The complex history of the country created in Africa to house the black population of the USA.

When the first black Americans landed on the west coast of Africa 200 years ago, they were following the reverse path of their ancestors, who had been forcibly removed from the African continent to be enslaved in the Americas for more than two centuries.

These pioneers, many of them newly freed from slavery and other freeborn children of enslaved people, established a colony on the site that would be called Liberia, or “land of the free“.

They left behind the slave society of the United States, where they faced prejudice, inequality and countless limitations, even after being free. In their new home they sought to build a life with more opportunities and political rights.

The bicentennial of the arrival of these first settlers is being celebrated by the Liberian government with a series of events throughout this year. The celebrations began in February, with a ceremony attended by a US delegation and heads of state from several African nations.

But the story of creation of this country in Africa to house former slaves from the United States is complex.

While many free black Americans had spearheaded the return to Africa movement decades earlier, the early colonization of what would become Liberia was encouraged and sponsored by an organization made up of white menmany of them slave owners.

“The movement to return to Africa was started by blacks,” historian Ousmane Power-Greene, a professor at Clark University in Massachusetts and author of books on the subject, told the BBC. colonization project.

“But at the same time, there are those who joined the movement because they wanted to deport (free black Americans). They were excited about getting rid of black people (who lived in America),” he noted.

American Colonization Society

At the beginning of the 19th century, decades before the American Civil War (1861-1865), which would mark the end of slavery in the United States, many in the country were already debating what to do with the free black population if this institution was dismantled.

In search of answers to this question, in 1816 a group of white men Meeting at the Davis Hotel in Washington, they founded the American Colonization Society (ACS).

Library of Congress
Map of the West African coast in 1830, including the colony of Liberia, which began to be settled by black Americans in 1822.

Created half a century before the abolition of slavery in the country, the ACS had the support of illustrious names, including then President James Madison (1809-1817), former President Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809) and future presidents James Monroe (1817-1825) and Andrew Jackson (1829-1837).

The members of the ACS had diverse opinionsand often contradictory, with respect to slavery.

some were abolitionists and they had a genuine desire to help black people build a better life in Africa. Others, however, rejected the idea of ​​abolition and believed that free blacks should no longer live in the United States, because they might endanger the institution of slavery.

Many slave owners at the time feared that the growing number of freedmen might foment rebellions among those who were still enslaved, and tried to prevent them from living together. In some cases, slave owners even offered manumission on the condition that the newly freed slaves agree to move to Africa.

Other members of the ACS advocated a gradual end to the slaverybut they also feared the effects of integration and rejected the idea that free blacks and whites could live side by side.

Despite this diversity of positions, the members of the ACS agreed on a draft colonization in Africa, which would establish a home for the freed to reduce the number of free blacks living in America.

the idea won popularity and various state colonization societies soon began to spring up throughout the country, following the same pattern.

“Is it a racist organization? Is it anti-slavery? The answer is more complex,” says Power-Greene, noting that the ACS has gone through several phases over the decades.

Back to Africa Movement

Although ACS was founded by white men, at that time the movement back to Africa was already popular among the black population. Even before the abolition of slavery, diverse communities of free black Americans sprang up across the country.

“It is in these communities that the activities of the return to Africa movement are taking place, these ideas are being developed,” historian Herbert Brewer, a professor at Morgan State University in Baltimore and an expert on the diaspora, tells the BBC. African.

“It’s important to understand that the movement back to Africa predates the ACS,” says Brewer. “As early as the 18th century, blacks in the United States were thinking and writing about different projects for repatriate Afro-descendants To Africa”.

Some black Americans believed that they could only escape discrimination and enjoy a truly free and prosperous life if they returned to Africa, the land of their ancestors. Many were proud of their African heritage.

“In the 1820s, America was a peculiar place for a free black person,” notes Brewer. “You were legal and technically free, but in reality, and based on the various types of laws that existed at the time, you were excluded from public life.”

First President of Liberia, Joseph Jenkins Roberts.

Library of Congress
Joseph Jenkins Roberts, a Virginia-born American who arrived in Liberia in 1829, was the country’s first president in 1847.

But others rejected the idea of ​​leaving the country where many of them were born and which they had helped build with their work, and defended the right to full citizenship.

In this context, the creation of the ACS was met with divisions between the free black population.

Many criticized the project as a racist plan, backed by slave owners to prevent integration, deport blacks, and make the institution of slavery more secure. Even among the blacks who defended the idea of ​​leaving the country, there was mistrust about the real intentions of the members of the ACS.

Others, however, saw in the organization the opportunity and economic resources necessary to put into practice the old project of returning to Africa. “For them, this alliance was a marriage of convenience,” says Brewer.

“It’s hard to stress how complex this topic is,” says Brewer. “Some people were in favor and then they changed their position. Some wanted to go to Africa and then gave up. Others were against the idea and then decided to go.”

In search of land for the colony

At the time of the creation of the ACS, the british crown it had already established a colony on the west coast of Africa, Sierra Leone, to receive former slaves, many of whom had fled from the United States to Canada after the American Revolution.

The success of this project contributed to the popularity of ACS and, in 1818, the association sent representatives to Africa with the mission of finding a ideal place to set up your colony. These envoys, however, faced initial resistance from local leaders, who did not want to sell their land.

Two years later, three ACS members and 88 free black Americans embarked from New York and crossed the Atlantic. They settled on the island of Sherbro, off the coast of Sierra Leone, but faced great hardship and many died of malaria.

The ACS continued to search for a suitable site for the colony until, in 1821, it managed to purchase from local leaders a strip of land some 58 kilometers long and 5 kilometers wide in the coastal region of Cape Measured. Payment was made in $300 worth of rum, weapons, provisions and other merchandise.

The arrival of the ACS and the American settlers caused divisions among the locals, who belonged to various ethnic groups and lived in communities accustomed to centuries of contact with Europeans.

“There is intolerant stereotypes and racists about Africa that have affected the narrative about the founding of Liberia,” says Brewer. “One of the distortions is that Africans were primitive peoples, isolated, without exposure or knowledge of the world.”

Photo of First Lady Jane Robert

Library of Congress
Immigrants recreated many aspects of American society in Liberia.

“They were interacting with ships that had come ashore since the 15th century, they were part of the transatlantic trade, which included slavery,” says Power-Greene.

Power-Greene recalls that the arrival of the ACS and the settlers Americans interfered in this trade system, which involved not only human trafficking, but also the sale of food and other goods to ships, with an impact on the entire economy of the region.

“Part of the opposition came from Africans who participated in the slave trade,” adds the researcher, pointing out that this aspect also characterizes the founding of Liberia as part of the abolitionist movement.

Initial difficulties and tensions

The settlement established on the site received its first residents from the United States in April 1822. The group that had landed two years earlier on Sherbro Island also moved into the new area.

Although it was created to house black Americans, the colony was initially managed by a white representative of the ACS. In 1824, it was called Liberia, and its capital was called Monroviain honor of the then American president, James Monroe, who had secured the funds for the project.

The new land acquisitions expanded the territory of the colony, which welcomed more than 13,000 Americans in the following decades. Thousands more were sent to the region after being rescued from ships operating illegally after the transatlantic slave trade was banned.

State corporations, inspired by the ACS, also began to acquire nearby lands and to send black Americans to settlements in the region, thus expanding the colony.

The initial period was fraught with challenges, with diseases killing thousands in the early years and attacks by hostile groups. The immigrants were decendents of Africans, but most were born in the United States and were unfamiliar with the local language or customs.

Even among those born in Africa, few had earth memories from which they had been taken at a young age. Furthermore, given the vastness and diversity of the continent, it was unlikely that their ancestors came from the same region to which they were migrating.

“People who come to Africa should expect to experience many hardships, which are common (in the first settlement) in any new country,” American William Burke wrote in an 1858 letter.

In 1853, shortly after he was emancipated, Burke and his wife, Rosabella, boarded a boat with her four children from the US city of Baltimore bound for Liberia. Trained as a blacksmith, Burke studied Latin and Greek in his new home and became a Presbyterian minister.

His letters, preserved by the United States Library of Congress, describe not only the difficulties faced by the pioneers, but also the satisfaction with the new life. “I love Africa and would not exchange it for America,” Rosabella wrote in 1859.

“I expected and was not disappointed or discouraged by anything I found,” Burke wrote. “The Lord has blessed me abundantly since my residence in Africa, for which I feel that I can never be thankful enough.”

these first immigrants they recreated many aspects of American society in Liberia, while maintaining the English language, customs, dress, and architectural style that they were used to in the United States.

The initial years were marked not only by conflicts, caused mainly by the territory expansionbut also by the integration between the native population and the newcomers, who built schools, churches and created links with the local inhabitants.

Brewer points out that this integration generated a hybrid society, with reflections on culture, language, food and other aspects that are still present today.

Independence and Civil War

In 1847, the colony declared its independence from the ACS and became the second black republic in the world, after Haiti. Joseph Jenkins Roberts, a Virginia-born black American who had come to Liberia in 1829, was elected president.

Despite its role in the creation of Liberia, Washington did not immediately recognize the new nation for fear of possible impacts on the issue of slavery in the United States. The two countries would establish diplomatic relations in 1862, in the midst of the American Civil War.

In the United States, the proposal that ex-slaves go voluntarily to Africa or territories of the Americas was defended for decades. But more and more abolitionists began to take a stand against the idea of ​​colonization, and by the turn of the century the ACS had lost importance.

Between black populationHowever, the return to Africa movement continued to gain adherents. Liberia and other African nations welcomed new waves of black Americans for several decades, including the 1960s, at the height of the civil rights movement in the United States.

“The popularity of ideas about returning to Africa it rose, fell and rose again depending on the circumstances,” says Brewer.

In the late 1980s, Liberia faced a brutal civil war that left more than 200,000 dead. One of the complaints is usually that the tensions and inequalities between immigrants and the native population, decades before, played a crucial role in the origin of this conflict.

The criticism is that American-born Liberians formed an elite that exploited and discriminated against locals. But Brewer, Power-Greene and other historians emphasize that this was nearly a hundred years after the first settlers arrived, and is not a product of the founding of the country.

“Some of the exploitation claims go back to the 1920s when Firestone got involved,” says Power-Greene, referring to the American-founded tire factory that, in 1926, established one of the world’s largest rubber plantations. of the world in Liberia, and went on to dominate the economy and the politics of the country in the following decades.

Residence of President Joseph Jenkins Roberts in the capital, Monrovia.

Library of Congress
Residence of President Joseph Jenkins Roberts in the capital, Monrovia.

“The Liberians (in the 19th century) were not able to create a racial caste, as it is often called, that made a lot of sense. They made up only 3% of the total population of the area that would be called Liberia,” says Power.

The historians interviewed by the BBC point out that the social caste system was not created in the 19th century, with the pioneersbut in the 20th century, with the arrival of large companies to exploit the country’s natural resources.

“Who took the land from the people of Liberia? were the large multinationals“, criticizes Brewer. “(But) some people want to attribute to the founding of the country the mistakes, the ills, the problems, the dysfunctions that emerged (decades) later.”

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