Why Does Liberia Hold Such a Negative Place in Pan-African History?

The video above is part of recent attempt that I have been noticing to rehabilitate Liberia’s history and to present it in a more positive light; to present Liberia as something that African Americans should be proud of. This attempt to rehabilitate Liberia is partly a response to the fact that for many generations Liberia was viewed very negatively among African American scholars. Dr. John Henrik Clarke, for example, described Liberia as a “sick nation” and criticized the Liberian government for how it treated Marcus Garvey.

Dr. Clarke discusses Garvey and Liberia at around 1:28:00

Carter G. Woodson explained that settlers in Liberia brought with them the ideas of the American slave holders and established a slavocracy of their own in Liberia:

And these Negroes of a century ago stood their ground and fought the pro-slavery deportationists to a standstill, for with the exception of a few pioneers the emigrants to Liberia were largely slaves manumitted on the condition that they would settle in Africa. These freedmen, then, could have no ideals but those of the slave-holding section from which they were sent. They established, therefore, a slavocracy in Liberia. If Liberia has failed, then, it is no evidence of the failure of the Negro in government. It is merely evidence of the failure of slavery.

In his debate with Alan Dershowitz, Cornel West described Liberia as a settler state in which African Americans subordinated the native people and named the capital after James Monroe, a slave owning president.

The question is does Liberia really deserved the negative perception that it has received from scholars like Clarke, Woodson, West, and others? Moreover, is Liberia’s history something that African Americans (and all African people) should look at with a feeling of pride? The answer to those questions is really determined by your political outlook and ideology. Those who view merely returning to and settling in Africa as the ultimate representation of Pan-Africanism will definitely view Liberia as an achievement to be proud of, but Pan-Africanists with a more revolutionary inclination have a very different view of Liberia’s history.

Martin Delany and Robert Campbell were among those who returned to Africa to assist the natives with rebuilding Africa. Delany and Campbell were obviously influenced by having been raised in the Americas and there were aspects of traditional African life that the two men disagreed with. For example, Campbell considered polygamous marriages in Africa to be “disgusting” and Delany felt that Africans would be introduced to eating at a table with a knife and fork. Despite these differences, Delany and Campbell did not return to Africa with the intention of imposing their views on the native Africans. Campbell explained very clearly:

The rulers, of course, will not be unaffected by those influences which can bring about such changes in their people, and thus they too will find it expedient to modify the laws to meet the emergency. But emigrants must ever remember that the existing rulers must be respected, for they only are the bona fide rulers of the place. The effort should be to lift them up to the proper standard, and not to supersede or crush them. If such a disposition is manifested, then harmony and peace will prevail ; I am afraid not, other wise.

Delany and Campbell were able to conclude a treaty with Okukenu, in which it was agreed upon that the settlers would respect Egba laws. The settlers were allowed to enforce their own laws and customs among themselves, but Egba law was the prevailing choice of law in matters that concerned the Egba people and the settlers. There was another instance in which Delany and Campbell were invited to a mosque by King Shita in Ilorin. When Delany and Campbell agreed, Shita explained that he was merely testing them to see if they had any prejudices against his religion. Unlike some of the settlers who went to Liberia, Delany and Campbell were not there to impose Western civilization on them.

Alexander Crummell is one of the most well-known proponents of settlement in Liberia. Crummell wrote that the native African “is hardly a quarter of a man.” He continued to write that the native African is a “crude, underdeveloped and benighted child! A shadow of man!” These were the type of views that the Amero-Liberian settlers were expressing very openly. I mention Campbell and Delany earlier to demonstrate that not all of the Africans from the diaspora who returned to Africa had such negative views of the native Africans, but there were some like Crummell who did.

Edward Wilmot Blyden, who some have proclaimed to be the father of Pan-Africanism, is perhaps the most well-known Liberian intellectual of his time. Blyden also indicates some of the problems with Liberia. In many ways Blyden was very Europeanized. For example, Blyden boasted that Liberia was “a British Colony in everything but the flag.” He also expressed pride in the English language.

Most troubling of all is that Blyden praised European colonialism in Africa. Blyden described the French conquest of Dahomey as freeing “a great country from the cruel savagery of ages and throwing it open to the regenerating influences of an enlighten nation.” Rather than challenge the European conquest of Africa, Blyden openly welcomed it. This aspect of Blyden’s views is the most problematic aspect of Liberia’s history. Many of Liberia’s political leaders were not anti-colonialists and very often this class came to collaborate with the colonialists in Africa.

Edward Wilmot Blyden

Opposition to the Liberian colonization was one area where Frederick Douglass and Delany agreed, although for different reasons. Douglass complained that the educated Black men who could use their education for the advancement of their people in the United States seemed to prefer to emigrate to Liberia because they did not have any desire to continue the struggle against racism in America.

It would seem that education and emigration go together with us, for as soon as a man rises amongst us, capable, by his genius and learning, to do us great service, just so soon he finds that he can serve himself better by going elsewhere. In proof of this, I might instance the Russwurms, the Garnets, the Wards, the Crummells and others, all men of superior ability and attainments, and capable of removing mountains of prejudice against their race, by their simple presence in the country; but these gentlemen, finding themselves embarrassed here by the peculiar disadvantages to which I have referred, disadvantages in part growing out of their education, being repelled by ignorance on the one hand, and prejudice on the other, and having no taste to continue a contest against such odds, they have sought more congenial climes, where they can live more peaceable and quiet lives.

Delany was someone who advocated emigration himself, but he did not advocate settlement in Liberia. Delany wrote that the Liberia colonization scheme “originated in a deep laid scheme of the slaveholders of the country, to exterminate the free colored of the American continent; the origin being sufficient to justify us in impugning the motives.” Delany further stated that: “Liberia in Africa, is a mere dependency of Southern slaveholders, and American Colonizationists, and unworthy of any respectful consideration from us.”

I will add, however, that despite his criticisms of Liberia, Delany was on good terms with the people there. Delany began his travels in West Africa by arriving in Liberia, where he wrote and received a letter from Liberia’s president. Joseph Jenkins Roberts, Liberia’s first president, also gave a speech welcoming Delany. When the topic of Delany’s criticisms of Liberia were raised, Delany responded by writing: “You are mistaken, gentlemen, in supposing that I have ever spoken directly ‘against Liberia,’ as wherever I have been I have always acknowledged a unity of interests in our race wherever located; and any seeming opposition to Liberia could only be constructively such, for which I am not responsible.” Delany explained that his criticisms of Liberia were meant to be constructive criticisms and Delany himself would try to settle in Liberia after the Reconstruction period ended in the United States, so Delany had not completely rejected Liberia, but he did express concerns about Liberia’s relationship to the racist American Colonization Society, which were very much warranted. Where Douglass and Delany seemed to have agreed on Liberia is that many of the settlers were not interested in confronting America’s racism. In fact, many of the political leaders in Liberia allowed the United States to dictate Liberia’s development, which is a topic that I will address shortly.

Liberia is one of the areas where Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. Du Bois had serious differences. In 1931, the League of Nations released a report which detailed the use of forced labor in Liberia. The report was so damning that it forced President Charles King, Vice President Allen Yancy, and other government officials to resign. The UNIA had already known about slavery in Liberia because Elie Garcia was sent to Liberia on behalf of the UNIA. In his report, Garcia mentioned that the native Africans were being used as slaves. Garvey himself declared: “Barclay and King want the ignorant of the American and West Indian Negroes who will join the hosts in Liberia at twenty-five cents a day, so that they could continue to exploit them, but opposed to intelligent and wide-awake members of the Universal Negro Improvement Association who seek to lift the standard of the people to the common level of civilization.” Garvey also accused Barclay and King of treating “the natives like dogs, and with greater inhumanity than some of the most selfish whites.”

Du Bois, unlike Garvey, sided with the Liberian leadership. Du Bois’ first trip to Africa was his visit to Liberia in 1923, where he went on behalf of President Calvin Coolidge. In his report to President Coolidge, Du Bois painted an overly positive image of Liberia, stating that Liberia had extended its democracy to the natives. Thus, when the League of Nations released its report, Du Bois was unable to directly defend the Liberian government, so he instead attempted to deflect criticism away from Liberia by pointing to the fact that the League of Nations typically ignored the use of forced labor in the European colonies. Du Bois was correct in pointing out this hypocrisy, but he also did not confront the reality of the abuses that were being carried out by the government of Liberia.

Apart from the issue of slavery, the larger issue is that working class Liberians were suppressed in the interest of the foreign companies that benefited from Liberia’s resources. There were two strikes at Firestone in 1964 and 1968. The Liberian government responded by sending security forces to beat the workers in order to force them to continue working for Firestone. It was not until 1980 that Liberians were able legally organize labor unions, but labor leaders continued to be harassed and imprisoned.

In How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Walter Rodney writes: “ During the colonial era, Liberia was supposedly independent; but to all intents and purposes, it was a colony of the U.S.A.” This was because American companies such as Firestone were able to enrich itself at the expense of the Liberian people and the Liberian government itself. Rodney writes:

Between 1940 and 1965, Firestone took 160 million dollars worth of rubber out of Liberia; while in return the Liberian government received 8 million dollars. In earlier years, the percentage of the value that went to the Liberian government was much smaller, but, at the best of times, the average net profit made by Firestone was three times the Liberian revenue.

Rodney also notes that Henry Firestone and John Ford were business partners. It was Liberian rubber which made Ford a fortune in producing tires, so American capitalists were able to build wealth utilizing Liberia’s resources. As was noted before, not only was Firestone earning more revenue than the Liberian government itself, but the Liberian government was also assisting Firestone in suppressing the Liberian workers. In Persistent Poverty, George Beckford included Liberia among the various plantation economies of the third world because of its dependency of “metropolitan plantation enterprise.”

Liberia was never under direct colonial rule, but American interest dictated Liberian policy in a manner that was very similar to the neo-colonialism that would emerge after Africa was decolonized. For example, President William Tolbert invited Prime Minister John Vorster of South Africa. The Organisation of African Unity had prohibited members from maintaining contact with the apartheid regime in South Africa, but Liberia’s foreign policy was dictated by American interests and concerns. This also meant that Liberia did not maintain diplomatic ties with the Soviet Union under the administration of William Tubman.

Liberia was also one of the few African nations to express support for America’s boycott of the 1980 Olympics in Moscow. Most African states opposed the boycott because of the fact that the United States still had not taken a very strong position against the apartheid regime in South Africa, whereas the Soviet Union was actively assisting the liberation struggle in South Africa. Africans also took exception to the fact that the United States sent boxer Muhammad Ali on a diplomatic mission to rally support for the American boycott. Ali was a boxer with a very limited understanding of African politics. In fact, Ali was not even aware that the Soviet Union was supporting the liberation struggles in South Africa until he was told about it in Africa. Despite this, President Tolbert supported the American boycott.

The particular problem with Tolbert is that he was displaying a bit more independence than prior Liberian presidents. Despite supporting the American boycott, Tolbert still maintained diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union. He also supported the Palestinian cause. Tolbert was overthrown in an American supported coup which brought Samuel Doe to power. Doe would continue to rule with American support until Doe himself was overthrown by Charles Taylor, in yet another American orchestrated coup. In other words, when the United States perceived that Liberia was no longer supporting its interest, the USA organized coups in Liberia.

The reason why Liberia has been regarded so negatively is because not only was Liberia unable to establish independence from Western domination, but the political leadership that emerged in Liberia were collaborators with the Western powers. This is why very early on Delany had warned about the influence of the American Colonization Society. This is not to say that there are no positive aspects of Liberia’s history, but in terms of the the revolutionary Pan-African struggle the ruling class that was established in Liberia is no different from the African ruling class in other parts of Africa or the diaspora.

Dwayne is the author of several books on the history and experiences of African people, both on the continent and in the diaspora. His books are available through Amazon. You can also follow Dwayne on Facebook and Twitter.

Dwayne Wong (Omowale) is a Guyanese born Pan-Africanist, author, and law student.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store