Liberia In The Nineteenth Century – K.B.C Onwubiko
Liberia is of great significance in West African History. It is the only state in West Africa that was never at any time in its history subject to a colonial power.
Secondly, as the first independent State in West Africa, Liberia has served as an inspiration to African nationalists in their struggle to emancipate their peoples from colonial rule.
Thirdly, in spite of its failures, it has, as a purely Negro state, demonstrated the ability of the African to manage his own affairs.
Liberia was founded in circumstances similar to those of Sierra Leone. It came into being as a settlement in Africa to which freed Negro slaves from the United States of America could be repatriated.
For, by 1800, about 200,000 Negro slaves had been freed in the United States. Their condition raised great social problems for they were poor, mostly illiterate, unemployed and without homes.
They suffered social discrimination and humiliation and were unwanted in American Society. It was to solve these problems that the American Colonization Society founded in 1816 embarked on the scheme of founding a settlement in West Africa for the freed American Negro slaves similar to that of Sierra Leone.
The Society also hoped the founding of the Negro colony on the west coast benefit both Africa and America. It would lead to the Christianization and civilization of the continent and to the final suppression of the slave trade in Africa. It would begin the expansion of America trade on the West Coast.
The society therefore had a mixture of aims – humanitarian, religious, political and economic. The scheme was first started in 1820 when the first batch of 88 emigrants with three white officials from the U.S.A were settled on Sherbro Island.
After two years of difficulty, disaster and death, the surviving colonists moved to an area which had been purchased by the American Colonisation Society at Cape Mesurado.
Here in April 1824 was founded the colony which in 1824 was named by the Rev Robert Gurly “LIBERIA” that is, ‘The land of the Free’. But the first site occupied by the settlers was named ‘MONROVIA’ after President Monroe the head of the U.S.A Government at the time.
Difficulties of the Early Settlers
The Liberian settlers like those of Sierra Leone encountered difficulties from the Beginning. First, unhealthy conditions and lack of necessary supplies caused much disease and deaths among the settlers especially the Mulattoes.
The American Colonization Society ran the colony with financial aid from the government and other philanthropic organizations. But this aid was inadequate and was cut off as support for the colony lessened among both white and negro Americans.
Secondly, attacks on the colony by hostile native population took place several times. In 1822, the colony was twice attacked but each attack was successfully repulsed under the leadership of Jehudi Ashmun. Again, about 1842, the colony was attacked by hostile tribesmen but this was countered by Joseph Jenkins Roberts the Governor.
Thirdly, there was the problem of the struggle for power among the leaders of the settlers. In 1823, rivalry for leadership between Dr. Ayres and Jehudi Ashmun led to a crisis which split the colonists into two factions. This state of affairs led to the introduction of a constitution in 1825 under which the American Colonization Society was to appoint Governors to carry out its orders.
But this did not improve matters for the Society’s white officials were arrogant and high-handed and discriminated against the Negroes and favored the Mulattoes in the distribution of colony land.
Fourth, there was also the question of the activities of slave traders. The tribal chiefs still fought against the abolition while European and American slave ships continued to visit the coast and take away cargoes of slaves. However, the officials and colonists were determined to put a stop to the slave traffic on the Liberian coast and founded settlements along the coast.
Finally, trouble came also from the activities of British and French merchants who resisted Liberia’s imposition of customs duties on ships trading in her ports.
They argued that Liberia not being an American colony or an independent state had no status in international law and therefore could not impose customs duties. It was to overcome this difficulty by normalizing her anomalous status that Liberia sought for and won independence in 1847.
In spite of these difficulties, the colony to make good progress in growth and expansion. More freed Negroes from the United States joined the pioneer settlers and by 1865, their number had risen to about 12,000.
As more settlers arrived, the colony gradually expanded with the establishment of new settlements. Thus in 1825, the settlements of Caldwell and New Georgia were planted on the St. Paul river. Similar settlements were founded – Grand Bassa and Edina on the river St.John; then Marshall, Buchanan, Greenville and later Maryland.
Monrovia however continued to be the most important settlement and was destined to become the capital of Liberia. By 1837, all the settlements except Maryland had been brought under the government of Monrovia.
In 1857, Maryland was incorporated into The Republic of Liberia and by 1860, Liberia’s coastline was about 600 miles and stretched from the river Mano to Maryland county. Expansion was also made towards the Hinterland.
This reached its climax in the 1850s when a number of treaties was made with neighboring African chiefs. The expansion increased the indigenous population of the colony which far outnumbered that of the settlers.
Thus in 1900, there were about 60,000 Africans and only 12,000 Negro settlers in the counties of Liberia. Expansion into the interior created problems. It aggravated the financial difficulties of Liberia as more money was needed for the expanding administration. It gave rise to boundary disputes with European powers in the neighboring territories.
Furthermore the indigenous people resented government by the settlers and wars of resistance occurred several times; there were such wars with the Grebo in the 1880s and 1890s and with the Kru and Gola at the opening of the 20th century.
Until 1841, Liberia was under the direct control of the American Colonization Society which governed the colony through its white agents. Before this date, several constitutional developments had taken place.
In 1828, the Agents and Vice agents were appointed by the society, while all other officers were elected by universal adult male suffrage. In 1836, the various settlements along the coast with the exception of Maryland County merged to form the Commonwealth of Liberia. Thomas Buchanan the first Governor of the Commonwealth was to be the society’s last white agent.
In 1841, owing to growing settler agitation, the first Negro Governor, Joseph J. Roberts (1809-76) was appointed. An able and experienced administrator, Robert is important in Liberian history. He set about to earn revenue for the colony administration by imposing customs duties on ships trading in Liberia’s ports.
In this, he met the stiff opposition of some European traders who refused to pay on grounds that Liberia not being an independent sovereign state had no right to impose duties on them. It was to remove this anomalous status that Liberia Leaders negotiated with and won independence from the American Colonization society in 1847.
Thus on July 26, 1847, Liberia was declared an independent Republic with Roberts as its first President. It was soon recognized by Britain and other European countries, but American recognition did not come until 1862.
The constitution of the Republic modelled on that of the United states provided for the President, the Senate, the house of Representatives and a supreme court. For local government, the Republic was divided into five counties – Montserrado, Grand Bassa, Sinoe, Grand Cape Mount and Maryland.
The policy in the interior was indirect rule by which the indigenous people were governed by their traditional rulers under the supervision of commissioners appointed by the Monrovia government. Two political parties emerged in Liberia on the eve of independence.
The Republican party representing the interest of the light skinned Negroes or Mulattoes was founded by J.J. Roberts. It was in control of the government from independence to 1877. In 1869, however, the opposition party – the True Whigs representing the interest of the full-blooded Negroes had come to power when their leader J. Roye was elected President.
But in 1871, Roye was deposed and imprisoned for attempting to extend the President’s tenure of office from two to four years. Roberts was recalled and so the Republican party continued in power until 1876 when Roberts died.
In 1877, the Whigs came back to power. The True Whigs were opposed to the concentration of power in the hands of Mulattoes and to their social arrogance. The two party system thus prevailed and the color question dominated Liberian Politics and social life until 1883 when the one-party state of the Whigs was introduced.
By the end of the century however, the color problem had decreased greatly as most of Mulattoes had either died out or been absorbed. The color prejudiced inherited from the United states nevertheless continued in the relations between the settlers and the indigenous African peoples of the interior.
The Negro settlers treated the African peoples with the same racial arrogance with which the Mulattoes had treated them (The Negro settlers). The Kru, Grebo, Gola and Vai were socially discriminated against, their education was restricted and their trading activities were limited by the Americo-Liberians.
The result was frequent African revolts against the Liberian government. A policy of cultural assimilation was pursued with some success in those counties where Americo-Liberian law and way of life held away.
In the early decades of the colony’ foundation, agriculture was basis of its economy. Agriculture proved more successful here than in Sierra Leone, for the American Negro settlers were more hard working and had a better knowledge of tropical agriculture than Sierra Leone counterparts.
Moreover, African labor was available in Liberia. But as the earliest settlers died off, the encouragement which had been given to agriculture declined. As in Sierra Leone, many of the settlers turned to trading which brought quick profits. By the 1830s, a flourishing foreign trade in palm oil, camwood and raphia palm fibres had developed. By the 1850s sugar and coffee were exported as some effort was made to develop sugar and coffee plantations.
Thus, between 1830 and 1880, many Liberian settlers enjoyed considerable economic prosperity. This was a period of great social progress especially in education. Many schools were established and Liberia College – the second institution of higher learning in West Africa – was opened in 1862.
By the 1880s however, Liberia foreign trade suffered a severe decline and her plantations fell into ruins. This was because Liberian merchants could not compete effectively with the gigantic commercial enterprises of the great imperialist powers of Europe. Moreover, following their ‘partition’ of Africa, these powers adopted in their colonies economic policies which proved disastrous to Liberian trade.
For instance, the British and French developed palm oil and raphia fibre production in their West African colonies. At the same time, the development of coffee in Brazil diverted the American demand for Liberian coffee. Thus, Liberia became for long isolated from world trade.
This economic decline aggravated by her chronic financial problem had serious consequences. She could not raise enough capital for educational and social developments. So Liberia became a backward nation.
Again, because the government lacked funds to effectively occupy the interior, Liberia lost a great deal of territory to The British and French. In 1884 for instance, Liberia’s annual revenue was only £25,000 as against Sierra Leone’s £62,282 in the same year. Her general backwardness and widespread poverty continued into the 20th century.
The history of Liberia is the story of a long desperate struggle of nation’s survival. Liberia’s problems were not lessened by her achievement of independence in 1847.
In fact, to many foreign contemporaries, it was doubtful, judging from the magnitude of her economic and political problems, whether she could survive as an independent republic in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Economic Problems
The most serious problems posed by Liberia’s independence were mainly economic. First, before her independence, Liberia had depended on foreign philanthropic aid supplied mainly by the American Colonization Society.
When this aid ceased in 1847 with her independence, Liberia could not boast of substantial economic assets or currency of her own. No wonder therefore that not a few expected the young republic’s collapse.
Secondly, the situation was even worsened by the smallness of her immigrant Negro population which numbered altogether only 12,000 in 1900. This population was too small to make Liberia a viable economic entity. Moreover, many of this number were people who were either old or in bad health and therefore constituted an economic liability to the state. The result was a high mortality rate Which further reduced the population and so slowed down economic progress.
Thirdly, the problem of revenue was perhaps the most threatening Liberia had laid claim to more than 300 miles of coastline by the 1840s. This was extended to about 600 miles by 1860. She had hoped to raise revenue from customs duties by her control of this coastline.
But she had neither the population to effectively occupy the whole length of coastline, nor the naval or military resources to enforce the payment of duties by foreign ships trading in her ports. Attempts to enforce duties led to disputes with traders from neighboring French and British territories.
The latter continued to flour Liberia’s customs regulations by trading directly with local African peoples. A typical example of Liberia weakness was the Harris case. Harris, a British merchant had two of his ships. Seized by the Liberian government for refusing to pay customs dues. But these ships were quickly recovered by a British gunboat sent by the Governor of Sierra Leone for the purpose and the Liberian government could do nothing. Because of this situation, Liberia was never able to raise enough revenue to finance administration and development and so remained economically backward.
Fourth, Liberia could not raise funds by foreign loans either. Foreign banks were not sympathetic towards the young Republic. They were unwilling to lend money to so impecunious a state. The first loan raised in 1871 proved disastrous to the state owing partly to the impossible conditions imposed by the London bankers and partly to the corrupt practices of government officials and some of the leaders. Out of a loan of £100,000, the London bankers reclaimed £30,000 as advanced interest and of the remainder, less than one-tenth reached the government treasury, the rest having disappeared in the hands of government officials.
Again, Liberian leaders fearing the danger of losing their independence to foreign creditor nations developed a reluctance to attract foreign economic aid. This reluctance continued until the 20th century.
Fifth, Liberia economy could have improved had she maintained the initial progress made in agriculture and trade. It is true that by the 1840s Liberia agricultural plantations were flourishing and her foreign trade was substantial. But by the 1880s, her plantations collapsed and her foreign trade suffered a severe blow was a result of her inability to withstand competition with the imperialist powers of Europe. Moreover, her economic decline was further accentuated by the world-wide economic depression of the 1880s and 1890s.
Finally with the collapse of her agriculture and foreign trade, many Liberians went out of business and turned to the civil service for employment. The civil service became overburdened and this further impoverished an already poor state.
The economic situation described above exposed Liberia to very serious danger to her independence. For instance, before 1900, German traders moved into Liberia and monopolized her trade. In 1914, at the outbreak of World War I, the British Navy cut off Liberia trade with Germany as reprisal against the latter.
This brought Liberia’s trade to a total standstill. Again, in 1906, a British firm – the Liberian Rubber Corporation began work in Liberia. Its venture proved a failure and the British Government began to work for a takeover of the Corporation and supervision of Liberian finances and army by a European. Liberia reacted against this move by obtaining an American loan to pay off the British. The loan was given on condition that an American was place in charge of Liberia custom collection. Thus, with her army already officered by Americans, Liberia now faced a threat of American colonial imperialism.
Political Problems
Liberia’s political problems were no less serious than her economic problems. A major problem which threatened the political stability of the state soon after independence was its constitution. The constitution provided that the President, the House of Representatives and half of the Senators were to be elected every two years.
The effect of this was the creation of an unstable political situation which hampered progress. This anomaly was later removed by extending the President term of office to four years and finally to eight years. Similarly, the life of the Senate and the House of Representatives was extended to six years and four years respectively.
Closely allied to the above was the problem posed by the dangers which threatened national unity. One such danger was the emergence of party politics on the eve of Liberia independence. Party politics centered on questions of skin color engendered bitter rivalry between the Mulattoes and Negro settlers. This danger was eventually removed by the introduction of a one-party system in 1883. Another danger arose from the conflict between the settler population and the kru, Vai and Grebo coastal peoples.
This division was caused by the cultural arrogance of the settlers and by their policy of restricting the education and trading activities of these native coastal peoples. This division became grave from the 1880s when Liberian plantations and foreign trade collapsed and the Americo-Liberians were driven to internal competition with the Africans. Consequently, African revolts became frequent culminating in the serious Kru revolt of 1915. Similarly, conflict with the inland tribes was also a serious danger especially as the Liberian government had no resources to make its authority supreme in the interior.
Finally, there was the problem of the imperialist threat to her territory. Such threat came from the activities of the British in Sierra Leone and French in Ivory Coast and Guinea. Liberia was on the verge of being squeezed out of existence during the period of the ‘partition’ of Africa in the 1880s. Boundary disputes with these powers were frequent after Liberia’s independence, and owing to her poverty and military weakness she lost a great deal of her territory to them.
In 1910, for example, Liberia lost about 2,000 square miles of her hinterland to the French even though agreement over boundaries had been reached with the latter in 1907. A similar agreement was reached with the British in Sierra Leone in 1911 which finally settled the Liberian-Sierra Leone frontier.
That Liberia survived in spite of her multifarious economic and political problems is an interesting theme of West African History in the 19th century.


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