History of Liberia

After the struggle for liberty in the American Revolution, free and enslaved African Americans faced continued hardship and inequality. A number of white Americans, for a variety of reasons, joined them in their efforts to resolve this complex problem. One possible solution (advocated at a time when the assimilation of free blacks into American society seemed out of the question) was the complete separation of white and black Americans. Some voices called for the return of African Americans to the land of their forebears. Below is the US State Department’s accounbt of the settling of free slaves in to what we know today as Liberia:

In 1816 a group of white Americans founded the American Colonization Society to deal with the “problem” of the growing number of free blacks by resettling them in Africa. Ex-President Thomas Jefferson publicly supported the organization’s goals, and President James Madison arranged public funding for the Society.

In 1818 the Society sent two representatives to West Africa to find a suitable location, but they were unable to persuade local tribal leaders to sell territory. In 1820, 88 free black settlers and 3 society members sailed for Sierra Leone. Before departing they had signed a constitution requiring that an agent of the Society administer the settlement under U.S. laws. They found shelter on Scherbo Island off the west coast of Africa, but many died there from malaria. In 1821, a U.S. Navy vessel resumed the search for a place of permanent settlement in what is now Liberia. Accounts differ, but it is quite possible that the threat of force caused the indigenous leaders to agree to sell a strip of land to the Society. The Scherbo Island group moved to this new location, and other blacks from the United States joined them. They suffered attacks from the local tribes and in 1824 built fortifications for protection. In that same year, the settlement was named Liberia, with its capital at Monrovia, named for President James Monroe.

Other colonization societies sponsored by individual states purchased land and sent settlers to areas near Liberia. Africans removed from slave ships by the U.S. Navy also were put ashore in Liberia. In 1838 most of these settlements, with up to 20,000 people, combined into one organization. Today, about 5% of the population of Liberia is descended from these settlers.

The American Colonization Society was not a sovereign state, and when Great Britain and France began to encroach on Liberian territory, it was hard-pressed to defend its interests. The U.S. Government lent some diplomatic support, but this was not sufficient to fend off these advances. Consequently, in 1847 Liberia declared independence. Britain was the first nation to extend recognition. The United States delayed recognition until 1862 because of fears of the impact this might have on the issue of slavery domestically and objections some might have to the presence of black diplomats in Washington. END

The history of Liberia did not begin with the settlers or freed slaves from the USA. On his blog “Blogging without Maps, My Journey through Liberia,” Health Vogel from Change Agent Network who lived in Liberia explains thus:

When the US encouraged and supported groups of “free people of color” to return to Africa in the 1800’s they did not arrive at a desolate land.  These Americo-Liberians, as they became called, found a variety of ethnic groups already living and settled in what is now modern day Liberia. Ethnologists and linguists have discovered all sorts of groups and subgroups, but the traditional number of Liberian tribes is 16.  These 16 people groups can themselves be structured into 3 linguistic groups. Continue Reading

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