The saga of Liberia’s beginnings reflects both America’ humanitarian generosity and its racism
I have a confession. Last year, when Americans were asked to help feed the survivors of civil war in Rwanda, I had to go to the atlas to find out where Rwanda was. Like most Americans —including, I am sure, most of the thirty million or so of African descent—I know almost nothing about what American and European writers in my youth still called the Dark Continent. Somehow, Americans in the thick of African rivalries seemed an anomaly. After all, unlike the British, French, Italians, Germans, Portuguese, and Dutch, we had never had a colony there.
Which only shows how easy it is even for trained U.S. historians to forget or ignore the realities of Africa’s past. I had to be reminded that there was actually a governmentassisted private adventure in American colonization there when the United States itself was young. The result was an African republic, now one of the world’s oldest at 148 years, whose government meets in a city named for our fifth President. I speak, of course, of Liberia, whose capital, Monrovia, is named for James Monroe.
The story of Liberia’s beginnings is a fine showcase for the strange mixture of humanitarian generosity and ignorant racism that white America has long shown toward “undeveloped” inhabitants of the globe. In brief, Liberia was launched as a charitable undertaking, with strong support from evangelical Christians. Its most influential white sponsors were slaveholders anxious to rid the United States entirely of any free black presence. Its actual pioneer settlers were voluntary expatriates, mostly drawn from the small American communities of free blacks. Both sponsors and settlers were woefully ignorant of the geography and hazards of their promised land and deluded about the indigenous peoples already living there.
The starting point was the creation, in 1816, of the American Colonization Society (ACS). The organization owed its existence to the coinciding of several unusual historical circumstances. Slavery had died out in the Northern part of the Union, where it had never prospered. The cotton boom in the Deep South, which would later revive the institution, had yet to gain momentum. European and British public opinion was also turning against slavery, and closer to American shores, Haitian slaves had established a “Negro republic” in 1804 after throwing out their French masters, a very worrisome precedent as American plantation owners saw it. Meanwhile, a second Great Awakening was beginning to sweep through the United States. Its calls for the swift conversion of the world to Christianity in anticipation of Christ’s imminent second coming gave birth to the foreign missionary movement.
All these overlapping events fed the dreams of the ACS’s founders, patriotic and patriarchal men like Henry Clay, Francis Scott Key, and Supreme Court Justice Bushrod Washington, nephew of the first President. They envisioned African settlements that would receive slaves to be voluntarily emancipated by their owners, as well as emigrants from among the roughly two hundred thousand blacks already at liberty. Colonization, they promised, would not only help remove the “blot” of bondage but enhance the market value of remaining slaves. It would also remove from American shores a free black population that was “for the most part idle and useless, and too often vicious and mischievous.” In Africa, U.S.-born blacks could “enlighten the dark minds” of the natives, to whom they were superior, and could help “break the shackles of superstition.” Congress appropriated a hundred thousand dollars of seed money to help.
Starting the project required some free blacks to agree in effect to deport themselves. Most black churches and associations made their lack of enthusiasm clear. They pointed out that they were generations removed from their African roots, had as good a claim as any other Americans to citizenship, and would do perfectly well for themselves if given the schooling and job opportunities that whites routinely enjoyed. Nevertheless, some pious blacks had caught the missionary fever, and others hardheadedly decided that emigration offered chances for real independence that simply were not going to become available in America. They signed on, in the hope of turning a part of Africa into a little replica of Massachusetts or Maryland in order to prove what they could do.
A preliminary reconnaissance by white agents of the ACS found a convenient location for “Liberia,” the land of freedom, on the Ivory Coast near a British-owned settlement of rescued slaves in Sierra Leone. There were chiefs of the miscellaneous native peoples who seemed willing to sell land to the society, so the black Mayflower (actually a brigantine named the Elizabeth ) set sail in January 1820 in the charge of the Reverend Samuel Bacon—Harvard graduate, missionary, and former marine in the recent war with England. The ship carried eighty-six colonists, twenty-eight of them men.
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.
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.”