King's College London
Online Exhibitions
I speak of Africa

Liberia

The site of Monrovia, from: Jehudi Ashmun. History of the American colony in Liberia, from December 1821 to 1823. Washington D.C: printed by Way and Gideon, 1826 [FCO Historical Collection DT633 ASH]The site of Monrovia, from: Jehudi Ashmun. History of the American colony in Liberia, from December 1821 to 1823. Washington D.C: printed by Way and Gideon, 1826 [FCO Historical Collection DT633 ASH]Of great interest to European observers of Africa was the pioneering settlement of Liberia, which abutted Sierra Leone to the east. Like Sierra Leone, it was founded as a home for freed slaves, but the impetus in this case came from the United States.

The American Colonization Society, founded in 1816, sought to encourage freed slaves to emigrate to West Africa, partly for genuinely philanthropic reasons but also to rid the United States of the unwelcome presence of free people of African descent, whose existence might make those remaining in slavery more prone to revolt. In 1821, after a protracted search along the West African coastline for a suitable spot, the Society’s agent, Dr Eli Ayres, and a United States naval officer, Robert F. Stockton, forced King Peter, ruler of the De people, to sign away perpetual ownership of a portion of his kingdom to the Society. The settlement of Liberia was born.

Like the early Sierra Leone settlers, the freed slaves who came to Liberia suffered many hardships and mortality was high. Attacked by the De people, they erected American-style stockades and laid out their new town, Monrovia, on an American grid pattern, as the map on display shows. Like American pioneers, they cleared the land for cultivation and began to produce goods for export. Relations with the De people improved and the settlers, most of whom were devout Christians, started missionary schools in the interior. The role of the American Colonization Society diminished and in 1847 Liberia declared itself an independent republic.

Liberia’s democratic constitution was broadly based on that of the United States, but it was Britain which was first to recognise Liberia officially; not until 1862 did the Washington government, reluctant to receive a black ambassador, do so. Independent Liberia faced many difficulties – border disputes with Britain, competition with the economic powerhouses of Britain and France, increasing reliance on British loans – but it kept its independence. By the early twentieth century it was, with Ethiopia, the only independent state in Africa.

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