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Settlement of Liberia and Americo-Liberian Rule

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The establishment of Liberia is linked to the abolition of slavery in the West, and the growing population of free African-Americans in the United States. In the early 1800’s an alliance of diverse interest groups, including white abolitionists, clergymen, and slave-owners, formed the American Colonial Society (ACS) to look at the option of resettling African-Americans in Africa. Some wished to rid the United States of free black people who might challenge the institution of slavery, and others were pessimistic that blacks and whites could ever live together in peace. The society, funded mainly by Presbyterian churches that saw opportunities for evangelizing, began sending groups in 1820. Between 1821 and 1867 some ten thousand freed slaves were resettled on the Atlantic Coast of West Africa, as well as several thousand more from interdicted slave ships and Barbados. The first group founded the colony of Liberia, “Land of the Free.” In 1847, the Liberians formally declared their independence from the ACS, creating the world’s first black republic.[1]

Americo-Liberian Rule: 1847–1980

Americo-Liberians governed Liberia as a one-party state for 133 years. Their rule heavily influenced the development of Liberia, by introducing English as national language and a Western political and social structure. Under Americo-Liberian leadership, the country was relatively stable. Through an elaborate patronage system, the Congo were able to satisfy all groups more or less equally by rewarding their leaders in return for loyalty and collecting taxes. The economy, which at first found it difficult to gain entry into markets dominated by colonial powers, was eventually supported by American foreign investment. In the 1920’s, the Firestone tire company took over 4% of the territory for the world’s largest rubber plantation, which provided a model for other plantation developments and provided the Americo-Liberians with significant cash resources.[2] In the post-World War II period, Liberia had its most prosperous years under President Tubman (1944-1971).[3]

However, at the same time the Americo-Liberians had a virtually segregationist policy. They rarely intermarried, membership of the only recognized party was limited to Americo-Liberians, and Liberians who couldn’t prove Congo heritage (95% of the population) were excluded from serving in the government or military until the 1970’s. Indeed, indigenous populations were not even recognized as citizens until 1904. As a result, the Americo-Liberians only governed the settlements and territories along the coast. Infrastructure, education, and other services barely entered the so-called “hinterland” of inland Liberia until well into the twentieth century.

In the 1970’s, after most of the world had been decolonized, frustration with the repressive state structure began to grow among Americo-Liberians and newly educated indigenous Liberians. After demonstrations against rising food prices were violently put down by the Tolbert government, an indigenous sergeant in the army called Samuel Doe led a coup d’état. Tolbert and 13 members of his cabinet were executed, Doe claimed the position of head of state, bringing an end to the Americo-Liberian rule in 1980.[4]


[1] Liberian independence was recognized immediately by Britain and France, but the United States refused to recognize it until 1867.

[2] Ellis 2007, p. 44.

[3] Ibid., pp. 47-50.

[4] The United States is widely believed to have had a role in Tolbert’s downfall and the installation of Doe as leader. Tolbert, unlike the strongly pro-American leaders before him, had started to open Liberia to the Soviets, a development not supported by the U.S., which had a large commercial, political and military presence in Liberia at this time, including their whole of Africa headquarters (Ellis, 2007, p. 52). It is notable that they did not warn Tolbert of the impending coup or seek to protect him.