The Liberian Seal
Liberia officially the Republic of Liberia, is a country in West Africa. It is bordered by Sierra Leone on the west, Guinea on the north and Côte d'Ivoire on the east. Liberia's coastline is composed of mostly mangrove forests while the more sparsely populated inland consists of forests that open to a plateau of drier grasslands. The country possesses 40% of the remaining Upper Guinean rainforest. Liberia has a hot equatorial climate, with significant rainfall during the May to October rainy season and harsh harmattan winds the remainder of the year. Liberia covers an area of 111,369 km2 (43,000 sq mi) and is home to about 3.7 million people. English is the official language, while over 30 indigenous languages are spoken within the country.

Liberia is one of only two modern countries in Sub-Saharan Africa without roots in the European Scramble for Africa. Beginning in 1820, the region was colonized by freed American slaves with the help of the American Colonization Society, a private organization that believed ex-slaves would have greater freedom and equality in Africa. Slaves freed from slave ships were also sent there instead of being repatriated to their countries of origin. In 1847, these colonists founded the Republic of Liberia, establishing a government modeled on that of the United States and naming the capital city Monrovia after James Monroe, the fifth president of the United States and a prominent supporter of the colonization. The colonists, known as Americo-Liberians, monopolized the political and economic sectors of the country despite comprising only a small percentage of the largely indigenous population.

Flag of Liberia

The country began to modernize in the 1940s following investment by the United States during World War II and economic liberalization under President William. Liberia was a founding member of the United Nations and the Organization of African Unity. A military coup overthrew the Americo-Liberian establishment in 1980, marking the beginning of political and economic instability and two successive civil wars that left approximately 250,000 people dead and devastated the country's economy. A 2003 peace deal led to democratic elections in 2005. Today, Liberia is recovering from the lingering effects of the civil war and related economic dislocation, with about 85% of the population living below the international poverty line.

Early times (pre–1821)
Map of Liberia circa 1830
Historians believe that many of the indigenous peoples of Liberia migrated there from the north and east between the 12th and 16th centuries AD. Portuguese explorers established contacts with people of the land later known as "Liberia" as early as 1461. They named the area Costa da Pimenta (Pepper Coast) because of the abundance of melegueta pepper. In 1602, the Dutch established a trading post at Grand Cape Mount but destroyed it a year later. In 1663, the British installed trading posts on the Pepper Coast. No further known settlements by non-African colonists occurred along the Grain Coast (an alternative name) until the arrival in 1821 of free blacks from the United States.
Colonization (1821–1847)
From around 1800, in the United States, people opposed to slavery were planning ways to alleviate the problem. Some abolitionists and slaveholders collaborated on the idea to set up a colony in Africa for freed African-American slaves. Between 1821 and 1847, by a combination of purchase and conquest, American ‘Societies’ developed the colony ‘Liberia.’ On July 26, 1847, it declared its independence.

First ideas of colonization

As early as the period of the American Revolution, many white members of American society thought that African Americans could not succeed in living in ‘their’ society as free people. Some considered blacks physically and mentally inferior to whites, and others believed that the racism and societal polarization resulting from slavery were insurmountable obstacles for integration of the races. The young politician Thomas was among those who proposed colonization in Africa; relocating free blacks outside the new nation.

Growing numbers of free blacks

After 1783 the ranks of free blacks expanded markedly, due both to manumission of slaves in the South during the first two decades after the Revolutionary War, attributable both to slaveholders inspired by its ideals and to others inspired to manumission by Quaker, Methodist and Baptist preachers active in those years. The Northeast states abolished slavery following the war, generally on a graduated basis where it was still economically viable, as in the Mid-Atlantic States.

In 1800 and 1802, slave rebellions occurred (see Gabriel’s rebellion) in Virginia, and were brutally suppressed by slaveholders. Some planters feared that free blacks would encourage slaves to run away or revolt. From 1782-1810, the number and percentage of free blacks in the Upper South increased from less than one percent to 13.5%. In the nation as a whole, the number of free people of color also increased. In 1790, there were 59,467 free blacks, out of a total U.S. population of almost four million and a total black U.S. population of 800,000. By 1800, there were 108,378 free blacks in a population of 7.2 million. These factors significantly influenced the popularity of the concept of colonization as a ‘solution’ to the ‘problem’ of free blacks.

Sierra Leone

Paul Cuffee
In 1787, Britain had started to resettle the Black Poor of London in the colony of Freetown in modern-day Sierra Leone, many of whom were Black Loyalists who had been freed in exchange for their services during the American Revolution. The Crown also offered resettlement to former slaves from Nova Scotia. The wealthy African-American ship-owner Paul Cuffee thought this was a worthwhile exercise, and with support from certain members of Congress and British officials conveyed 38 American Blacks to Freetown in 1816 at his own expense. Despite such voyages ceasing with his death in 1817, his private initiative served to arouse public interest.

Cape Mesurado

In this same period, on the initiative of the Virginian politician Charles F. Mercer and the Presbyterian minister Robert Finley from New Jersey, in 1816 American politicians, senators and religious leaders from a variety of orientations established the American Colonization Society (ACS) in Washington D.C. They united on the project of ‘colonizing’ free blacks out of the U.S., to Africa.

From January 1820, the ACS sent ships from New York to West Africa. The first had 88 free black emigrants and 3 white ACS agents on board, who intended to seek an appropriate area to ground a settlement. After several attempts and hardships, ACS representatives in December 1821 succeeded, perhaps with some threat of force (see American Colonization Society), to buy Cape Mesurado, a 36-mile long strip of land near current day Monrovia, from the indigenous ruler King Peter. From the beginning, the colonists were attacked by indigenous peoples, such as the Malinké tribes. In addition, they suffered from diseases, the harsh climate, lack of food and medicine, and poor housing conditions.


Up until 1835, five more colonies were started by American Societies other than the ACS, and one by the U.S. government, all on the same West African coast. The first colony on Cape Mesurado was extended, along the coast as well as inland, sometimes by use of force. In 1824, it was named Liberia, with the capital of Monrovia. By 1842, four of the other American colonies were incorporated into Liberia, and one was destroyed by natives. The colonists of African-American descent became known as Americo-Liberians. Not only were many racially mixed and of European descent, but their education, religion and culture made them distinct from the indigenous peoples, with whom they did not identify.

The Map of Liberia

Handing over command to Americo-Liberians

The maturing colony was gradually given more self-governance. In 1839, it was renamed the Commonwealth of Liberia; 1841 saw the Commonwealth's first black Governor, J.J. Roberts. By the 1840s, the ACS was effectively bankrupt; Liberia had become a financial burden for it. In 1846, the ACS directed the Americo-Liberians to proclaim their independence. In 1847, Roberts proclaimed the colony the free and independent republic of Liberia. It then counted some 3000 settlers. A Constitution was drawn up along the lines of the United States’, denying voting rights to the indigenous Liberians.

Americo-Liberian Rule (1847–1980)

Between 1847 and 1980, the state of Liberia was governed by the small minority of African-American colonists and their offspring, together called Americo-Liberians, suppressing the large indigenous majority of 95% of the Liberian population. The history of Liberia in this period can be described as four major, intertwined and interacting developments:
1.     Relations between Americo-Liberians and the indigenous peoples
2.     Relations between the U.S. and Liberia
3.     Relations between non-U.S. foreign powers and Liberia
4.     Liberian economy, industry and নাতুরাল

Relations between Americo-Liberians and the indigenous peoples

Relations between colonists and natives were contentious from the founding of Liberia, and eventually led to the overthrow of the Americo-Liberian regime in 1980.


The original inhabitants of the area resented the American settlements and their territorial expansions. They engaged in resistance in all imaginable forms from the inception of colonization until at least 1980.

Americo-Liberian domination and suppression

The Americo-Liberians had been cut off from their African cultural inheritance by the conditions of slavery, and were entirely acculturated to contemporary Euro-America society. They were of mixed African and European ancestry and therefore generally lighter-skinned than the indigenous blacks. Crucially, they had absorbed beliefs in the religious superiority of Protestant Christianity, the cultural superiority of European civilization, and the aesthetic superiority of European skin color and hair texture.
They created a social and material facsimile of American society in Liberia, maintaining their English-speaking, Americanized way of life, and building churches and houses resembling those of the Southern U.S.
The Americo-Liberians never constituted more than five percent of the population of Liberia, yet they controlled key resources that allowed them to dominate the local native peoples: access to the ocean, modern technical skills, literacy and higher levels of education, and valuable relationships with many American institutions, including the American government.

Ironically, one aspect of American society that the Americo-Liberians recreated was a cultural and racial caste system—however, in this case with themselves at the top instead of the bottom. To them, their society must have seemed radically different from the USA because it rejected the ubiquitous Western belief in immutable racial hierarchy, which had led the colonists to despair of life in the USA. They, on the other hand, believed in racial equality, and therefore in the potential of all people to become 'civilized' through evangelization and education. Like many white missionaries before and after them, they were frustrated by the natives' lack of interest in becoming 'civilized.'

Some local people assimilated into Americo-Liberian society, often by marriage. Some entire coastal tribes became Protestants and learned English. But most indigenous Africans kept to their traditional languages and religions. Before long, the Americo-Liberian ruling elite was living rather prosperously, sending their children to America for (often racially segregated) high school and college education, and keeping the indigenous peoples excluded from all political and economic leadership.

Native insurgencies

The Americo-Liberian settlers in 1878 organized their political power in the True Whig Party, which permitted no organized political opposition. Until 1980, the Americo-Liberians firmly held onto their position of authority, meeting with unremitting uprising, rebellion and riots from the native peoples. The United States would, at least until 1915, take sides with the ruling Americo-Liberians in these struggles (see Relations between the U.S. and Liberia); European powers would, in the 19th century, stir up internal unrest in Liberia (see military threats).
1856: war with Grebo and Kru peoples, leading to the last American African colony, Republic of Maryland, joining Liberia. It was annexed into Liberia as Maryland County in 1857. (See 1856-64, Presidency Benson.)

1864: uprisings of inland and coastal tribes (Presidency Benson)
1875-76: war in Cape Palmas (see 1876-78, Presidency Payne-II)
circa 1886: an uprising (Presidency Johnson)
mid 1880s until late 1890s: some tribes stay at war (see 1896-1900, Presidency Coleman)
1893: Grebo tribe attacked settlement of Harper (Presidency Cheeseman)
1900: bloody battle (Presidency Coleman)
1915: rebellion of the Kru (Presidency Howard)
1912-20: internal wars (Presidency Howard)

Admonishment from the League of Nations

After 1927, the League of Nations investigated accusations that the Liberian government recruited and sold indigenous people as contract labor or slaves. In its 1930 report the League admonished the Liberian government for ‘systematically and for years fostering and encouraging a policy of gross intimidation and suppression’, “in order to suppress the native, prevent him from realizing his powers and limitations and prevent him from asserting himself in any way whatever, for the benefit of the dominant and colonizing race, although originally the same African stock as themselves”  (see also Presidency Charles King 1920-1930). President King hastily resigned.

Social tensions 1940–1980

During World War II, thousands of indigenous Liberians came from the nation's interior to the coastal regions in search of jobs. The Liberian Government had long opposed this kind of migration, but was no longer able to restrain it.

In the decades after 1945, the Liberian government received hundreds of millions of dollars of unrestricted foreign investment, which destabilized the Liberian economy. Liberian Government revenue rose enormously, but was being grossly embezzled by government officials. Growing economic disparities caused increased hostility between indigenous groups and Americo-Liberians.

The social tensions led President Tubman to enfranchise the indigenous Liberians either in 1951 or 1963 (accounts differ). Regardless of the date, this was enfranchisement in name only, since Tubman continued to repress political opposition, and to rig elections.

President Tolbert (1971–80) continued to suppress opposition harshly. Dissatisfaction over governmental plans to raise the price of rice in 1979 led to protest demonstrations in the streets of Monrovia. Tolbert ordered his troops to fire on the demonstrators, and seventy people were killed. Rioting ensued throughout Liberia, finally leading to a military coup d'état in April 1980.

§  American Colonization Society
§  History of West Africa
§  Lott Carey, of Richmond, Virginia, the first American missionary to Liberia
§  Republic of Maryland

African President Index. President Sirleaf Rank B-


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