Wednesday, June 13, 2012

A Brief History of Liberia – Part 1

In order to better appreciate the position Liberia now finds itself in, it is useful have some understanding of its history and evolution. I cannot possibly do justice to this in one or even two blog postings, but I will try. Many detailed scholarly treatises have been written about Liberia's history. What follows therefore is merely a "Coles Notes" version, reduced to only the basics and written in two parts.

In the early 1800s, many Americans, including educated plantation owners (especially in the Carolinas, Virginia and Maryland), certain politicians and Christian theologians became concerned about the morality of slavery. They eventually came together as the American Colonization Society (ACS). It was decided that the proper thing to do was to return the indentured slaves of enlightened plantation owners to their roots in Africa, so they could flourish in their own environment. Ultimately, the decision was made to return them to that portion of West Africa which would eventually become what we now know as Liberia. The first ship containing "returning slaves" sailed from New York in 1822. After a couple of attempts to land, they settled on Providence Island, which is now a part of Monrovia. Unfortunately, the ACS, while their intentions were honourable, did not foresee the difficulties with which their plan was fraught. First, nearly half of the returning slaves died during transit, or within a short time after arrival, from either malaria or yellow fever. Second, the ACS did not attempt to equip the slaves with the skills necessary to subsist in a faraway and, to them, unknown land. After all, the returning slaves grew up in an environment where things were provided to them; they were therefore not equipped to provide for themselves. While the ACS sent resident agents with the freed slaves to help them adapt to their new homeland, many died en route or shortly after arrival or were largely ineffectual. The first such agent purchased what is now the land that comprises Monrovia from the native chiefs, under duress, for a mere pittance.

On their arrival, the freed slaves had to deal with, among other things, the indigenous peoples. They did not share the same culture, language or background. This immediately created a huge gulf between them. The returned slaves knew only one way of life: that of master and servant. They had no experience with democracy, equality of rights or any of the other principles upon which America was founded. As a result, they treated the indigenous tribes in the same way that they had been treated: as an inferior or lower class, whose role was to work for the returning slaves to help them establish a new life in their adopted land. Thus began a de facto dual class system. The returned slaves – referred to as Americo-Liberians – came to have several indigenous peoples –referred to native Liberians – as their servants, and the latter were treated as such. While one might have thought that the returned slaves would have learned from the cruelty of their subservience in America and chosen a different path in their new homeland, in fairness to them, slavery was the only model of governance they knew.

In time, a community was established, but it was clear who was in charge: the Americo Liberians. Ultimately, in 1847 an independent Republic was formed, with a Constitution based on the American model (it still is). A flag was chosen, also modeled on the American Stars and Stripes, but with only one star in the upper left-hand corner. Liberia thus became known (and is still known) as the Lone Star State (take that Texas!!) The country’s motto embodies the chasm that came to exist between the freed slaves and the indigenous peoples – "The Love of Liberty Brought Us Here." If one were to try to devise a less inclusive motto, it would be hard to better that one.

The new Republic of Liberia was recognized by many nations (England was among the first) but strangely America did not recognize its existence until 1862 under President Lincoln. This theme plays out repeatedly through Liberia's history. Liberians traditionally regard themselves as a special ally/favoured son of the United States, but the United States has never reciprocated in kind, especially when Liberia needed help the most. This a sore point and one where reality has diverged significantly from perception.

Americo Liberians ruled the Republic from its founding in 1847 until 1980. In fact, Liberia was essentially a one party state – under the rule of the True Whig Party – from the late 1800s until 1980. More about that later.

The first President was Joseph J. Roberts who ruled for many years and is generally regarded as the founding father of Liberia. As mentioned, Americo Liberians followed in his footsteps until 1980. The longest reigning President was William Tubman who governed from 1944 until his death in 1971. He was replaced by his Vice President, William Tolbert. Tolbert had been a technocrat and did not have necessary skills to lead a nation. As a result, he made several mistakes while in office, not the least of which was decision to put a tax on imported rice, the staple food of all Liberians. This led to the infamous Rice Riots of 1979. While Tolbert survived this crisis (just barely), the anger felt by indigenous Liberians toward the Americo Liberians was finally coming to a head. What resulted was a calamitous event, from a source no one would have suspected or saw coming, but it was to change Liberia’s future and its political reality forever.

To be continued…

No comments: