James Ciment, Another America: The Story of Liberia and the Former Slaves Who Ruled It, Hill and Wang, 2013, 296 pp., $30.00.
The modern era has seen many variations of black self rule. The earliest example is Ethiopia, which, aside from occupation by the Italians from 1936 to 1941, was never run by outsiders. The second began with the Haitian Revolution, the third was the founding of Liberia, and the 1960s saw most of black Africa achieve independence. Government by blacks of American cities such as Detroit and Newark is another form of black self-rule, as are the independent islands of the Caribbean.
The circumstances of these different efforts could not be more different; blacks have arrived at self-government by virtually every route imaginable. But the results are the same: poverty, corruption, violence.
Another America is a serviceable history of Liberia but it has a bad title. It should have been called Another Haiti. Liberia has had a few unusual turns in its history—its flirtation with Marcus Garvey’s back-to-Africa movement and a League of Nations investigation into allegations of slavery—but its history is a dreary confirmation of the nature of blacks.
What eventually became Liberia was established by the American Colonization Society (ACS), established in 1816 to solve America’s racial problem by sending blacks back to Africa. As Henry Clay said at the society’s inaugural meeting:
Can there be a nobler cause than that which, whilst it proposed to rid our country of a useless and pernicious, if not dangerous portion of its population, contemplates the spreading of the arts of civilized life, and the possible redemption from ignorance and barbarism of a benighted quarter of the globe?
Many great Americans were society members—James Madison, Andrew Jackson, Daniel Webster, James Monroe, Stephen Douglas, John Randolph, William Seward, Francis Scott Key, General Winfield Scott, John Marshall and Roger Taney—and no less a figure than Bushrod Washington, George’s nephew, was its figurehead president. Finding a home for blacks outside the United States could not have been a more respectable cause. The ACS managed to persuade Congress to give it $100,000, and raised money from private sources.
The ACL was not the first to think of repatriation. In 1815, the black whaling merchant, Paul Cuffe, paid most of the costs to resettle 38 blacks in the British colony of Sierra Leone, established by Britain as a haven for blacks freed from the slave trade. Cuffe, who did not have enough money to finance a second voyage, considered cooperating with the ACS, but didn’t like its anti-black motivations.
The first ACL voyage left from New York in 1820. Of the 90 passengers who set sail on the Elizabeth, all had been born free, and therefore would have been from the high ranks of black society. Many were as eager to teach Christianity to benighted Africans as they were to manage their affairs free of whites.
The Elizabeth sailed to Sierra Leone, which the ACS thought would welcome the settlers. Instead, the British authorities packed them off to Sherbro island, an undeveloped malarial swamp 100 miles from the capital of Freetown and a hopeless backwater even today.
The ACS had assumed American blacks would be racially prepared for Africa and immune to fevers that killed white men, but they were wrong. About a quarter of the settlers died. Nor did the natives welcome back their prodigal sons; Africans stole everything they could.
There were three white agents of the ACS on board the Elizabeth who, the blacks were surprised to learn, had final authority. The agents did their best to help the blacks scratch out a settlement, but all three died of disease. The last one turned over authority to a mulatto whom the other blacks considered a white lackey, and the settlement collapsed into chaos. The British reluctantly let the survivors move back to better developed land near Freetown.
It was only after the second ACS voyage arrived in 1821 that the society’s representatives fully understood that Sierra Leone did not want American blacks. The ACS men sailed south to what was known as the Windward Coast and landed on Cape Mesurado, a bite of land that was to become Monrovia. In December 1821, they struck what they thought was a deal with a group of chiefs to exchange $300 worth of trade goods for title to the land.
In fact, the chiefs had no intention of turning over the land. They were smuggling slaves for a living, and knew that “the black white men,” as they called the settlers, would try to stop them. On Nov. 10, 1822, shortly after the colonists and a few white leaders had established themselves on Cape Mesurado, natives tried to wipe out the colony. The colonists managed to drive off the attack with canon fire, but the natives returned on Dec. 1 in even larger numbers. This was an even harder fought battle, and gave rise to one of the founding myths of Liberia. A pipe-smoking woman by the name of Matilda Newport is supposed to have touched off a canon at just the right moment, saving the colony. For more than 100 years, Liberia celebrated December 1 as Matilda Newport day, with reenactments of the slaughter of natives.
This was not the last time natives tried to wipe out the colony but it was the attack that came closest. Many Americo Liberians (ALs) as they came be called, despised the natives and the natives hated them. Intermittent warfare with them continued well into the 20th century. And despite the early evangelistic fervor of the settlers, very few natives took to Christianity.
Life was hard even without hostile natives. The ACS provided enough supplies with each voyage to maintain the newcomers for six months, but many spent most of that period that fighting disease. Some settlers had been farmers, but most were reluctant to try to grow crops in an unfamiliar climate. Many tried to make a living trading forest products from the interior, but had to compete with hostile chiefs who controlled the trade.
The colony was a graveyard. Of 2,887 blacks who emigrated between 1831 and 1843, 42 percent died of disease, war with the natives, or accidents. There was also much poverty. Many letters home to former masters were filled with pleas for gifts of food and other supplies. Some former slaves asked to be taken back into bondage.
Only a few thousand American blacks ever emigrated to Liberia. Between 1820 and 1833, 3,160 colonists arrived, of whom 1,700 were free, and 1,100 had been freed specifically for colonization. Later, the proportion of free and former slave reversed. From 1833 until independence from the ACS in 1847, only 200 free blacks but 1,500 manumitted slaves arrived. Fewer free blacks came because it had become impossible to conceal the truth about disease, violence, and hardship. The freed slaves were often unskilled and illiterate.
Very early, the colonists established the practice of taking “wards.” Natives would place a child in the household of an AL in the hope he would learn Western ways in return for domestic service. Some ALs treated their wards well, but others treated them as slaves.
In 1824, three years after the first settlement on Cape Mesurado, the ACS first started calling the colony Liberia. It called the town Monrovia, in honor of James Monroe, who played an important role in persuading Congress to vote the first $100,000 to resettlement.
The ACS kept firm control over the colony until 1841, when it declared it a semi-autonomous “commonwealth.” By then the society had been weakened by declining contributions and the propaganda of free blacks who tried to persuade freemen to stay in the United States rather than emigrate. The ACS granted Liberia full independence in 1847, and Britain immediately recognized the new country. The United States withheld recognition for 15 years. According to Another America, this was because recognition would have meant accepting an ambassador, and it would have been awkward to make a black ambassador eat in the kitchen.
The Liberian constitution made citizenship possible only for “persons of color,” and only citizens could own land. Only ALs could vote, however, and property qualifications restricted the franchise to about 10 percent. Natives were subject to Liberian law but were not citizens. If they learned English, shed their tribal customs, and dressed in Western clothes, they could be made citizens.
The first Liberian president, Joseph Jenkins Roberts was an octoroon so light-skinned that he could have passed for white. He was typical of the mulatto, free-born elite that ruled over the form slaves and fully black settlers. Some of the black ALs hated mulattos and thought they were traitors to their race and to the very idea of a return to Africa. One black even wrote to the ACS asking that it stop sending mulattos.
Many free American mulattos, who enjoyed the society of their own kind and kept blacks at a distance, refused even to consider emigrating because they could not conceive of having to deal with blacks ALs as equals. One mulatto slave, William Kellogg, told his master that he would rather remain a slave if going to Liberia meant falling “into the hands of my inferiors.” Some mulattos petitioned the ACS to establish a separate colony for them, free of dark-skinned blacks.
After Liberia was established as an independent country, it went through no fewer than four constitutional changes of administration; this may be a record for a black republic. In 1872, however, there was a disagreement about the legality of a constitutional amendment to extend the presidential term from two to four years. The incumbent, Edmund Royce, was a natural partisan of the amendment, but the two-years faction rioted, arrested Royce, tried him for treason, and condemned him to death. Royce broke out of jail but drowned trying to swim to a British ship off the coast.
Liberia shrank during the 1880s as Europeans were carving out empires in Africa. The ALs could not establish control of the territory they claimed, and lost one third of their coast and two thirds of their hinterland.
The country that was emerging was a perfect precursor to independent African nations of the 1960s: hopelessly corrupt and badly managed. In the back country, underpaid officials invented taxes to impose on natives and pocketed the proceeds. In the cities, practically no one paid taxes, and most government revenue came from import duties.
Liberia once more came to the attention of American blacks during the first half of the 1920s, when Marcus Garvey tried to make it the headquarters of his Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). As a pan-Africanist, Garvey thought Liberia was the perfect base for a movement that would draw millions of diaspora blacks to Africa, unite all black people, and drive the colonial powers from the continent. He planned to bring over only the best blacks. “We do not want all the Negroes in Africa,” he explained. “Some are no good here, and naturally will be no good there.”
The Liberians strung Garvey along for four years, encouraging him in the hope of getting some of his money, while assuring the British and French they would never let him agitate for black rule in their colonies. Nor was the Liberian regime eager to accept a large number of Americans who might establish an independent power base. Garvey never got it though his head that ALs were not pan-Africanists, and he drew up elaborate plans for the cities that a million returning American blacks would build in their new homeland. However, the agents Garvey sent to Liberia saw through the regime’s pose. UNIA men thought the ALs were degenerate, and considered going around them and appealing directly to the natives. Reports to this effect eventually got back to the Liberians, and in 1924 they banned the UNIA.
Not long after this, Liberia conducted what the Guinness Book of World Records calls the most fraudulent election in history. In 1927, incumbent Charles King crushed challenger Thomas Faulkner 235,000 votes to 9,000. This was a remarkable achievement, given that the republic had only 15,000 eligible voters.
The 1920s were also the time of the great slavery scandal. The Spanish were cultivating cocoa on the island of Fernando Po, about 1,200 miles east of Liberia, but could not get enough labor. All the men on the continent closer to the island were needed by colonial regimes for infrastructure projects and plantation work. Beginning around 1900, Liberia started supplying native workers, who were kept in pestilential barracks where many died. The government made a commission on every man shipped off to Fernando Po, and was not particular about how they were persuaded to go. Entrepreneurs would march into the bush and explain to a chief that if he did not furnish several hundred men they would burn his village.
Word got out, and in 1929, the US ambassador to Liberia denounced what he called a slave trade. In 1930, the League of Nations sent a team through the Liberian interior and concluded that there had certainly been forced labor recruitment, but that the practice did not meet the official definition of slavery. What the league found was so bad, however, that there were calls for Liberia to be put under European rule, but the ALs managed to fend off any practical changes.
As Another America notes, it was independent Liberia that set the precedent for the African “big man’s” distinctive governing style. A pioneer in the field was William Tubman, who became president in 1944 and ruled for 27 years. He rigged elections to stay in office until he died. He set up a brutal secret police force and a network of informers. He paved the highway as far as his country estate but no further. He made his birthday a national holiday and insisted on ever more grandiose celebrations. He was an inveterate womanizer. After he built a fancy, seaside executive mansion, Time Magazine reported that it “combines the comfort of a garish four-star hotel with the appearance of a department store the week before Christmas.”
Tubman was, however, very dark and proud of it. He helped downplay the importance of white blood in Liberian society, though AL family connections continued to be the key to any kind of success. In 1964, he even extended the—essentially useless—vote to the natives, who were 95 percent of the population, though only to property owners.
Tubman helped build the economy by encouraging foreign investment. There was criticism of the generous terms he offered, but booming rubber plantations and iron mines meant a huge increase in the economy. Tubman died in a London hospital in 1971 after a prostate operation. It was rumored that he had gone to have monkey gland implants, which were thought to pep up the sex drive.
The system came apart under Tubman’s successor. William Tolbert tried to reduce the distance between ALs and the natives by taking the oath of office in a safari suit rather than the traditional top hat and tails, and by curtailing official celebrations of Matilda Newport Day. He cut back on the secret police, disbanded the informant network, and allowed some criticism of the regime.
As so often happens, reform only whetted the appetite for more. Liberation and communist propaganda was circulating through the University of Monrovia, and bright young natives who had been sent for study abroad came back full of radical ideas. In 1979 there were serious riots over the price of rice, and in 1980, a coup ended 133 years of AL rule.
The details of what led to the coup are murky, but Tolbert, still in his pajamas, was shot dead in the presidential mansion. The next day, a Krahn tribesman and soldier, Master Sergeant Samuel Doe, went on the radio to declare a new era. Monrovians danced in the streets, and hunted light-skinned blacks and known ALs in a rampage of looting and rape. Doe’s soldiers dragged 13 members of Tolbert’s cabinet down to a Monrovia beach and shot them before a huge, roaring crowd. Many soldiers were staggering drunk. It took them half an hour to shoo away the crowds and clear the firing line, and then some missed their targets. ALs with money escaped overseas.
Doe, of course, became the next big man. He moved into the executive mansion, proclaimed national celebrations of his birthday, and favored his fellow Krahn tribesmen. By 1990, he was as hated as Tolbert, and was deposed and killed by a warlord named Prince Johnson. Johnson’s men cut Doe into pieces, cooked and ate him. The coup was followed by six years of civil war and some of the vilest atrocities in recent history. The countryside was so devastated that natives streamed into Monrovia, where they lived in unspeakable conditions. The city’s population grew from 100,000 in 1980, at the time of the Doe coup, to 1,000,000.
Foreign intervention finally brought order, and since the election of Ellen Sirleaf—one quarter white, three-quarters native—there has been some stability. A different warlord, Charles Taylor, who ruled Liberia from 1997 to 2003, recently got a 50-year sentence from an international court for war crimes. Mr. Taylor has many known children, including Charen, Camille, Charlyne, Charal, Charmaine, Gritchawn, Charishma, Charmilah, and Charlize.
ALs have drifted back to Liberia and have reestablished themselves to some degree in the upper reaches of business and government. Although Matilda Newport Day is dead, the great seal of Liberia still depicts the Elizabeth and displays the motto: “The love of liberty brought us here.”
Another America concludes that “freed slaves, given the chance to govern themselves, had turned out to be no better than the white imperialists who had descended upon Africa around the same time.” This is a slur on white imperialists. Blacks made a hash of Liberia, just as they have every country they have tried to govern.