- Historic Sites
America’s African Colony
The saga of Liberia’s beginnings reflects both America’ humanitarian generosity and its racism
December 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 8
What followed was a pioneer biracial saga worthy of a Parkman or a Michener. Landfall came in April, the start of the rainy season that made planting impossible. Fever immediately struck the settlers, killing their only doctor, one of the first licensed black physicians in Virginia. Bacon himself died of it in September. He was replaced by Daniel Coker, a black, who held things together until the arrival of a second ship carrying a new team of leaders—including Bacon’s brother—and another group of settlers. A third ship, the Strong , arrived in 1822. Its passengers included three men who would play a large part in Liberia’s immediate future. They were Jehudi Ashmun, Elijah Johnson, and Lott Carey. Ashmun, who brought his wife, was a twenty-eight-year-old white graduate of Middlebury College, a former minister and journalist. Carey was likewise a preacher, and Johnson had served as an artilleryman in the 1812-15 war.
Johnson’s experience proved useful. As new ships arrived, settlers came under harassing raids from suspicious local Africans. In November of 1822 Johnson’s thirty-six-man militia repulsed an attack with heavy casualties to the assailants, guaranteeing the colony’s survival. Ashmun relentlessly promoted the welfare and reputation of his “living miracle of Africa” until the fevers killed him and his wife. Carey succeeded Johnson as temporary head of the colony but was killed the following year—1829—in an accident. Leadership then fell to two American mulattoes, Joseph Roberts and Anthony Williams.
By then there were already a number of rooted settlements in the colony. Black homesteaders were trying to raise cotton, sugarcane, and cattle on the coastal wetlands. They did better after they diversified with local crops like pineapples and yams. By 1827 the colony had a school and several libraries.
Most American blacks didn’t want to settle there, but a few saw it as their only chance for real independence.
Eighteen years after its founding, Liberia counted some twenty-five hundred settlers, including rescued slaves, and twenty-eight thousand tribespeople. It also had a newspaper, the Liberia Herald , founded by a black American, John Russwurm; a rarely used jail; a rudimentary currency replacing the barter system; and a colonial constitution that provided for a president and representatives elected by the colonists, plus a council of ACSappointed settlement governors.
In the 1840s, however, Liberia needed more: a transition to complete independence. The Monrovian government was still in legal fact only the directorship of an American-owned plantation.
So in 1847, with the ACS’s consent, the Republic of Liberia—nearly three hundred miles of coastline and forty miles deep—was proclaimed. Its declaration of independence stated that it aimed to “establish justice, insure domestic peace and promote the general welfare,” and its flag had red and white stripes and a blue corner with a single white star. Its first political parties were named Republicans and Whigs (later True Whigs). And its first president, the black Joseph Roberts—elected by a majority of the 1,109 ballots cast—promptly succeeded in getting recognition from Britain, France, Prussia, and Brazil. But not from the United States, where the horror of slaveholding senators at the thought of receiving black ambassadors on an equal footing with white ones posed an insuperable political obstacle. Not until the midst of the Civil War, in 1862, was recognition formally extended by Abraham Lincoln, a long-time advocate of colonization.
There we must leave the annals of Liberia as they depart from the orbit of United States history. The new nation had its ups and downs, but it survived intact during a forty-year orgy of African land-grabbing by European powers, starting about 1870. It endured many problems, including ongoing conflict between its mulatto elite of “Americo-Liberians,” and the more numerous inland blacks, as well as recurrent financial crises. It became famous (or infamous) for providing a “flag of convenience” to foreign shippers, who registered their vessels under its lenient laws, and also as a major source of raw rubber from plantations developed by the Firestone Company. During World War II and the Cold War, it got large infusions of U.S. foreign aid. Unlike sister African nations in the postwar decolonization period, it was assumed to be very stable—until 1980, when M. Sgt. Samuel K. Doe led a revolt and set himself up as the national leader, only to be deposed and killed in 1990. But whatever Liberia’s cloudy present or future, it deserves to be remembered by Americans whenever Africa is “in the news.”