History Haunts War-Torn Liberia
for National Geographic News
|July 21, 2003|
As war-ravaged Liberia slides deeper into despair, 41 U.S. Marines arrived today to evacuate embassy staff and foreign aid workers. Wire services reported today that a larger force of 2,000 Marines may be deployed shortly with other international peacekeeping forces.
For several weeks, newspaper editorials have debated the pros and cons of sending American peacekeepers to the small West African nation. Some commentators maintain that even a small contingent of troops would stabilize Liberia; others say the mission is too risky.
Regardless of their position, the editorials agree that the United States and Liberia have a special historical bond because Liberia, the oldest republic in Africa, was "founded by freed American slaves" in the early 19th century.
This notion conjures up romantic images of freed slaves, bonding together in defiance of their former masters, and setting sail for their native land in search of a better life, free from prejudice and racism.
The truth, unfortunately, is far murkier, according to historians.
Liberia was not simply founded by freed slaves, but rather by the American Colonization Society (ACS), a private group run in part by white slave owners, which encouraged the emigration of free blacks to Africa because it viewed blacks as an economic burden and as potential troublemakers.
"The standard line that Liberia was founded by free slaves is both inaccurate and patronizing," said Marie Tyler-McGraw, author of an upcoming book about the American Colonization Society and the founding of Liberia. "Nineteenth century [white] American citizens thought they could minimize the problem of race and citizenship in [the United States] by providing an alternate republic for free blacks."
An Unlikely Alliance
There is a common misconception, historians say, that all American blacks were enslaved before the Civil War. In reality, the United States had thousands of free blacks in the early 19th century, and several American states were considered "slave-free."
Many slaves risked their lives to reach freedom in those states. But with few skills and no education, ex-slaves found themselves living in poverty in the large cities and contributing to a swelling black underclass.
The idea of repatriating African Americans to Africa originated with Robert Finley, a white Presbyterian minister from New Jersey. He felt that freed slaves in America had little hope of integrating into society and should be given an opportunity to govern themselves in a land where they could be truly free.
Finley found an unlikely ally in pro-slavery conservatives.
"The slaveholders were anxious to rid themselves of troublemakers, fearful that a growing number of free blacks would cause those still in slavery to demand freedom and eventually revolt," said Gabriel Williams, the Liberian author of Liberia: Heart of Darkness, who now lives as an exile in Sacramento, California.
The movement led to the 1816 establishment of the American Colonization Society, which was tasked with handling the emigration. Its first president was Bushrod Washington, a nephew to President Washington. Society agents soon went to West Africa to find and purchase suitable land. At home, the ACS encouraged slaveholders to offer their slaves freedom on the condition that those accepting it would move to Liberia.
While some African Americans supported the idea, seeing it as an opportunity to start over in a free country, many were deeply skeptical. Most northern free blacks opposed colonization and instead continued to press for full citizenship within the United States.
The majority of African Americans who set sail for Africa were educated free blacks who owned property and hailed from Maryland and Virginia.
"It was American racism that drove literate and accomplished free blacks to Liberia," said Tyler-McGraw.
Colonists vs. Natives
The first ship, the Elizabeth, headed to Liberia in 1816. On board were 88 voluntary emigrants and three white company officials. They landed off the coast of Liberia and immediately began to construct their new settlements.
Things didn't go according to plan, however. After only three weeks, 22 African Americans and all the white officials had died of yellow fever. But soon a second ship, Nautilus, arrived with more passengers and supplies.
Several thousand more colonists were put ashore by the U.S. Navy, which intercepted slave ships along the African coast. Descendents of these people are sometimes still referred to as "Congoes" in Liberia.
After 1832, slaves freed on condition that they migrate to Liberia comprised the majority of emigrants. But the early emigrants became the new leaders.
The new land, of course, was already inhabited by native tribes, who vastly outnumbered the African Americans. Much like European settlers elsewhere in Africa, the colonists saw themselves as bringing civilization, Christianity, and commerce to the unenlightened Africans. This conviction of cultural superiorityand a constant acquisition of landled to continual friction and warfare between the Americo-Liberians and the indigenous groups.
"The blacks from America who went to Liberia took with them the worst lessons of the ante-bellum South," said Williams. "They treated the Africans they met there the way the slaveholders in the American South treated them."
Still, they struggled. The farming techniques they learned in Pennsylvania and North Carolina were inappropriate in Liberia's tropical climate. There was no "mother country" to provide financial support, and the colonists received very little support from the ACS, which was always in debt.
In 1841, Joseph Jenkins Roberts became the first black governor of the colony.
The ACS, eager to end all funding, urged the Americo-Liberians to declare independence, which they did in 1847.
The new Liberian flag adopted the American flag's red and white stripes with one white star over a blue rectangle in the upper left corner.
The True Whigs
At first, the U.S. government didn't give Liberia diplomatic recognition, which several European nations did. When the United States eventually did recognize Liberia in 1862 as part of President Lincoln's wartime planning, Americo-Liberians hoped more blacks would emigrate. None did.
In total, between 10,000 and 15,000 Americans sailed to Liberia, a small percentage of the 1.7 million African Americans in the United States in 1820.
Some prospered, like Augustus Washington, an early daguerrotypist who sailed for Liberia in the 1850s. He farmed sugar plantations and owned a newspaper. Later, he became the Speaker of the Liberian House of Representatives and a member of the Senate of Liberia.
But the nation as a whole struggled. Americo-Liberians, based mainly around Monrovia, denied the native tribes the right to vote under the new constitution and even used them as forced labor. It was the beginning of more than 100 years of totalitarian rule by the colonists.
According to Carl P. Burrowes, co-author of The Historical Dictionary of Liberia, an alliance between executive branch officials and local traditional rulers helped Americo-Liberians keep their grip on power. Local chiefs delivered bloc votes to urban leaders during elections.
The graft culminated during the 1923 election when incumbent candidate D. B. King received 45,000 votes at a time when only 6,000 voters were legally registered. "[It] earn[ed] Liberia a dubious place in the Guinness Book of Records for the world's most rigged election," Burrowes wrote via e-mail.
Over the years, the U.S. government took little interest in Liberia other than as a military and intelligence outpost. In 1926, the Firestone Tyre and Rubber Company opened its largest rubber factory in the world in Liberia. It quickly became the backbone of the Liberian economy, and as recently as the 1970s, Liberia's per capita income was equal to Japan's.
But ordinary Liberians grew increasingly angry at the corrupt rule of the Americo-Liberian "True Whig" party. In 1979, riots convulsed Monrovia when President William R. Tolbert Jr., whose family was the biggest importer of rice in Liberia, proposed an increase in the price of the commodity.
A year later, Tolbert was killed and 13 of his ministers shot on a beach during a coup led by Master Sergeant Samuel Doe that destroyed the old dominance of the Americo-Liberians and set in motion a cycle of violence.
The United States, which grew weary of Tolbert after he accepted aid from the Soviet Union in the 1970s, immediately threw its support behind Doe.
Burrowes, the historian and author, argues that given the long-standing and complicated ties between the two countries, the U.S. government has an obligation to help Liberia recover from its present crisis.
"After the U.S.-trained army seized power in 1980s, American military aid increased from U.S. $1.4 million to U.S. $14 million annually, effectively militarizing the society and allowing the expanded army to become increasingly repressive in its bid to retain power," he stated.
"Despite these long-standing relations, a devaluation of Africa's strategic value at the end of the Cold War led the United States to abruptly withdraw from Liberia, which contributed to the implosion of the state."
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