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Lessons and Reflections on the Past Present and the Future from Liberia

Liberian History Chronology


After the struggle for liberty in the American Revolution, free and enslaved African Americans faced continued hardship and inequality. A number of white Americans, for a variety of reasons, joined them in their efforts to resolve this complex problem. One possible solution (advocated at a time when the assimilation of free blacks into American society seemed out of the question) was the complete separation of white and black Americans. Some voices called for the return of African Americans to the land of their forebears.

1815-1817 Black Colonization

1815- African-American Quaker and maritime entrepreneur Paul Cuffee (or Cuffe) financed and captained a successful voyage to Sierra Leone where he helped a small group of African-American immigrants establish themselves. Cuffee believed that African Americans could more easily "rise to be a people" in Africa than in America with its system of slavery and its legislated limits on black freedom. Cuffee also envisioned a black trade network organized by Westernized blacks who would return to Africa to develop its resources while educating its people in the skills they had gained during captivity. Cuffee died in 1817 without fully realizing his dream.

1817- The partial success of Paul Cuffee's African venture encouraged white proponents of colonization to form an organization to repatriate those free African Americans who would volunteer to settle in Africa. Prominent Americans such as Henry Clay, John Randolph of Roanoke, and Justice Bushrod Washington were members of the American Colonization Society (ACS) during its early years. Many free African-Americans, however, including those who had supported Paul Cuffee's efforts, were wary of this new organization. They were concerned that it was dominated by Southerners and slave holders and that it excluded blacks from membership. Most free African-Americans wanted to stay in the land they had helped to build. They planned to continue the struggle for equality and justice in the new nation (USA).


1820-1847 From Colony to Republic

1820- The American Colonization Society sent its first group of immigrants to Sherbro Island in Sierra Leone. The island's swampy, unhealthy conditions resulted in a high death rate among the settlers as well as the society's representatives. The British governor allowed the immigrants to relocate to a safer area temporarily while the ACS worked to save its colonization project from complete disaster. See African-American Mosaic: Personal Stories and ACS New Directions. See African-American Mosaic: Personal Stories and ACS New Directions.

1821-The American Colonization Society (ACS) dispatched a representative, Dr. Eli Ayres, to purchase land farther north up the coast from Sierra Leone. With the aid of a U.S. naval officer, Lieutenant Robert F. Stockton, Ayres cruised the coastal waters west of Grand Bassa seeking out appropriate lands for the colony. Stockton took charge of the negotiations with leaders of the Dey and Bassa peoples who lived in the area of Cape Mesurado. At first, the local leaders were reluctant to surrender their peoples' land to the strangers, but were forcefully persuaded -- some accounts say at gun-point -- to part with a "36 mile long and 3 mile wide" strip of coastal land for trade goods, supplies, weapons, and rum worth approximately $300. See "The fourth annual report of the American Society for Colonizing the Free People of Color of the United States: with an appendix."

See "The fourth annual report (African-American Perspectives) of the American Society for colonizing the Free People of Color of the United States: with an appendix.

1822 - April 25 - The survivors of Sherbro Island arrived at Cape Mesurado and began to build their settlement. With the wavering consent of the new immigrants, the American Colonization Society governed the colony through its representative. In time, however, some colonists objected strenuously to the authoritarian policies instituted by Jehudi Ashmun, a Methodist missionary who replaced Ayres as the ACS governing representative. Such disagreements created tensions within the struggling settlement.

1824 - Believing that the colonial agent had allocated town lots and rationed provisions unfairly, a few of the settlers armed themselves and forced the society's representative to flee the colony. The disagreements were resolved temporarily when an ACS representative came to investigate the colony's problems and persuaded Ashmun to return. Steps were initiated to spell out a system of local administration and to codify the laws. This resulted, a year later, in the Constitution, Government, and Digest of the Laws of Liberia. In this document, sovereign power continued to rest with the ACS's agent but the colony was to operate under common law. Slavery and participation in the slave trade were forbidden. The settlement that had been called Christopolis was renamed Monrovia after the American president, James Monroe, and the colony as a whole was formally called Liberia.

Christopolis was renamed Monrovia after President James Monroe and the colony was formally called Liberia (the free land). (Nelson) See the Map of Liberia with Monrovia.

1827 - Slave states in North America, increasingly interested in getting rid of their free African-American populations, encouraged the formation of colonization societies. These groups organized themselves independently of the ACS and founded their own colonies in Liberia for transplanting free African-Americans. Some of the "volunteers" were emancipated only if they agreed to emigrate. The Maryland State Colonization Society established its colony in Cape Palmas, Liberia. Virginia and Mississippi also established Liberian colonies for former slaves and free blacks.

See "The tenth annual report (African-American Perspectives) of the American Society for Colonizing the Free People of Colour of the United States: with an appendix." and named after the state. Virginia and Mississippi also founded colonies for former slaves in Liberia. (Liebenow, 17; Nelson, 15).

1838- The colonies established by the Virginia Colonization Society, the Quaker Young Men's Colonization Society of Pennsylvania, and the American Colonization Society merged as the Commonwealth of Liberia and claimed control over all settlements between Cestos River and Cape Mount. The Commonwealth adopted a new constitution and a newly-appointed governor in 1839. See African-American Mosaic: Liberia.

Former Virginian Joseph Jenkins Roberts (America's First Look into the Camera), a trader and successful military commander, was named the first lieutenant governor and became the first African-American governor of the colony after the appointed governor died in office (1841).


1842- The Mississippi settlement at the mouth of the Sinoe River joined the commonwealth. (Nelson, 16; Boley, 20)

1846 - The commonwealth received most of its revenue from custom duties which angered the indigenous traders and British merchants on whom they were levied. The British government advised Liberian authorities that it did not recognize the right of the American Colonization Society, a private organization, to levy these taxes. Britain's refusal to recognize Liberian sovereignty convinced many colonists that independence with full taxing authority was necessary for the survival of the colony and its immigrant population.

In October, Americo-Liberian colonists voted in favor of independence.

1847-1871 Nationhood and Survival

1847- On July 26, The Liberian Declaration of Independence was adopted and signed. In it, Liberians (Freed Black Americans) charged their mother country, the United States, with injustices that made it necessary for them to leave and make new lives for themselves in Africa. They called upon the international community to recognize the independence and sovereignty of Liberia. Britain was one of the first nations to recognize the new country. The United States did not recognize Liberia until the American Civil War.

1848- The Liberian Constitution was ratified and the first elections were held in the new republic.

The Liberian colony's former Governor, Joseph Jenkins Roberts, was elected Liberia's first President.

1851- Liberia College was founded.

See the remarks on the colonization of the western coast of Africa by the free blacks of the United States, and the consequent "civilization" of Africa and suppression of the slave trade.

1854- Maryland Colony declared its independence from the Maryland State Colonization Society but did not become part of the Republic of Liberia. It held the land along the coast between the Grand Cess and San Pedro Rivers.

See the "African slave trade in Jamaica, and comparative treatment of slaves" (African-American Perspectives).

1856- The independent state of Maryland (Africa) requested military aid from Liberia in a war with the Grebo and Kru peoples who were resisting the Maryland settlers' efforts to control their trade. President Roberts assisted the Marylanders, and a joint military campaign by both groups of African American colonists was waged. In 1857, Maryland became a county of Liberia. The second president of the Republic of Liberia was Stephen Allen Benson,(1856-1864).

Benson, born free in Maryland, U.S.A., had previously served as the vice-president and had a practical knowledge of the republic's local peoples and social institutions. He spoke several indigenous languages. In 1864, he was succeeded by Daniel B. Warner, who served until 1868.

1862- The American president, Abraham Lincoln, extended official recognition to Liberia. See "The relations and duties of free colored men in America to Africa: A Letter to Charles B. Dunbar."

See "The relations and duties of free colored men in America in Africa: A Letter to Charles B. Dunbar" (African-American Perspectives).

1865- 346 immigrants from Barbados joined the small number of African Americans coming to Liberia after the American Civil War. With overseas immigration slowing to a trickle, the Americo-Liberians (as the settlers and their descendents were starting to be called) depended on immigrants from nearby regions of Africa to increase the republic's population. The Americo-Liberians formed an elite and perpetuated a double-tiered social structure in which local African peoples could not achieve full participation in the nation's social, civic, and political life. The Americo-Liberians replicated many of the exclusions and social differentiations that had so limited their own lives in the United States.

See "The absolute equality of all men before the law, the only true basis of reconstruction." An address by William M. Dickson (African-American Perspectives).

1868- A government official, Benjamin Anderson, journeyed into Liberia's interior to sign a treaty with the king of Musardo. He made careful note of the peoples, the customs, and the natural resources of those areas he passed through, writing a published report of his journey. Using the information from Anderson's report, the Liberian government moved to assert limited control over the inland region.

1869- The True Whig Party was founded. In the late nineteenth century, it became the dominant political party in Liberia and maintained its dominance until the 1980 coup. James Skivring

Edward J. Roye (America's First Look into the Camera) succeeded James Spriggs Payne (1868-70) as president for about one year.

1871- A high-interest British bank loan to the Liberian government contributed to a political crisis that led to President Edward J. Roye's removal from office. He was replaced by Vice President James Skivring Smith for the remainder of his term.

From 1871-72, James Skivring Smith (America's First Look into the Camera) was the interim president of Liberia and was followed by two former presidents: Joseph Jenkins Roberts (1872-76) and James Spriggs Paynes (1876-78). Next, Anthony William Gardiner (1878-83) was elected president for three terms. Gardiner resigned during his third term and was replaced by Alfred Francis Russell (1883-84).

1874- Benjamin Anderson made a second journey into inland Liberia.

1875- A war broke out among a confederation of Grebo peoples. The Liberian government asked the United States to serve as mediator. In response, a United States emissary visited the G'debo kingdom and the Liberian republic and dispatched a naval ship to assist the Liberian government in settling the conflict.

1883- Liberia could not protect its claim to the Gallinas, a northern coastal area between the Mano and Sewa Rivers, from European colonial encroachment. Economically and militarily weak, Liberia was forced to allow the British to annex the area next to Sierra Leone. President Gardiner resigned over the issue, but in 1885, President Hilary Wright Johnson (1884-1892) formally acquiesced in the annexation.

Hilary Johnson, Elijah Johnson's son, was Liberia's first native-born president.

1888- Edward Wilmot Blyden. (America's First Look into the Camera) (1832-1912) published the important study Christianity, Islam and the Negro Race. Blyden was Liberia's leading intellectual, a journalist, scholar, diplomat, statesman, and theologian. Born in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, he arrived in Liberia in 1850 and was soon deeply involved in its development. From 1855-1856, he edited the Liberia Herald and wrote A Voice From Bleeding Africa. In addition to holding many positions of leadership in politics and diplomacy, he also taught classics at Liberia College (1862-1871) and served as its president (1880-1884). From 1901-06, Blyden directed the education of Muslims in Sierra Leone.

1892- France sent military forces into Liberia to force it to relinquish its claim to lands between the Cavalla River to the northwest and San Pedro River in the southeast.

1900-1997 One Nation, Many Peoples

1903- The British and Liberian governments came to an agreement about the borders between Sierra Leone and Liberia.

1904- The Liberian government instituted an administrative system that brought indigenous peoples into an indirect political relationship with the central government through their own paid officials.

1919- Liberia was one of the nations to sign the League of Nations covenant after World War I.

1929- An International Commission investigated charges of slavery and forced labor in Liberia. A year later, the committee could not substantiate such charges according to international law. They did find, however, that Liberian officials, including the republic's vice president, profited from indigenous people's forced labor.

1944- William V. S. Tubman was elected to the first of seven terms as Liberian president.

1946- The right to vote and participate in elections was extended to Liberia's indigenous peoples.

1958- Liberian representatives attended the first conference of independent African nations.

1967- Liberian officials served on the Organization of African Unity's Consultation Committee on Nigeria's civil war.

1971- President Tubman died in office.

1972- William R. Tolbert, Jr. was elected to Liberia's presidency after finishing Tubman's unexpired term.

1979- On April 14, a rally protesting the increase of rice prices ended in riot.

1980- A military coup led by Samuel K. Doe, a Liberian of non-American descent, assassinated President Tolbert and overthrew the government that had held sway over Liberia since 1847. This ended Liberia's first republic.

1985- Civilian rule was restored.

1986- A new constitution established the second republic of Liberia. Samuel K. Doe, the 1980 coup leader, retained power as head of state.

1989- Charles Taylor, an Americo-Liberian, and his followers toppled the Doe-led government. This action helped precipitate a civil war. Various factions fought to deactivate the Taylor rebels.

1990- Rebel forces reportedly executed Liberia's former head of state, Samuel K. Doe, who had overthrown the first republic a decade before.

The West African Peacekeeping force, ECOMOG, was formed to maintain order in the region.

1995- The 16-member Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) brokered a peace treaty between Liberia's warring factions. An interim State Council established a tentative timetable for elections.

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) re-negotiated peace.

1997- Charles Taylor was elected president of the third republic of Liberia.


Source: Library of Congress



A Brief History of Liberia


By the dawn of the 19th century, many American states within the Union were considered slavery-free states, and slaves from below the infamous Mason-Dixon Line risked their lives to reach this new Promise Land. But with few skills and no education, ex-slaves found themselves living in poverty in the large cities and contributing to a swelling black underclass. Conservative white Americans lambasted these masses of freed slaves as instigators of class revolution that would abolish slavery forever. Liberals decried the ex-slaves' deplorable living conditions. African-Americans simply wondered what freedom really meant in a country that always considered them third-class citizens. But all three groups longed for a solution to what appeared an intractable situation – a growing number of freed slaves unable to effectively integrate into 19th-century American society.

The idea of ‘repatriating’ African-Americans to Africa originated with Robert Finley, a white Presbyterian minister from New Jersey. Finley felt that freed slaves in America had little hope of integrating into society and would be able to improve their lot by returning to their homelands. Although Finley’s motives were primarily charitable, pro-slavery conservatives eager to exile black revolutionaries agreed with him. The result was the establishment of the American Colonization Society -- an organization tasked with handling the emigration. The Society’s first president was Bushrod Washington (nephew to President Washington). Other prominent officers and members included Henry Clay, Francis Scott Key, James Monroe and Daniel Webster. Leading African-Americans thoroughly disenchanted with America, such as Absalom Jones and Richard Allen, also became leading members. A majority of freed slaves, however, did not approve of the emigration scheme, arguing that they were fully American and had a duty to fight for those still enslaved.

The American Colonization Society raised funds for its venture through membership subscriptions, but also won backing from the US Congress. The first ship, the Elizabeth, sailed in 1816 with eight-eight voluntary emigrants, three white company officials, and supplies. The ship landed off the coast of Liberia where the new immigrants immediately began to construct their new settlement. But after three weeks, twenty-two African-Americans and all three white officials died of yellow fever. The second ship, the Nautilus, soon arrived with new passengers and fresh supplies [; "Africans in America: Brotherly Love Part III 1791-1831]. The land occupied by the American Colonization Society in Liberia was not void of native inhabitants when the emigrants arrived.

Much of the area was under the control of the Malinke tribes who resented the expansion of these settlers. In addition to disease, poor housing conditions and lack of food and medicine, these new emigrants were also forced into armed combat with the natives.

During these formative years, white administrators from the American Colonization Society ran the Liberian colony. But as the colony expanded and became more self-sufficient, colonists were given more and more control in running the colony. In 1841, Joseph Jenkins Roberts became the first black governor of the colony. Under Roberts, the colony drafted a constitution based on the US Constitution and achieved the status of an independent republic in 1847. The new Liberian flag adopted Old Glory’s red and white stripes with one white star over a blue rectangle in the upper left corner. Britain was the first to recognize the new country in 1848. The United States delayed its recognition of Liberia until 1862 over concerns by southern states of a black ambassador from Liberia residing in Washington.

The biggest challenge for the fledging nation was the establishment of its boundaries. The colony had consolidated mostly along the coast with its capital at Monrovia. Much of the country’s interior was unexplored territory occupied by hostile Malinke. Large loans from Europe and the United States added to the Americo-Liberians might, and slowly they began to dominate large tracks of the country. In exchange for such cooperation from the US, Liberia allowed the US military to use its land as a base from which to fight the Germans in World War I and the Axis Powers in World War II.

Although Americo-Liberians had been denied their freedom in America, many did not think to extend their new liberty to the native Malinke. Liberians (Freed Black Americans) treated many Malinke like second-class citizens and denied them voting rights under their US-based constitution. Natives were also used as forced labor until an admonishment from the League of Nations in 1931 halted the practice. The indigenous population and women received the vote as late as 1951. ["Liberia." Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia 2000]

Although aligned to the US democratic principles, Liberian politics has been more totalitarian. Over the years, presidents such as William V.S. Tubman and William R. Tolbert, Jr. of the True Whig Party suppressed opposition called the Reformation and United People’s party. Under Tolbert in the 1970s, the country moved strengthened ties with Soviet Russia while concurrently experiencing labor and economic troubles. In 1980, the muzzled opposition called for Tolbert's resignation. The army sealed the deal with a coup d'etat that ushered Master Sergeant Samuel Doe into power. With Tolbert and many of his cronies executed, Doe suspended the constitution and consolidated his power. Doe won the civilian election in the mid 1980’s in controversy and became a civilian President.

By 1989, the opposition flared again, this time under the leadership of Charles Taylor and his rebel group called the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL). The NPFL took control of most of the countryside, and Taylor's army inflicted widespread violence. Other opposition groups such as the Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia (INPFL) and the United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy (ULIMO) under Alhaji Kromah also consolidated and took up arms. As several small armies competed for power, the West African peacekeeping troops called ECOMOS were sent in to restore order. Order was far from restored as ECOMOS, in an effort to simply defend itself, was drawn deeper into the war. During the 1990s, ECOMOS was finally successful in bringing the competing factions to the negotiation table. By 1997, elections were held under international scrutiny. Charles Taylor was declared the overwhelming victor and his party, the National Patriotic Party, gained the majority of seats in the legislature. The opposition protested but later allowed the inauguration of Taylor.

( Taylor was booted out in 2003 following a rebel challenge to his government. Elections were held 2005, and Mrs. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected President.)

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