Early Liberian Colonists vs. Indigenous Peoples

From Mississippi in Africa: The Saga of the Slaves of Prospect Hill Plantation and Their Legacy in Liberia Today, by Alan Huffman (Penguin, 2004), pp. 45-48:

In creating its Liberian colony in 1820, the American Colonization Society used as a template the colony of Sierra Leone, immediately to the west on the coast of West Africa. Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, had been founded thirty years earlier by English philanthropists as a home for freed British slaves, many of whom had originated in America but had won their freedom by fighting for the crown during the American Revolution. West Africa was chosen for the colonies for several reasons, but primarily because it was known as the “slave coast” and was the general area of origin of large numbers of slaves, including the majority of those who ended up in the Americas. Historians estimate that approximately sixty million Africans were captured as slaves in West Africa from the first recorded slave sale in 1503 to the end of the trade in the mid-nineteenth century. Of those, an estimated forty million died before arriving at their destination.

Until the establishment of the two colonies, the territory that would become Liberia had been held by indigenous tribes, many of which were (and in some cases continued to be) active in the slave trade. In hindsight, it was a recipe for disaster….

In January 1820 the society’s first chartered ship, the Elizabeth, set sail from New York for West Africa with three society agents and eighty-eight emigrants aboard. The ship first landed in Freetown, then made its way along the coast to the future Liberia, where the colonization effort got off to an inauspicious start. Within three weeks all of the society’s agents and twenty-two of the immigrants had died of fever. The survivors were evacuated to Freetown. Undeterred, the society organized two more voyages and began buying additional land, sometimes under threat of force, from tribal chiefs along the coast. According to historian [Mary Louise] Clifford, U.S. officials struck a deal with indigenous tribes that allowed the tribes’ active slave trade, which would have meant that as freed slaves were arriving to settle in Liberia, new slaves would have been setting sail. The colonization society board rejected the deal, however. A compromise that gave the coastal region only to the immigrants, and apparently made no mention of the slave trade, was accepted, but when the immigrants actually landed they met armed resistance and so moved farther down the coast, where they were again attacked. Some escaped to Freetown while others remained trapped within crude, hastily built fortifications. Only a small group persevered….

By the end of 1822 a tenuous peace was negotiated between the settlers and the tribes. Soon after, colonization society officials rebuked the immigrants for what they considered to be a poor effort at self-sufficiency. Clifford wrote that the settlers considered farming too closely akin to the slavery they had known in the United States, yet they had few other economic options aside from trade, which was dominated by the tribes.

To engender a sense of purpose, and because the colonization society was having difficulty finding leaders who would remain in place, the group named the colony Liberia and sought to regiment its government on the local level. The colonists began bartering for more coastal land and eventually took control of most of the valuable slave trading ports. By 1830 more than 2,500 immigrants had arrived in Liberia from the United States, and the next year the state of Maryland incorporated its colonization society, distinct from the American Colonization Society, and appropriated money for its own colony.

Even as the colonization effort was getting on its feet, opposition in the United States grew. The concept of colonization was challenged by both white abolitionists and free blacks who argued that African-Americans had earned a stake in the United States, and that repatriation was tantamount to deportation. Those concerns would still be echoed in 1851, when Frederick Douglass, in a speech to the Convention of Colored Citizens, attacked colonization, saying, “But we claim no affinity with Africa. This is our home … The land of our forefathers.” African-Americans, he said, “do not trace our ancestry to Africa alone. We trace it to Englishmen, Irishmen, Scotchmen, to Frenchmen, to the German, to the Asiatic as well as to Africa. The best blood of Virginia courses through our veins.”

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Filed under Britain, Liberia, migration, Sierra Leone, slavery, U.S.

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