The United States in Liberia
Martin Henry, COLUMNIST
In its biggest military operation in Africa since pulling out of Somalia in 1993, the United States has committed 3,000 troops to Liberia and an aid package of US$175 million to help fight Ebola in Liberia and the rest of the affected West Africa region. Liberia is the worst affected country.
Time magazine in a September 17 article, 'Why the US Has a Special Responsibility to Help Liberia with Ebola' says "in committing troops and cash to fighting Ebola in Liberia first, the US is drawing on old historical ties."
Liberia began as an American 'colony' on the African continent and became the second black republic in the world in 1847 after Haiti in 1804. And Haiti had a hand in the founding of Liberia, although indirectly.
In 1816, the American Colonisation Society (ACS) was launched in the US capital, Washington, DC. The Society's membership was mostly made up of Quakers and slaveholders. The Quakers were abolitionists opposing slavery. The slaveholders opposed the freedom of Blacks. What held the ACS together as a common goal, despite the conflicting positions of its members, was the repatriation of free Blacks from the United States to somewhere in Africa to deal with the free Blacks "problem". Segregation.
The Quaker wing of the ACS was of the view that free Blacks in the United States could more easily "rise to be a people" in Africa than in America with its system of slavery and its legislated restrictions on Black freedom. And they saw repatriation as a way of spreading Christianity in Africa. On the other hand, the slaveholder wing of the ACS saw the repatriation of free Blacks as a means of removing undesirable elements that could foment a slave uprising like what had taken place in the French West Indian colony of Saint Domingue, leading to the creation of the independent Black Republic of Haiti.
In spite of opposition from many Blacks and white abolitionists, the repatriation programme of the ACS proceeded, backed by membership subscriptions and money from several state legislatures.
In 1818, the Society sent two representatives to West Africa to find a suitable location for the colony, but they were unable to persuade local tribal leaders to sell any territory.
In 1820, 88 free black settlers and three society members sailed for Sierra Leone, a British colony, for its free Blacks, which had been established in 1787. Before departing, the Black repatriates had signed a constitution requiring that an agent of the Society administer the settlement under US laws. The settlers established a base on Scherbo Island off the West African coast where several of them died from malaria and the others were rescued by the British governor of Sierra Leone, who allowed them to settle temporarily in a safer location on the mainland.
In 1821, a US Navy vessel resumed the search for a place of permanent settlement in the area that is now Liberia. The local leaders resisted American attempts to purchase land. This time, the Navy officer in charge, Lieutenant Robert Stockton, coerced a local ruler to exchange a 36-mile long by three-mile wide strip of coastal land for goods worth around US$300. The Scherbo Island group moved to this new location and other blacks from the United States joined them.
The settlers suffered from malaria and yellow fever, common in the coastal plains of the area and mangrove swamps, and from attacks by the native populations who had various grievances against the "intruders". The locals were unhappy with the expansion of the settlements along the coast; with the settlers' efforts to put an end to the lucrative slave trading in which some local ethnic groups were engaged; and with the settlers' attempts to Christianise their communities.
In 1824, the settlers built fortifications for their protection. In that same year, the settlement was named Liberia (land of the free) and its capital, a settlement previously named Christopolis, named Monrovia, in honour of President James Monroe, himself an ACS member who had procured more US Government money for the project.
Other colonisation societies sponsored by individual states purchased land and sent settlers to areas near Monrovia. And Africans removed from slave ships by the US Navy after the abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade were also put ashore in Liberia. In 1838 most of these settlements, with up to 20,000 people, combined into one organisation.
The settlers attempted to retain the culture they had brought from the United States and, for the most part, did not integrate with the native societies. About five per cent of the population of Liberia are descendants of these settlers, and, up until the military coup in 1980, made up the ruling class of the country.
Highly dependent on trade as its most important economic activity and limited in its dealings with foreign countries as a 'colony' governed by the private ACS, Liberia declared independence in 1847, establishing a sovereign state (the second independent Black republic in the world) and creating its own laws governing commerce. On July 26, the Liberian Declaration of Independence was adopted and signed. Reminiscent of the American Declaration of Independence, Liberia, in its Declaration, charged their mother country with injustices that made it necessary to break ties and make new lives for themselves in Africa. They called upon the international community to recognise their independence and sovereignty.
Despite protests by affected British companies, London was the first to extend recognition to the new republic, signing a treaty of commerce and friendship with Monrovia in 1848. Because of fears of the impact Liberian independence might have on the issue of slavery in the United States, Washington did not recognise the nation it had played a key role in creating. Diplomatic relations between the two countries were only established in 1862 during the American Civil War fought over slavery.
Liberia actively encouraged West Indians to repatriate to the Fatherland. An Act of the Legislature in 1864 authorised the President of the Republic, "to adopt measures to encourage emigration to Liberia from the West Indian Islands". A presidential proclamation followed to the "Brethren of the Antilles" offering 25 acres of "fresh, fertile land" to each family and 10 acres to each individual who "may be desirous to return to their fatherland and assist in the building up of an African Nationality".
Financial and logistics problems prevented any large-scale repatriation of West Indians despite fever-pitch interest. But on May 10, 1865, 346 Barbadians were landed in Monrovia. And Jamaicans have gone in small numbers over the years. The Baltimore Afro-American newspaper, for example, announced on August 28, 1948, "200 Jamaicans to migrate to Liberia". Sixteen Jamaicans, 14 adults, one child and one infant, on their way to Liberia had arrived by Pan-American World Airways Clipper in Miami, the paper announced in a photo caption of the migrants disembarking the plane. And, as the Ebola disease wracks the country, The Gleaner has reported that Jamaican doctor Coril Curtis-Warmington has been in Liberia since 2011 as part of a long-term Christian humanitarian mission of medics and others.