The Fascinating Story Of Liberia: The African Country Founded By African-Americans
While the African-Americans who emigrated to Liberia were often of the same skin color as the natives, in culture they could not be more different. The former slaves from across the ocean were American in mindset and ideals. They viewed themselves as pioneers conquering a new land, bringing civilization to the natives. They built American-style houses, and created institutions modeled on those of the United States.
Even the flag of Liberia is a stark reminder of this. The words of the Liberian Declaration of Independence includes a phrase pointing to who the Liberians were supposed to be. They were originally the inhabitants of the United States. This left out the majority of the population of the country.
“We, the people of the Republic of Liberia, were originally inhabitants of the United States of North America.” — Declaration of Independence of Liberia
Much of Liberian history was marked by this conflict between the settlers and the natives. The African tribes resented the encroachment of these newcomers on their land. They often attacked the settlers, which would encourage retributory attacks.
Another issue at play was slavery. The tribes on the Windward Coast profited from the slave trade, acting as middlemen in the business. This of course was another reason for the constant conflicts with the African-American settlers, who as former slaves or their descendants wanted to eradicate it.
In a short amount of time, it was the settlers who got the upper hand. As usually happens, the oppressed became the oppressors. With the power being overwhelmingly in the hands of the Americo-Liberians, abuse ensued. Corrupt officials would force the natives to work on their lands or on construction projects, often without pay.
This culminated in a huge scandal, which exposed the moral decadence that had set into certain elements of the Liberian ruling class. In 1927, Charles D. B. King won the presidential election over Thomas Faulkner. Won is of course just a relative term in this case.
While the election process in Liberia was quite vibrant with the candidates going at it, the dominance of the True Whig Party at that time was such that the result was a foregone conclusion. In what has been termed the most rigged election ever, King received almost 240 thousand votes. Faulkner 9 thousand. Yet, the number of eligible voters was only 15 thousand!
Pissed off with the corruption, Faulkner accused the True Whig leaders of abusing the natives, and instituting a system which was akin to slavery in all, but name. The League of Nations was called in to investigate. Indeed, their report was damning.
They found that certain Liberian officials forced the natives to work on projects, and even sent them out to labor on plantations abroad. Intimidation, humiliation, and compulsion were common methods used.
“They have condoned the utilization of this force for purposes of physical compulsion on road construction for the intimidation of villagers, for the humiliation and degradation of chiefs, of captured natives to the coast, there guarding them till the time of shipment.” — League of Nations report
The scandal forced King to resign from the presidency. While the worst abuses were corrected, the split between the Americo-Liberians and the others remained. The descendants of the black American settlers did not mingle much with the native Africans. From time to time however, they did accept others into their ranks.
Numerous blacks from the Caribbean, especially Barbados, also emigrated to Liberia, and easily integrated with the Americo-Liberians. Another group that eventually joined their ranks were the so-called Congos. These were former captured slaves freed by the American navy from slave ships. While initially these too were second-class citizens, over time they integrated themselves with the group of American-descent. In fact, today the Americo-Liberians are usually called Congos in Liberia.
What was rare was the integration of the natives into the ranks of the ruling class. Many of the Americo-Liberian families took on talented natives as “wards”. Sometimes, they treated them badly, but in many cases this allowed the natives to get an education and become a part of the system.