and Vice President Allen Yancy as part of the syndicate of Liberians receiving a cut in the lucrative venture. The report led to the resignations of President King and Vice President Yancy, and the election of Edwin Barclay to the presidency in 1931.

By June 1930 The Finance Corporation complained to the US Department of State that Liberia was in default on the Loan Agreement between the company and the Government of the Republic of Liberia. As the owner of the bonds issued under the Loan Agreement, the Finance Corporation complained that the security of the bonds had been impaired by the failure of the Liberian Government to perform its obligations under the terms of the Agreement and by conduct on the part of the Liberian Government which the Corporation interpreted as designed to obstruct or defeat the due and proper administration of the Loan. But the US Charge in Liberia countered that the withholding of the loan money (all of it earmarked) would result in the cessation of sanitary work and of the Booker T. Washington Institute and in the suspension of road and bridge construction, which, among other things, would cut off the Firestone Plantations from direct communication with this Capital during the rainy season. [SOURCE]

Liberia appealed to the Council of the League of Nations for financial aid, and a commission of inquiry was established. The League of Nations drew up a plan of assistance which could have, if it had been implemented, eventually abrogated the independence of Liberia. When Liberia refused to accept the League's plan, the major powers, including the United States, refused to recognized the Government of President Edwin Barclay. After the League Council had finally withdrawn its plan of assistance, the Liberian government reached an agreement with Firestone along lines similar to the League's recommendations. In 1934, President Franklin Roosevelt restored diplomatic relations with Liberia after President Barclay implemented some of the measures that were proposed by the League of Nations.

Liberia gained new significance after the outbreak of World War II. During the war, Liberia's rubber plantation was the only source of natural latex rubber available to the Allies, apart from plantations in Ceylon. In 1942 Liberia signed a defense agreement with the US which resulted in a program of strategic road building, the construction of an international airport, and a deepwater harbor at Monrovia. US money was declared legal tender in Liberia in 1943, replacing British West African currency. In 1943 William V.S. Tubman was elected to his first term as president.

By the middle of the 20th Century, Liberian state structures had fully penetrated the interior, including the four new counties created in 1964. The creation of Bong, Nimba, Lofa and Grand Gedeh Counties brought administrative parity to what was called the Liberian hinterland.

From 1944 to 1980, the administrations of William V.S. Tubman and William R. Tolbert attempted to rectify the political and economic conditions that divided the people. To some extent, they succeeded in bridging the gap that divided the Liberia people into an indigenous "country people" and "Americo-Liberian" class. However, the change was not fast enough and not substantial enough to hold back the political tidal wave that was coming.

Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list

Page last modified: 09-07-2011 02:53:14 ZULU