In honor of Black History Month, I thought that today I would write on a piece of history that is never mentioned anywhere, and can sometimes be difficult to research, even today. I hope that all of my African American friends and everyone interested in history will read this. It is my hope that you will find it informative, and helps to broaden your world knowledge somewhat.
Today, we are going to discuss the nation of Liberia and the American Colonization Society.
The United States has never liked considering itself to be an imperial power, even though it is one. However, if you reread the writings of the Founding Fathers, you can see that they had no intention of remaining just 13 states. Even during the Revolutionary War and immediately afterwards, they were determined to take the land of their wartime allies France and Spain, whether through theft, war, or purchase. This land included Florida and what was later the Louisiana Purchase. The United States made war on over 600 Native American nations and took their land. The Monroe Doctrine declared US dominance over all of North and South America. The statements of politicians and reading the peace treaty of the Spanish American War make it is obvious that it was nothing but a land grab against a weakened Spain. Only President Theodore Roosevelt saved Cuba from being permanently annexed to the United States. The US occupied parts of the former Japanese Empire to this day.
The United States was more successful than most of the other imperial powers because in the majority of the territory it annexed, it displaced the native populations and replaced them with a group homogenous to the nation. In places where it did not, such as the Philippines, it was less successful and eventually evicted.
One continent that the United States was less successful in colonizing was Africa, but this was not through a lack of trying.
The Society for the Colonization of Free People of Color of America, or the American Colonization Society, was an alliance between Evangelical and Quaker abolitionists and slave owners who agreed on only one point; they wanted all of the Free Blacks OUT of America.
Almost universally, 19th century “do gooder” groups operated from an attitude of moral, social, and racial superiority over those they tried to help. This condescending attitude can be seen in the treatment of women, the poor, “natives”, and racial and religious minorities. The ACS was no exception.
In non-slave holding states, Free Blacks were seen as a problem. America was a “white Christian country”, and they had no business being here. Their ancestors had been brought here against their will, and their descendents had over stayed their welcome. Blacks were seen as “morally lax”, and it was thought that they would degrade the morals of any group of whites they associated with. There was a major fear that white women would have sex with them. (Remember, most prominent white men saw women as barely more intelligent that animals at this time, and prone to needing a man to make decisions for them). Blacks were seen as natural thieves and criminals. They were considered as mentally inferior to whites, and also lazy. Yet, despite this last sentence, blacks were believed to be a threat to the jobs of poor whites. (Go figure; “stupid and lazy” but able to take somebody’s job. What does that say about the person who held the job before?)
Please note that these are the EXACT SAME ARGUMENTS used against EVERY OTHER IMMIGRANT GROUP that has come to the United States since then. (Please see my previous writing on the treatment of immigrants in the US. If you cannot find the article, look for the picture of an ape in a German helmet holding a white woman in my photo albums, and read the attached article.) American Muslims today have the added burden of being labeled as terrorists, even by some in the press.
These attitudes are not unknown today. I heard a guy on Youtube espousing these same thoughts about blacks last Friday. And he was a political figure. Who likes to drink tea, according to his group affiliation name.
The reasons why slave holders wanted Free Blacks out are obvious; the presence of Free Blacks would cause their own blacks to become “uppity”, leading to revolts and runaways.
The natural idea for the ACS was to send all of the Free Blacks back to Africa. Please note that there was no attempt to send them to their places of origin; all blacks were the same, and one place in Africa was as good as another. A British group had already been sending ex-slaves to Sierra Leone, and West Africa was closest.
Starting in 1819, thousands of Free Blacks were shipped to what is now Liberia by the ACS. The ACS received Federal funds from Congress, along with soliciting private funds. Black slaves were also sometimes purchased from slave owners, often members of ACS. Jehudi Ashmun, who was one of the early ACS leaders, sold the US government on the idea of an American Empire in Africa. At the very least, they hoped for the ACS to become as powerful as the East India Company in British Raj India.
Nobody asked the West Africans if they wanted these immigrants; it was just another land grab. The Africans naturally fought back. However, the Free Blacks discovered that they were better educated, better organized, and, more importantly, better armed than the locals. The name “Liberia” was chosen for the area, based on the word “Liberty”. This is ironic, because what was established was a brutal regime ruled over by an oligarchy, composed of whites and the new Amerio-Liberians. Six other colonies, five founded by other private groups and one by the US government, were all merged together into one large colony. The ACS had a major hand in the the running of this repressive government, and were fully aware of what was going on.
The new colony did not turn out to be the Dream of Empire its founders sold the US government on. It was very expensive, did not send back the goods and raw materials expected, and the locals would not behave. Cutting its losses, Liberia was given independent rule in 1847.
The ACS continued to have an influence in Liberia and the US, sending funds and more Free Blacks when possible. Its leaders saw Liberia as a lost cause from the early decades, but it was not formally dissolved until 1964.
In Liberia, the Americo-Liberians set themselves up as rulers, modeling their society on the United States. Never being more than 5% of the population, they were the only ones allowed to vote. They owned all property of value, and even developed a racially segregated society, seeing the Africans as “racially inferior.” Intermarriage was greatly discouraged, although interbreeding was not, due to the high level of sexual slavery. In a true twist of irony, Liberia became a slave exporting nation!!!
During the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln and other US leaders toyed with the idea of deporting all of the freed slaves to Liberia. This would have been a major asset to Liberia, but the sheer cost and logistics of moving four million blacks to Africa, not to mention the needed massive investment in infrastructure, caused the idea to be turned down by around 1863. Some new freed slaves did travel to Liberia, however. Perhaps 13,000 persons total were shipped to Liberia since the start.
The United States did intervene several times to help Liberia fight indigenous revolts, bought its goods, and loaned it money. However, the dreams of African Empire had died, and the US usually treated Liberia as an embarrassment. Liberia was a very expensive brutal nightmare, surviving only on violence and foreign loans. The Liberian Dollar collapsed in 1907, and the economy only survived because the United States Dollar later became its official currency until 1986.
WWII saved Liberia. The Allies needed secure bases far away from Axis intervention. Thanks to huge grants, the Allies were allowed to build massive port and airfield facilities and purchased all of the rubber that Liberia could provide.
During the Cold War, Liberia accepted massive US investment and grants, while still maintaining relations with the Soviet Union as backup in case the Americans failed to remain generous.
Liberians have always enjoyed special privileges in the United States, being allowed to serve in its military long before other foreign nationals, and being treated as US citizens in may areas such as education.
133 years of Americo-Liberian rule came to an end on April 12, 1980 when “Corporal Doe”, actually Master Sergeant Samuel Kanyon Doe (trained by US Special Forces), launched a coup. The People’s Redemption Council went on a murder spree, killing as many of those of Americo-Liberian descent as they could find. Most were tortured or raped brutally before they were hacked to death with machetes. Now President, Doe and his closest associates actually consumed parts of the enemies they murdered.
Newly elected President Ronald Reagan recognized the new leadership, pouring millions more dollars into Liberia. President Doe became a firm Cold War ally, severing all ties to the Soviet Union. US forces once again had a base in West Africa with which to conduct operations in Africa.
Doe and the PRC was even more oppressive than previous governments, and there were 7 coup attempts between 1981 and 1985. Top PRC members were routinely arrested and executed.Political opposition was banned, newspapers were closed, reporters jailed and tortured. The economy went into free fall. Doe’s National Democratic Party of Liberia (NDPL) won a rigged election in 1985.
In 1989 open civil war erupted in the country, lead by Charles Taylor and the National Patriotic Front of Liberia. Doe was captured by Prince Johnson on September 9, 1990. Doe was tortured and paraded naked through the streets of Monrovia, before having his ears, fingers and toes cut off. He was hacked to death and partially devoured while his captors videotaped the whole thing.
Charles Taylor became the new president, but war raged from 1989-1996. Taylor was no better, and another civil war raged from 1997-2003. Taylor went into exile, and was later sentenced to 50 years for crimes against humanity, and is currently serving in a British maximum-security prison.
2003-2005 were still rough years, but in 2005 Eleen Johnson Sirleaf was elected as the first female head of state in Africa, and is still president today. She received the Noble Peace Prize in 2011.
Liberia today has to struggle with poverty, corruption, and Ebola. But it is a stable, peaceful country, and economic development is on the rise. New sources of wealth are being explored, while the government devotes much of its effort to improving the lives of its people. Liberia may have been founded on a racist dream of empire, but today it proudly takes its place among the nations of the world.