Founding Liberia

Whilst we wait for the outcome of the Liberian elections (Chippla’s Blog) on 26th October and,  which if Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf wins will result in  Africa’s second  woman president (Mishairi), I thought it might be interesting to look briefly at the founding of Liberia in 1847.

In 1816 a group of white American Quakers and slaveholders formed the American Colonisation Society (ACS) with the idea of solving what they perceived as the problem of “freed Black slaves” by resettling them back in Africa. The Quakers saw the resettlement of Africans to Africa as an opportunity to spread Christianity and the slaveholders saw it as an opportunity to rid the US of these “promoters of mischief” as they fought the abolitionists and growing slave rebellions across the southern US.

Despite opposition from many Blacks and Abolitionists the ACS managed to raise funds from religious and philanthropic organisations as well as the US government, and in 1822 the first group of 88 black settlers and 3 white ACS members set sail and landed in present day Sierra Leone and over the next 10 years some 2,500 African Americans settled in what is present day Liberia.  The land they settled on was either taken by force or bought from the indigenous chiefs and conflict between the settlers and indigenous people continued.  The recent civil war in Liberia can be traced back to this period as resentment over the expansionist settler colony who essentially came to build an "American Christian" society in Africa even recreating the plantation type homes of the former slave masters in the coastal regions.   

The settlers suffered from malaria and yellow fever, common in the
area’s coastal plains and mangrove swamps, and from attacks by the
native populations who were, at various times, unhappy — unhappy with
the expansion of the settlements along the coast; with the settlers’
efforts to put an end to the lucrative slave trading in which some
ethnic groups were engaged; and at the settlers’ attempts to
Christianize their communities. Despite these difficulties, the Black
settlers were determined to show the world that they could create,
develop, and run their own country. And so they kept arriving.

The relationship between the two groups, settlers and indigenous, worsened as the latter were marginalised and treated as inferior to the "white" African Americans.

In 1824 the settlement was named Monrovia after one of the founders of the ACS, James Monroe.   Initially the colony was run by the ACS who maintained control over all aspects of governance.  In 1842, Joseph Jenkins Roberts became the first non-white Governor of what was now Liberia and later its first President in 1848 after the declaration of independence by the legislature in 1847.

Liberia was built on violence and conflict as indigenous land was stolen or bought for nothing, traditional rulers murdered and the local population excluded from commerce and education.  The AmericoLiberians sought to re-create a two tiered society based on ethnicity and class not to dissimilar from the one they had left in the hope of finding a better life and freedom.

They referred to themselves as “Americans” and were recognized as such by tribal Africans and by British colonial authorities in neighboring Sierra Leone. The symbols of their state – its flag, motto, and seal – and the form of government that they chose reflected their American background and immigrant experience.

 Amos J Beyan has written a new book which considers the settlement of African Americans in West Africa by examining the "intellectual accomplishments" of John Brown Russwurm a Black American who had an "unwavering support of the American Colonisation Society"  – African American Settlements in West Africa: John Brown Russwurm and the American Civilising Efforts.