The Republic of Liberia – Liberia History

The History of Liberia from this point on assumes a peculiar interest. The capacity and capabilities of the Negro are subjected to a crucial test. He is left fully freed from the control or influence of an alien race, in possession of a borrowed civilization, and of a borrowed political system of an advanced type, dependent on popular intelligence for its very existence. Can he maintain his position? Will he make further progress, developing along lines peculiar to his race and environment, and spreading a new civilization among the adjacent tribes? Or is he to lapse helplessly back into his original condition to be absorbed into the dense masses of surrounding barbarism? The question is a vital one. The solution of weighty problems in large part depends upon the answer.

The form of government was, as has been seen, closely copied from that of the United States. There is the same tripartite division executive, legislative and judicial. The President is elected every two years, on the first Tuesday in May. He is commander-in-chief of the army and navy; makes treaties with the concurrence of two-thirds of the Senate, with whose advice he also appoints all public officers not otherwise provided for by law.

The legislative authority consists of a Senate of two members from each county, elected for four years, and a House of Representatives holding office for two years; four members being apportioned to Montserado county, three to Bassa, one to each other county, with one additional representative for each 10,000 inhabitants. The judicial power was vested in a Supreme Court with original jurisdiction in all cases affecting ambassadors and consuls and where the Republic is a party, and appellate jurisdiction in all other cases; and in subordinate courts to be established by the Legislature.

The majority of the colonists had been long accustomed to similar institutions in the land of their captivity, and the new machinery of government was soon running smoothly. Within the little State peace and prosperity prevailed; its foreign relations, on the contrary, were involved in the greatest uncertainty. It had indeed severed the leading strings which bound it to its natural protector, and stood forth in the assertion of its independence. But it was wholly unsupported and unrecognized. The dispute with England, whose protégé on the north looked with jealousy and distrust on Liberian policy, remained unsettled. The danger was real and pressing. Clearly recognition must be sought and an international footing obtained without delay. President Roberts accordingly determined to go abroad, and as at once chief magistrate and ambassador appeal to the leading courts of Europe. His first effort, however, was directed toward obtaining alliance with the United States. In America his reception was enthusiastic. But the delicacy with which the dissension on the slavery question made it necessary to handle every subject remotely bearing on that bone of contention, prevented him from obtaining even the formal recognition of Liberia. Roberts then determined by pleading his country’s cause in England to arouse compassion in the heart of the power from which there was most to fear. Here substantial rewards met his efforts. His prepossessing personality, tact, and statesmanlike qualities won many friends.[12] With their support the recognition of Liberia as a sovereign State was soon obtained, together with a commercial treaty which left nothing to be desired. In further evidence of kindly sentiment the English Government presented the young Republic with a trim little cutter of four guns for coast protection. In France and Belgium similar generous treatment was experienced, and Roberts was conveyed home in triumph on the British man-of-war Amazon.

A second visit of Roberts to England, in 1852, four years later, to adjust disputes with traders who claimed certain tracts of land, was equally successful, and France, under Louis Napoleon, presented him with arms and uniforms for the equipment of the Liberian troops. In 1852 Prussia also extended her friendship, soon followed by Brazil and the free Hanse towns. In 1862, the necessity for cautious dealing with the race question having passed away, the United States government at last formally recognized the Republic, and Holland, Sweden, Norway, and Hayti formed treaties in 1864. The consent of Portugal and Denmark in 1865, and of Austria in 1867, brought Liberia into treaty relations with nearly all the leading commercial nations.

The internal condition of the Republic during the first decade was one of unprecedented growth and prosperity. The Colonization Society in America was in a flourishing condition, and gained friends on every side. Its receipts for the ten years were not far short of a million dollars; and this generous means permitted the transportation, in the same period, of over five thousand chosen emigrants. The accession of so large a force of laborers added a new stimulus to the activity awakened by self government. Many new settlements were formed and all the older ones received an infusion of new strength. Agriculture, especially the cultivation of the great staples, rice, coffee, sugar and cotton, made rapid progress; while commerce was stimulated by the establishment of regular monthly lines of steamers between England and various points on the coast, the first of which was started in 1853. The enterprise of Holland soon added still other lines. Communication with America was at the same time facilitated by the regular trips of a large vessel built for the purpose, the gift to the Society of Mr. John C. Stevens of Maryland.

At the close of his fourth administration President Roberts decided to decline re-election. For eight years he had been at the helm, and had brought the ship of state safely through her first perilous voyages. And now while the waters seemed smooth and skies serene he thought it best to entrust her guidance to other hands. The election took place in May, 1855, amidst scenes of political strife and party violence at once intense and short lived. It resulted in the choice of Stephen A. Benson for President and Beverly P. Yates for Vice-President. Both were distinctly the product of Liberian training. Benson was brought over, at the age of six years, by his parents in 1822, and received his entire education in the country. He became a successful merchant and entered political life in the wake of Roberts. As chief magistrate he showed himself a practical and efficient man, with the interests of the country at heart.

One of the leading objects of Benson’s policy was the improvement and elevation of the aborigines; but his designs were in part frustrated by the outbreak of a stubborn and exhausting war with the native tribes dwelling about the Sinou River. Details must be omitted for want of space; but this war devastated four settlements and sadly depleted the national treasury. It was soon afterwards that the Maryland colony at Cape Palmas was almost overwhelmed in a similar native uprising, and united with the Republic, as elsewhere narrated.

A widespread scarcity of provisions followed these wars, which gave rise to much apprehension. But this eventually did good in giving new emphasis to the fact that main reliance must be placed upon agriculture rather than trade. The great resources of Liberia were shown at a National Fair, held in December, 1858; premiums were awarded for the best specimens of coffee, arrow root, cotton, rice, ginger, potatoes, oxen, sheep, swine, turkeys, butter, preserves; cloth and socks of African cotton; boots; soap and candles from palm oil; ploughs, hoes and other implements from native iron and home manufacture; farina; chocolate; planks, shingles, cabinet work, and many other products of Liberian agriculture and industry.

President Benson was reelected without opposition, and entered upon his second term in January, 1858. A fresh outbreak of the slave trade in this year was followed by a number of captures by U.S. cruisers, giving rise to the old difficulty in regard to the disposition of the cargoes. The Act of March 3, 1819, which had long fallen into disuse, was revived, and a contract made with the Colonization Society to transport and maintain for a twelvemonth the recaptured Africans already on the Government’s hands. The substitution of small, swift steamers for the craft of older days so increased the efficiency of the navy that captures were made in rapid succession. Within two months 1,432 Africans were landed at Key West. This state of affairs made further legislation immediately necessary. Congress, acting upon the suggestion of a Presidential message, passed an Act amending the Act of March 3, 1819, which empowered the President to form a five-years’ contract with “any person or persons, society or societies,” to receive in Africa and care for the unfortunates rescued from slavers, for the period of one year, and at a price of $100 per capita. Commanders of cruisers were to be instructed to land their captures directly upon the coast of Liberia whenever practicable; immediate measures were to be taken for removing to Africa those already at Key West; and the sum of $250,000 was appropriated to defray expenses.

Three large vessels were at once chartered and stored with $60,000 worth of supplies; with the least possible delay the suffering crowd at Key West was transported to Liberia; but only 893 survived the passage. The effect of the new orders issued to the U.S. slave squadron was soon felt in Liberia. On August 8, 1860, the Storm King unexpectedly arrived with a cargo of 619; within twenty-four hours the Erie, prize to the steamer Mohican, followed with 867. Tidings came that still larger numbers were en route. The effect of this inundation of liberated barbarians upon the small civilized community, already surrounded by savage swarms, may be imagined. The greatest consternation prevailed, and excitement rose to fever heat. President Benson wrote to the Society that great evils would result unless means were liberally supplied, and entire control of the new arrivals given to the Liberian Government. The Society accordingly transferred the execution of its contracts to that government, and placed at its disposal all money received by their terms. This action seems to have allayed the worst apprehensions; and although over 4,000 recaptured Africans were landed within the space of two months, no harm seems to have resulted. They made rapid progress in civilization, becoming assimilated to and in many cases intermarrying with the colonists; from among them arose some of the best citizens of the Republic.

President Benson’s policy in regard to the natives was successful in bringing many tribes much more closely under the influence of the government. A number of steps were taken toward actively spreading among them the arts of civilized life, improving their methods of agriculture, and checking the evils of intertribal warfare and of superstition. A poll tax of one dollar a year was levied on each male adult, to be collected from the chiefs of the several districts; with a part of the funds thus raised schools for popular instruction were to be established throughout the country.

The control and oversight by the central authority of so many small settlements scattered over a large range of coast had been greatly facilitated by the small armed cutter presented in 1848 by the English government. This was now found to be hopelessly out of repair, and was generously replaced by the donor with another and somewhat larger vessel the Quail, an armed schooner of 123 tons. About the same time the New York Society sent over a small steamer to provide rapid and regular communication between points along the coast. In honor of a liberal benefactor it was called the “Seth Grosvenor.”

The third and fourth administrations of Benson passed uneventfully, and in January, 1864, Daniel B. Warner, who, the May previous, had been elected, succeeded him. Warner was born near Baltimore, in 1812, and emigrated in 1823. The Civil War in America, with the sanguine hopes it aroused in the breast of the Negro, caused a rapid falling off in the number of applicants for transportation to Liberia. The income of the Society for once exceeded the demand upon it, and several good investments were made. Liberia, however, was demanding more cultivators. A supply came from an unexpected quarter. Two societies were organized by thrifty negroes of Barbadoes, to return to Africa and make their home in the new Republic. Agents were sent out, and sympathy with their enterprise enlisted. The Liberian Government issued a proclamation of cordial invitation, and the Legislature appropriated $4,000 to assist the colonists, increasing in their case the allotment of land from ten to twenty-five acres for each family. The Colonization Society devoted $10,000 to their aid, and dispatched an experienced agent to take charge of the expedition. A large vessel was chartered, and after a pleasant voyage of thirty-three days, without the loss of a single life, 346 emigrants were landed at Monrovia. They proved a welcome and valuable acquisition, many being mechanics and skilled laborers.

After the close of the war, the alluring prospect of “ten acres and a mule” having failed our freedmen, the Society again received numerous applications for passage. The M. C. Stevens had been sold during the period of depression; another and larger vessel, the Golconda, was therefore purchased and fitted for an emigrant ship. During her first four voyages she safely carried over 1,684 persons.

In January, 1867, the semi centennial of the founding of the Colonization Society was celebrated in Washington. From the review of the fifty years’ work it appeared that the sum of $2,558,907 had been expended, exclusive of outlay by the Maryland Society, and of the large sums expended by the United States Government. 11,909 emigrants had been sent over, in 147 vessels; of these 4,541 were born free, 344 purchased freedom, and 5,957 were emancipated for the purpose of going to Liberia. Besides these, 1,227 had been settled by the Maryland Society, and 5,722 recaptured Africans had been sent back by the United States Government.

In January, 1868, James S. Payne entered upon the office of President. He is another example of Liberian training. Born in Richmond, Va., in 1819, he was taken before his tenth year to Monrovia by his father. One of the leading purposes of his administration was the establishment of closer intercourse with the great tribes of the interior. These people, the Mandingoes especially, were much further advanced in civilization than the coast tribes, who formed a barricade between them and Liberia, and offered determined opposition to any attempt to penetrate inland. They feared to lose their advantageous position as middlemen, and succeeded in keeping anything but the vaguest rumors about the interior from reaching the colonists. In 1869 Benjamin Anderson, a young Liberian appointed by the Government, and provided with liberal financial aid by a wealthy citizen of New York, accomplished an extremely interesting journey to a point over 200 miles from the coast.[14]

With great difficulty and the expense of a small fortune in presents to captious and rapacious chiefs, he succeeded in making his way from point to point along a course roughly corresponding to that of the St. Paul’s River. The route lay through dense forests, along paths worn by many generations of native feet. The ascent was steady; at 100 miles from the coast the elevation was 1,311 feet, and toward the end of the journey it rose to 2,257 feet. All along the way the population was dense, and showed a steady improvement in character, civilization and hospitality as the coast was left behind. The object of his journey, Musardu, the chief city of the Western Mandingoes, was at length reached, just on the edge of the primeval forest. Beyond lies a vast plateau covered with tall grass, showing here and there a solitary palm, and stretching away to the head waters of the Niger. The climate is wholesome, the air bracing, and the soil fertile.

The city proved large and populous; the houses were small and of a monotonous uniformity, bewilderingly placed without apparent arrangement. The whole was surrounded with a huge mud wall, which served not only as a defense against foes, but to keep out wild beasts, especially elephants, herds of which were frequently seen near the town. The inhabitants were strict Mussulmans, and were much further advanced in civilization than even the most intelligent tribes through which he had passed. They had an extensive commerce with the interior, caravans coming from places as distant as Timbuctoo. Good horses were plentiful, and there were evidences of the existence of valuable gold mines. Anderson was received with profuse hospitality; they appeared to be delighted with the idea of opening trade with Liberia, and promised gold, ivory and various commodities in exchange for European goods.

Another journey with the same general results was subsequently made by another citizen, to Pulaka, about one hundred miles to the southeast of Monrovia. These explorations are of great interest. They show the belt of coast occupied by Liberia to be merely the entrance to a high and healthful interior of great fertility and unlimited resources, over which the Republic has power to expand indefinitely.

President Payne’s successor was Edward James Roye, who was duly inaugurated January 3, 1870. Born in Newark, Ohio, in 1815, he had passed through the public schools of his native town, afterwards attending the college at Athens, Ohio, and Oberlin. He went to Liberia in 1846, becoming a prosperous merchant and politician. From 1865 to 1868 he held the post of Chief Justice. Roye came into office at a time when a rage for internal improvements possessed the country; and with this spirit he was in full sympathy. His inaugural outlines a bold and ambitious policy. The resources of the Treasury were entirely inadequate to his extensive projects, and in an evil moment the Legislature passed an Act authorizing the negotiation of a loan of $500,000. The loan was placed in London on terms which netted only £85 per bond of £100, redeemable at par in 15 years and bearing interest at 7 per cent. The amount thus offered was further reduced by the requirement that the first two years’ interest should be paid in advance. From the remainder were deducted various agents’ commissions and fees, until at length the principal reached Monrovia sadly reduced in amount, not over $200,000. And this soon disappeared without any visible result. It is an old story; but in Liberia’s case it was particularly disastrous. For with her little revenue, rarely exceeding $100,000, it soon became impossible to pay the $35,000 yearly interest on a debt for which she had practically received not a single advantage. And this accumulating at compound interest has reached a magnitude absolutely crushing. So desperate is her financial condition that many believe inevitable the fate which croaking prophets have long foretold, and against which she has struggled bravely absorption by England.

Serious as were the more remote effects of the financial blunder just considered, its immediate consequences brought upon the country a crisis which might have resulted in civil war. Great dissatisfaction with the negotiation of the loan prevailed. The Administration was severely criticized; serious accusations were brought against it. While the excitement was at fever heat matters were complicated by an attempt of the Administration to prolong its hold of office, which precipitated the threatened outbreak. For some years a Constitutional Amendment had been under consideration, lengthening the term of President and members of the Legislature. The measure had been submitted to the people, and twice voted upon; but the result was a subject of dispute. Roye and his party maintained that it had been duly carried and was a part of the organic law of the land; and that as a consequence his term did not expire until January, 1874. A proclamation was issued forbidding the coming biennial elections to be held.

This action at once aroused violent opposition. A strong party declared that the amendment had not been carried; and in any event could not be construed to apply to the present incumbent. The proclamation was disregarded; the polls opened on the accustomed day; and the veteran Joseph J. Roberts, aptly called the epitome of Liberian history, was elected by large majorities.

Far from being subdued by the decided expression of popular will Roye and his supporters, with the spirit of the decemvirs of old, determined to maintain power at any hazard. Roberts’s election was declared illegal, and of no effect. Throughout the summer the two parties stood at daggers drawn. At length the increasing strength of the opposition encouraged the thought of removing the President from office. The legal method of impeachment seemed far too slow and uncertain for the temper of the times. An excited convention was held in Monrovia, October 26, 1871, at which a “Manifesto” was adopted decreeing his deposition. A few extracts disclose its character:

“President Roye has, contrary to the Constitution, proclaimed himself President for four years, although elected for only two years.

“He has distributed arms and munitions of war, and has not ceased his efforts to procure armed men to crush the liberties of the people.

“He has contracted a foreign loan contrary to the law made and provided; and without an act of appropriation by the Legislature he has with his officers been receiving the proceeds of that loan.

“Every effort to induce him to desist from his unconstitutional course has been unavailing. Threats and entreaties have been alike lost upon him. He has turned a deaf ear to the remoteness from all the counties of the Republic:

“Therefore, on the 26th day of October in the year of our Lord 1871, and in the twenty-fifth year of the Independence of the Republic, the sovereign people of Liberia did by their resolutions in the city of Monrovia, joined to the resolutions from the other counties of the Republic, depose President E. J. Roye from his high office of President of Liberia; and did decree that the Government shall be provisionally conducted by a Chief Executive Committee of three members, and by the chiefs of Departments until the arrival of the constitutional officer at the seat of Government.”

Before the party of the Administration could recover from the shock of this action, President Roye and his Secretaries of State and of the Treasury were arrested and thrown into prison a coup d’état which made his opponents undisputed masters of the situation. The appointed Committee took charge of affairs; the excitement died away with a rapidity characteristic of Liberian politics, and in January, 1872, Roberts was triumphantly inaugurated. Roye died in prison soon afterward.

A reign of peace and prosperity followed under Roberts, interrupted toward the end of another term, to which he was elected, by a severe war with the Grebo tribe near Cape Palmas. Limited space will prevent detailed consideration of the later history of the Republic. Payne was elected to a second term in 1876. A. W. Gardiner was Chief Executive for three successive terms, from 1878-1884; and H. R. W. Johnson, a native born Liberian, son of the famous pioneer Elijah Johnson, was made President in 1884. The recent years of the Republic have not brought an increased tide of immigration, nor any marked progress. The diminished interest in colonization felt in the United States so crippled the finances of the Society that few immigrants have been sent in the last decade. That large numbers of Negroes are willing, even anxious to go, is shown by the lists of the Society, which has adopted the policy of aiding only those who can pay a part of their passage. Several instances of the formation of societies among the Negroes themselves to provide for their own transportation have occurred. In South Carolina the “Liberia Joint Stock Steamship Company” was formed, which succeeded in purchasing a vessel and sending over one expedition of 274 emigrants. The company was unfortunate and failed financially before another attempt could be made. In Arkansas a large secret Society for the same object was formed, several hundred members of which made their way to New York and prevailed upon the Colonization Society to give them passage.

The culmination of a dispute with Great Britain over the north-western boundary of Liberia is perhaps the most interesting topic of her recent history. The boundaries of the Republic were never very definitely marked out, as her territory grew by gradual settlement and purchase from native chiefs. Even today there is no hard and fast interior border line; the country extends back indefinitely from the coast, new land being taken up as settlement proceeds. In 1849 the coast line acquired in this way extended from the San Pedro River on the south-east to Cape Mount, the extreme settlement on the north-west. Between 1849 and 1852 various purchases were made from the natives covering some fifty miles more of the north-western seaboard. These purchases extended to She Bar, very near Sherbro Island, and were confirmed by formal deeds from chiefs of the local tribes. The conditions of the deeds bound Liberia to establish schools in the districts ceded, and to guarantee the protection, peace and safety of the natives. If now a few settlements had been made in this territory all future trouble would have been avoided; but all available energy was needed for intensive development, and the newly acquired territory was left un-colonized. In the course of time English traders established themselves within this district, who refused to recognize Liberia’s jurisdiction, and who smuggled in large quantities of goods in bold defiance of the revenue laws. As early as 1866 correspondence with the British Government was opened; and Liberia’s jurisdiction was more than once virtually recognized. Matters were complicated by the outbreak of disturbances among the natives, in quelling which the Republic was obliged to use military force a course which resulted in the destruction of property belonging to the English traders. Claims were at once brought against Liberia through the English Government to a large aggregate amount. Holding Liberia liable for damages received in the territory was a practical admission of her jurisdiction. Nothing was accomplished until 1871, when Lord Granville proposed to President Roye, who was then in England, to compromise on the River Solyma as the limit of the Republic. This is about the middle of the disputed territory. Roye weakly agreed, and this agreement is known as the Protocol of 1871. It was not ratified by the Senate. The tact of President Roberts staved off the crisis for some time; but at length the English Foreign Office demanded a settlement, and a commission of two from each State and an arbitrator appointed by the President of the United States met on the ground. Every possible delay and impediment was resorted to by the British commissioners, who further refused to submit the points disputed to the umpire. Of course, no agreement was reached.

The situation remained unchanged until 1882. On March 20 four British men-of-war silently entered the harbor, and Sir A. E. Havelock, Governor of Sierra Leone, came ashore. President Gardiner was intimidated into acceding to the demand that the boundary should be fixed at the Manna River, only fifteen miles from Cape Mount. But when this “Draft Convention,” as it was called, came before the Senate for ratification, it was indignantly repudiated. At the next regular meeting of the Legislature in December, a resolution refusing to ratify the Draft Convention was passed, and a copy sent to Havelock. It elicited the reply:

“Her Majesty’s Government cannot in any case recognize any rights on the part of Liberia to any portions of the territories in dispute,” followed by the peremptory announcement that “Her Majesty’s Government consider that they are relieved from the necessity of delaying any longer to ratify an agreement made by me with the Gallinas, Solyma, and Manna River chiefs on the 30th of March, 1882, whereby they ceded to Her Majesty the coast line of their territories up to the right bank of the Manna River.”

Liberia made a last feeble effort. A “Protest” was drawn up and sent to the various powers with whom she stood in treaty relations of course, without result. The President of the United States replied at once, counseling acquiescence. Nothing else was possible. The Senate authorized the President to accept the terms dictated, and the “Draft Convention” was signed November 11, 1885. On April 26, 1888, Sir Samuel Rowe visited Monrovia and formally exchanged ratifications. Thus once more strength proved triumphant; Liberia’s boundary was set at the Manna River, and Sierra Leone, which had possessed but a few hills and swamps, was given a valuable coast line.


McPherson, John Hanson Thomas. The History Of Liberia. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press. 1891.

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