Reflection and Analysis of Monday B. Abastiattai's “the Search for Independence: New World Blacks in Sierra Leone and Liberia”
The Republic of Liberia, formerly a colony of the American Colonization Society, declares its independence. Under pressure from Britain, the United States hesitantly accepted Liberian sovereignty, making the West African nation the first democratic republic in African history. A constitution modeled after the U.S. Constitution was approved, and in 1848 Joseph Jenkins Roberts was elected Liberia’s first president.
Given that Liberia was one of two self-governed black republics in the world, and the only one in Africa, he believed Liberia served as a symbol of black progress. The demise of Liberia would be detrimental not only to the inhabitants of Liberia, but also to black people throughout the Atlantic World. Still labeled as an experiment, a failed Liberia would only reinforce the prevailing idea among white Europeans and Americans that black people were inherently inferior and incapable of self-government. Concerned with the fate of Liberia, Americo-Liberians, the governing elite of Liberia, went to great lengths to preserve Liberia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity throughout the latenineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Responding to European advancements that began in the 1860s, Liberian Government officials attempted to mitigate the threats by implementing tactics similar to those used by the European powers to colonize Africa. Nonetheless, Liberian efforts alone proved unable to thwart these imperial pressures. British and French agents continued to contest Liberian territorial claims and undermine the Liberian state’s territorial hegemony within the Republic.
After World War II, Liberia and Sierra Leone experienced a reversal of fortune in terms of the scale of export production and national income. In 1960, Liberia’ s per capita GDP was $1,230 (1990 international dollars), while Sierra Leone’s was just $856 (Maddison 2010). Contemporaries attributed Liberia’s post-war growth to a combination of the ‘open door’ policy introduced by President Tubman from 1944, and American investment during and after the war (Marinelli 1964). Liberia’s adoption of the U.S. dollar in 1943 also shielded it from the implications of post-war devaluations of sterling. Ironically, Liberia’s post-war growth occurred under conditions similar to those that characterized Sierra Leone’s pre-war trade expansion. The open door policy in many ways represented a reversal of Liberia’s earlier policies, which aimed to protect Liberian traders and limit the influence of foreign investors. Miller and Carter (1972: 113) describe the Liberian economy of the 1970s as a ‘modern dual economy’, one which Liberia ‘solicited and got’.
In short, thousands of freed blacks, with the aid of interested whites, returned to Africa with the aid of the American Colonization Society and colonized what eventually became Liberia. While some African Americans chose this option, the vast majority felt themselves to be Americans and focused their efforts on achieving equality within the United States.
Marinelli, L. A. (1964), ‘Liberia’s Open-Door Policy’, Journal of Modern African Studies 2: 91-8.
Miller, R. E. and Carter, P. R (1972), ‘The Modern Dual Economy – A Cost-Benefit Analysis of Liberia’, Journal of Modern African Studies 10: 113-21.
U.S. Department of State (1989), Foreign Relations of the United States 1957, Volume XVIII (Africa), Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.
Van Sickle, E. S. (2011), ‘Reluctant Imperialists: The U.S. Navy and Liberia, 1819-1845’, Journal of the Early Republic 31: 107-34.