Liberia Established by Freed Slaves



Freed American slaves established country of Liberia, on the west coast of Africa, 1824.  After the struggle for liberty in the American Revolution, free and enslaved African Americans faced continued hardship and inequality. A number of white Americans, for a variety of reasons, joined them in their efforts to resolve this complex problem.

One possible solution (advocated at a time when the assimilation of free blacks into American society seemed out of the question) was the complete separation of white and black Americans. Some voices called for the return of African Americans to the land of their forebears. 

1815-1817 Black Colonization

1815– African-American Quaker and maritime entrepreneur Paul Cuffee (or Cuffe) financed and captained a successful voyage to Sierra Leone where he helped a small group of African-American immigrants establish themselves. Cuffee believed that African Americans could more easily “rise to be a people” in Africa than in America with its system of slavery and its legislated limits on black freedom. Cuffee also envisioned a black trade network organized by Westernized blacks who would return to Africa to develop its resources while educating its people in the skills they had gained during captivity. Cuffee died in 1817 without fully realizing his dream.

1817– The partial success of Paul Cuffee’s African venture encouraged white proponents of colonization to form an organization to repatriate those free African Americans who would volunteer to settle in Africa. Prominent Americans such as Henry Clay, John Randolph of Roanoke, and Justice Bushrod Washington were members of the American Colonization Society (ACS) during its early years. Many free African-Americans, however, including those who had supported Paul Cuffee’s efforts, were wary of this new organization. They were concerned that it was dominated by Southerners and slave holders and that it excluded blacks from membership. Most free African-Americans wanted to stay in the land they had helped to build. They planned to continue the struggle for equality and justice in the new nation. See African-American Mosaic: Colonization.

1820-1847 From Colony to Republic

1820– The American Colonization Society sent its first group of immigrants to Sherbro Island in Sierra Leone. The island’s swampy, unhealthy conditions resulted in a high death rate among the settlers as well as the society’s representatives. The British governor allowed the immigrants to relocate to a safer area temporarily while the ACS worked to save its colonization project from complete disaster.

1821-The American Colonization Society (ACS) dispatched a representative, Dr. Eli Ayres, to purchase land farther north up the coast from Sierra Leone. With the aid of a U.S. naval officer, Lieutenant Robert F. Stockton, Ayres cruised the coastal waters west of Grand Bassa seeking out appropriate lands for the colony. Stockton took charge of the negotiations with leaders of the Dey and Bassa peoples who lived in the area of Cape Mesurado. At first, the local leaders were reluctant to surrender their peoples’ land to the strangers, but were forcefully persuaded — some accounts say at gun-point — to part with a “36 mile long and 3 mile wide” strip of coastal land for trade goods, supplies, weapons, and rum worth approximately $300. See “The fourth annual report of the American Society for Colonizing the Free People of Color of the United States: with an appendix.”

1822 – April 25 – The survivors of Sherbro Island arrived at Cape Mesurado and began to build their settlement. With the wavering consent of the new immigrants, the American Colonization Society governed the colony through its representative. In time, however, some colonists objected strenuously to the authoritarian policies instituted by Jehudi Ashmun, a Methodist missionary who replaced Ayres as the ACS governing representative. Such disagreements created tensions within the struggling settlement.

1824 – Believing that the colonial agent had allocated town lots and rationed provisions unfairly, a few of the settlers armed themselves and forced the society’s representative to flee the colony. The disagreements were resolved temporarily when an ACS representative came to investigate the colony’s problems and persuaded Ashmun to return. Steps were initiated to spell out a system of local administration and to codify the laws. This resulted, a year later, in the Constitution, Government, and Digest of the Laws of Liberia. In this document, sovereign power continued to rest with the ACS’s agent but the colony was to operate under common law. Slavery and participation in the slave trade were forbidden. The settlement that had been called Christopolis was renamed Monrovia after the American president, James Monroe, and the colony as a whole was formally called Liberia.

Christopolis was renamed Monrovia after President James Monroe and the colony was formally called Liberia (the free land). (Nelson).

1827 – Slave states in North America, increasingly interested in getting rid of their free African-American populations, encouraged the formation of colonization societies. These groups organized themselves independently of the ACS and founded their own colonies in Liberia for transplanting free African-Americans. Some of the “volunteers” were emancipated only if they agreed to emigrate. The Maryland State Colonization Society established its colony in Cape Palmas, Liberia. Virginia and Mississippi also established Liberian colonies for former slaves and free blacks.

1838– The colonies established by the Virginia Colonization Society, the Quaker Young Men’s Colonization Society of Pennsylvania, and the American Colonization Society merged as the Commonwealth of Liberia and claimed control over all settlements between Cestos River and Cape Mount. The Commonwealth adopted a new constitution and a newly-appointed governor in 1839. See African-American Mosaic: Liberia.

Former Virginian Joseph Jenkins Roberts (America’s First Look into the Camera), a trader and successful military commander, was named the first lieutenant governor and became the first African-American governor of the colony after the appointed governor died in office (1841).

1842– The Mississippi settlement at the mouth of the Sinoe River joined the commonwealth. (Nelson, 16; Boley, 20)

1846 – The commonwealth received most of its revenue from custom duties which angered the indigenous traders and British merchants on whom they were levied. The British government advised Liberian authorities that it did not recognize the right of the American Colonization Society, a private organization, to levy these taxes. Britain’s refusal to recognize Liberian sovereignty convinced many colonists that independence with full taxing authority was necessary for the survival of the colony and its immigrant population.

In October, Americo-Liberian colonists voted in favor of independence.