Did African Americans Enslave Liberian Africans?

Executive Summary

  • African Americans that moved to Liberia moved there to get away from slavery.
  • It is curious that these individuals imposed a slave or near slave system on the natives.

Introduction

Liberia provides a fascinating story for how ex-slaves behave after being freed if allowed to enslave others. This story is primarily suppressed or at least not sampled because it does not fit with the inaccurate narrative that Africans aggressively oppose slavery.

The Origins of Liberia

Liberia began as a settlement of the American Colonization Society (ACS), who believed black people would face better chances for freedom and prosperity in Africa than in the United States. – Wikipedia

IN 1821, a ship arrived at a place near where my hotel now stood (Monrovia lies on the Atlantic, on a peninsula), bringing an agent of the American Colonisation Society, Robert Stockton. Stockton, holding a pistol to the head of the local tribal chief, King Peter, forced him to sell – for six muskets and one trunk of beads – the land upon which the US organisation planned to settle freed slaves (mainly from the cotton plantations of Virginia, Georgia, Maryland). Stockton’s organisation was of a liberal and charitable character. Its activists believed that the best reparation for the injuries of slavery would be the return of former slaves to the land of their ancestors – to Africa. – The Guardian

The Need for Liberian Americans to Differentiate Themselves From What They Viewed as Savage Africans

The two groups usually lived far from each other, and their contacts were infrequent and sporadic. The new masters kept to the coast and to the settlements they built there, of which Monrovia is the largest. The newcomers, unable to set themselves apart from the locals by skin colour or physical type, tried to underline their difference and superiority in some other way. In the frightfully hot and humid climate, men walked about in morning coats, bowler hats and white gloves. Women wore stiff crinolines, heavy wigs, and hats decorated with artificial flowers. – The Guardian

The following photo illustrates this.

What is curious is that African Americans did not dress like this in the US at the time. Even the two young boys have formal hats. The people standing behind them are their servants of slaves. This is very similar to the Spanish in the New World. People of minor status back in Spain, would often dress in a way and behave in a way that gave the impression they were part of the Spanish nobility. 

How Liberia Was Purchased

In 1822 the American Colonization Society began sending black volunteers to the Pepper Coast, the closest point of Africa and therefore the least expensive to reach, to establish a colony for freed blacks. By 1867 the ACS (and state-related chapters) had assisted in the migration of more than 13,000 blacks to Liberia.[17] These free African-Americans and their descendants married within their community and came to identify as Americo-Liberians. Many were of mixed race and educated in American culture; they did not identify with the indigenous natives of the tribes they encountered. They intermarried largely within the colonial community, developing an ethnic group that had a cultural tradition infused with American notions of political republicanism and Protestant Christianity. – Wikipedia

The Treatment of the Native Population by the Americo-Liberians

The Americo-Liberian settlers did not relate well to the indigenous peoples they encountered, especially those in communities of the more isolated “bush“. The colonial settlements were raided by the Kru and Grebo from their inland chiefdoms. Americo-Liberians developed as a small elite that held on to political power, and indigenous tribesmen were excluded from birthright citizenship in their own land until 1904, in an echo of the United States’ treatment of Native Americans.[10]

the Americo-Liberians replicated the only society most of them knew: the racist culture of the American South. Believing themselves different from and culturally and educationally superior to the indigenous peoples, the Americo-Liberians developed as an elite minority that held on to political power. They treated the natives the way American whites had treated them: as inferiors. The natives could not vote and could not speak unless spoken to. Just as American Blacks were prohibited from marrying or having sexual relationships with white women, the natives could not marry Americo-Liberian women. – Wikipedia

Firestone supported—and perhaps aggravated—a simmering Liberian social problem: the division between resettled African-Americans and their descendants, known as Americo-Liberians, and native Africans, whom the Americo-Liberians relentlessly exploited and derisively called “aborigines.” Citing the charges of near slavery in Liberia and reports that Liberian soldiers, under command of an American black, had massacred Kru tribesmen in Liberia, Britain demanded that the League of Nations take over Liberia as a mandate.

President William V. S. Tubman to Vice President William Tolbert, a more reform-minded ruler, neither man did much to improve the situation of native Africans. In 1980, the simmering tension exploded. As Sanford J. Ungar recounted in his 1981 Atlantic article A Revolution, or Just Another Coup?, an “angry band of soldiers,” led by native African Samuel Doe, “broke into the executive mansion, rushed upstairs, and surprised Tolbert in his luxurious quarters. They shot and killed the President, disemboweled him, stuck a bayonet through his head, and tossed his body into a mass grave.” That was only the beginning of Doe’s rampage. Soon after, “the army took thirteen of the wealthy Americo-Liberian officials who had been arrested… marched them nearly naked through the streets of Monrovia, to ensure that they lost their dignity, tied them to seaside post at the Barclay Training Centre, and executed them at point-blank range.”

[T]he fact is that for 133 years, a settler elite—a black-settler elite—which made up no more than 4 percent of Liberia’s population, had monopolized all political power and controlled access to the country’s resources. Its methods and its attitudes made those of the later-arriving white-settler elite in Rhodesia seem mild by comparison. – The Atlantic

Ex-Slaves that Enslaved the Native Population

The African Americans began their settlement opposing slavery, and this was a point of contention in their battles with the native population (for which slavery was the norm).

This is described in the following quotation.

What really pitted settlers against native again went unspoken: the slave trade, a business for the natives, was an abomination to the settlers, who were determined to wipe it out as soon as they had the means to do so. For those who had escaped slavery in America, it was something more; it was a responsibility and duty to the millions of their brethren in slavery back home.

However, once firmly in control of the new Liberian land, this position did not hold.

To this end, the government in Monrovia allocated to each tribe (there are 16 of them) a territory where they were allowed to live – not unlike the typical “homelands” created for Africans decades later by the white racists from Pretoria. All who spoke out against this were severely punished. The chiefs of unsubmissive tribes were eliminated on the spot, the rebellious population murdered or imprisoned, its villages destroyed, its crops set afire. – The Guardian

These expeditions and local wars had a single overriding goal: to capture slaves. The Americo-Liberians needed labourers. And indeed, they started using slaves on their farms and in their businesses as early as the second half of the 19th century. They also sold them to other countries. In the late 1920s, the world press disclosed the existence of this trade, plied officially by the Liberian government. The League of Nations intervened. The then president, Charles King, was forced to resign. But the practice continued by stealth. – The Guardian

As with any slave society, the slavery of the natives reduced the opportunities for work for the new arrivals from the US. This is explained in the following quotation.

As Peyton Skipwith wrote in his first letter home, “Those [settlers] that are well off do hav the natives as Slavs and poor people that come from America have no chance to make aliving for the natives do all the work.” Hostile observers, like the abolitionist William Nesbit, threw around the dreaded “s word” with abandon. “Every colonist keeps native slaves (or as they term them servants) about him, varying in number from one to fifteen, according to the circumstances of the master.” One thing we do know: natives were never legally recognized as slaves, as that would have been a violation of every constitution written for the colony – Another America

The African American View of the Natives

Like many settlers, Skipwith’s attitude toward the natives consisted of equal parts fear, anger, contempt, and paternalistic concern. He looked down on the Africans as lazy and duplicitous. When put to work, they had to be watched or they would slack off. They had no respect for property. In one letter, Skipwith lumped the natives together with monkeys as crop thieves. – Another America

The Liberian Political Environment

Tubman died in 1971. He was replaced by his friend, vice-president William Tolbert. Tolbert was a walking embodiment of corruption. He dealt in everything – gold, cars, passports. The entire elite, those descendants of black American slaves, followed his example. People who begged in the street for bread or water were shot on Tolbert’s orders. His police killed hundreds. – The Guardian

Doe’s coup was not simply the exchange of a corrupt political boss/bureaucrat for a semi-illiterate in uniform. It was simultaneously a bloody, cruel, and caricature-like revolt of the downtrodden, half-enslaved masses from the African jungle against their hated rulers – the descendants of slaves from American plantations. Doe immediately declared himself president. He ordered 13 ministers from Tolbert’s administration killed at once, before a large crowd of gaping onlookers.

Doe was lazy, and spent entire days sitting in his resi dence playing checkers with subordinates. Uncertain as to what he should do next, and how to save himself from vengeance after having killed so many, he saw as the only solution to surround himself with people from his own tribe, the Krahn. He summoned them in huge numbers to Monrovia. Power now devolved from the hands of the wealthy, settled, and worldly Americo-Liberians (who had managed meantime to flee the country) into those of a poor, illiterate tribe of forest dwellers unnerved by their new situation and who, pulled abruptly from their huts, were seeing a city, a car, or shoes for the first time. They understood one thing, however: that their only means of survival would be to frighten or liquidate all actual or eventual enemies, meaning all non-Krahn. And so a handful of these erstwhile paupers set out to terrorise the nation.– The Guardian

Liberia Versus South Africa

As early as the middle of the 19th century, long before apartheid was instituted in southern Africa by the Afrikaners, it had been invented and made flesh by the rulers of Liberia – descendants of black slaves. – The Guardian

The Results of the Liberian Experiment

I began thinking of Liberia as a noble experiment that had ended awfully. Freed slaves, given the chance to govern themselves, had turned out to be no better than the white imperialists who had descended upon Africa around the same time. If there was any lesson to be taken from Liberian history, it was a general one about human nature: an oppressed people could readily become oppressors.

Hidebound by their Americaness and surroundedand outnumbered by natives, they could never reconcile their idealism with their pursuit of power and wealth. – Another America

This video shows the history and failure of Liberia. 

Advice on Enjoying the Slavery Quiz

To see the full screen, just select the lower right-hand corner and expand. Trust us, expanding makes the experience a whole lot more fun.

 

Conclusion

This all calls into question how much the African Americans that moved to Liberia opposed the practice of slavery, versus opposing slavery solely for themselves. That is, they themselves were aggressively opposed to being slaves but took slaves when given the opportunity. Most blacks in the US continually focus on the issue of slavery. However, they have not been tested as to whether they would also take slaves if given the opportunity. American blacks also nearly exclusively focus on the slavery of blacks by whiles, leaving out blacks owning blacks (as occurred in Africa and in the US), Latin Americans owning blacks (as was the vast majority of slavery in the Atlantic Slave Trade), or when slaves are not black, such as present-day slavery in the Gulf countries as we cover in the article Did Slavery Ever Stop in Arab Countries?

The fact that the Liberia story is little covered or discussed fits into a long term pattern of censoring information about slavery that contradicts the official and inaccurate storyline. This provides a skewed perspective and is a form of selective outrage. Through selectively reporting the pattern of slavery, (where whites own blacks), the vast majority of worldwide slavery — both historically, and even more so in modern times, creates a highly inaccurate picture of the topic of slavery.

This is an excellent primer on the history of the Atlantic Slave Trade.

References

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liberia

http://en.lisapoyakama.org/liberia-the-unsuccessful-return-of-african-descendants/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liberian_Americans

https://www.theguardian.com/books/extracts/story/0,,493533,00.html

https://www.histclo.com/act/work/slave/cou/afr/lib/sc-lib.html

*https://www.amazon.com/Another-America-Liberia-Former-Slaves-ebook/dp/B009LRWHVI