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Tumult and Transition in "Little America"

Americans created Liberia as a homeland for freed slaves. But a quarter century of civil war over festering ethnic animosities has renewed questions about the U.S. role in the African nation

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In December 1816, a group including Francis Scott Key, Daniel Webster and Henry Clay convened to form the American Colonization Society (ACS). George Washington’s nephew, Bushrod Washington, was the group’s first president. Among the supporters were Andrew Jackson and James Monroe, who would serve as president of the United States from 1817 to 1825. (Monroe would reportedly call the colony “Little America,” and Liberia’s capital would be named after him.) Clay, the Kentucky statesman known as the Great Compromiser, supported the society for seemingly pragmatic reasons, saying that because of “unconquerable prejudice resulting from their color,” freed slaves “never could amalgamate with the free whites of this country.”

With its stated goal of creating an African-American homeland, the ACS seemed philanthropic in nature. Some members believed that black Americans would be more successful in Africa, while others sought to convert Africans to Christianity. Yet the ACS also served the anxieties of many slaveholders, who feared retaliatory uprisings and worried that blacks would gain economic and social clout if slavery were abolished. “Slaveholders ultimately dominated the colonization effort,” says John Singler, a professor of linguistics at New YorkUniversity, who has lived and worked in Liberia. (And, indeed, while some abolitionists favored colonization, others opposed it as just another form of discrimination.) Though many of the settlers would be free-born African- Americans, others were freed from slavery only on the condition that they emigrate.

The society—and other colonization groups—opened chapters in several states, including Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania. In 1819, the U.S. government gave the ACS $100,000 to underwrite a settlement in Africa. West Africa was proposed as the logical destination. For one thing, it was nearest to America’s East Coast. For another, most of the estimated 60 million Africans sold into slavery between 1503 and the mid-1800s had come from West Africa. Another reason, says Elwood Dunn, a political scientist at the University of the South in Tennessee and an aide to former Liberian president William R. Tolbert Jr., was the British foothold in neighboring Sierra Leone.

The colonization society’s first chartered ship, the Elizabeth, set sail from New York in February 1820 with three ACS agents and more than 80 emigrants aboard. Their start was inauspicious. Within five months after their departure, all three ACS agents and 22 of the immigrants were dead of fever; the survivors were evacuated to Freetown. But the ACS organized more voyages and, sometimes holding tribal chiefs at gunpoint, bought large parcels of land.

The settlers found themselves in a region that was home to tribes speaking some 20 languages. Both the low-lying coast and the upland bush of the interior were sparsely populated, but, says Dunn, “These were not people encountering outsiders for the first time.” In fact, he adds, some tribes had negotiated with slave traders and other European traders for centuries and “had gotten quite sophisticated in the ways of the West.” For their part, the American settlers tended to regard the tribespeople as unlettered and inferior.

The settlers patterned the nation after the United States’, forming a government with a bicameral legislature, a judicial system and, beginning in 1847 with the election of Joseph Jenkins Roberts, a president. The Liberian flag was red, white and blue with bars and a single star. The national motto, still in effect, is “The love of liberty brought us here” (a sentiment, of course, that affronted the native majority).

Typical of the pioneers were the ancestors of Charleston Bailey, a Monrovia resident in his 80s whose great-grandparents immigrated from Georgia to Liberia. The first Liberian Baileys cleared plantations from the bush and cultivated native crops as well as American staples, including rice, sweet potatoes, cassava, cabbage and eggplant. Bailey’s grandfather was killed in settlers’ early clashes with locals. “The tribes wanted settlers to go back to America, but the settlers conquered them and they surrendered,” Bailey told me two years ago.

Though outnumbered, the settlers managed to dominate because they were well organized and backed by the American military. The mere presence of a U.S. ship offshore was often enough to defuse a potential conflict, says Dunn, adding, “American officials had set up the place and passed the power to settlers.”

Americos abused their growing power, historians tend to agree, by denying indigenous people the right to vote and relegating them to subservient roles—field hands, house ser servants and, in some cases, forced laborers. In 1930, the League of Nations reported that the Liberian government was pressing thousands of tribesmen to work on coffee plantations on the Spanish-held island of Fernando Po (now Bioko), in the Gulf of Guinea, about 1,100 miles from Liberia. Liberian president Charles D.B. King, calling the league’s accusation “malicious propaganda,” resigned in December 1930, along with his vice president, Allen Yancy. In 1931, the league described Liberia as “a Republic of 12,000 citizens with 1,000,000 subjects.” As Lester Walton, minister plenipotentiary at the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia, wrote at the time, “Forced labor, vicious exploitation of the natives by the [Liberian Army], unjust and excessive fines are some of the contributory factors to occasion resentment and dissatisfaction, impelling many natives to reluctantly settle in Sierra Leone.” Liberia’s new president, Edwin Barclay, largely resisted the League of Nations’ recommended reforms, but, responding in part to pressure from the United States, which refused to recognize his administration until 1935, Barclay did oversee a ban on forced labor.

Meanwhile, industry was moving into Liberia, in some cases adding to tensions between settlers and indigenous people. In 1926, the Firestone Tire & Rubber Company negotiated a 99-year lease on one million acres of Liberian land for rubber plantations at six cents per acre. Firestone built roads, schools and hospitals and extended telephone lines. Still, the company couldn’t shake the criticism that it shortshrifted workers’ wages.

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