Our readings thus far reminded me of the story of how the West African country of Liberia—a name derived from the word “Liberty”—was founded by the American Colonization Society, which began encouraging freed African-Americans to move “back to Africa” beginning in the early nineteenth-century. Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, is named after US President Monroe to this day. That said, this is where most readings and discussions on the matter have begun and ended in my past experience. The initial question I sought to answer was to what extent Liberia maintained ties with the United States. Considering Liberia was founded by former slaves and their descendants deliberately trying to get away from the white rule in the United States, was there an effort to cut ties with the US? Or the opposite: was Liberia deeply interlinked with America, despite its erasure from US history? To what extent in Liberia’s early history should it be understood as a colony (as the name “American Colonization Society” implies) and to what extent should it be understood as an independent country?
Knowing these were rather broad questions, I did not entirely know where to begin or what to expect. In hindsight, I can say I learned that it is easy to achieve a partial answer when asking such a broad question, but a challenge to achieve a satisfactorily complete answer (hence why such primary source-based research can take large stretches of time). Nonetheless, my first step was to determine what databases I wanted to use. Based off of demonstrations in class, I already knew that the Library of Congress and the Digital Public Libraries of America websites were fitting for the kind of “broad sweep” search I wanted to make. But wanting to be thorough, I scrolled through the primary source database list on the MSU library website; the amount of material that was available dealing with African and/or African-American history was overwhelming, but I ultimately decided to explore “African American Newspapers: The 19th Century (Accessible Archives)” because of the timeframe it focused on.
When searching for documents on the websites, I began with a general search term like “Liberia” or “American Colonization Society” to first see what was available. The African American Newspapers database mostly pulled up results from the “Freedom’s Journal” newspaper, which revealed that there were critiques from abolitionists that the American Colonization Society’s “movements tend to fetter more closely the chains of the enslaved” (LIBERIA). The Digital Public Libraries required a degree of digging; hoping to find some documents that might reveal information about American-Liberian exchange, I started my search with the keyword “Liberia”, but then fine-tuned my search results with the location “Liberia” and the subject “African Americans—Colonization—Africa.” I noticed that one of the documents—an address to the American Colonization Society—dated to as late as 1880. This revealed that the society was sending African-Americans to Liberia 15 years after the Civil War ended, along with the statement “Colonizationists, as a rule, have believed that two distinct races, that cannot or will not amalgamate by intermarriage, can live in the same land in but one of two relations—master and slave, or oppressor and oppressed… the question of slavery has been settled, but the Negro question is still an open one” (Latrobe 10). Finally, a search of the term “American Colonization Society” on the Library of Congress website pulled one of the most enlightening documents on the first page of search results. In 1873, the American Colonization Society was struggling with the question of if it should continue its efforts now that slavery was over, but it concluded
The redemption of Africa must in its progress originate new empires of power and mind… Its territorial seat will be the African equatorial zone. But its traditions, some of them grateful, some of them painful, will be taken from America; its form of government, let us hope, will be free; and its spiritual forces will be derived from the Christian religion… We must strengthen Liberia, by sending thither every year hundreds of our colored citizens, picking our men as best we may; by encouraging agriculture, the common arts of life, and skilled labor (Humphrey 13-14).
Returning to my original interest in the interrelations between Liberia and America, I can already say from this early research that the American Colonization Society’s founding of Liberia was not a brief episode in the early nineteenth century, but a sustained effort that continued well after the Civil War ended. Additionally, those involved conceived of Liberia as the creation of a new, independent empire, but ironically one that required a continuous influx of people and American ideals. While Liberia was the product of colonization, it did not seem to be the product of “empire” as traditionally conceived by European colonization in Africa. Unfortunately, of the digitized documents I encountered, most were written in the United States, and were best at answering questions of perceptions of Liberian colonization and the recruitment of colonists. To more fully investigate American-Liberian relations, I would need to find documents from Liberian sources themselves (which, as far as I can tell, might require going to physical archives), or trade ledgers that reveal Liberia’s material relations. While the American Colonization Society continued to send people to expand the colony, the question of whether or not they were sending material goods to support it, or if Liberia produced goods for export, have yet to be answered. Were I to dig deeper into this research in the future, I would either have to reframe my question to focus on the American side of the exchange (i.e. how intensive were the American Colonization Society’s efforts to support Liberia? How many people did they send? How did the ideology of colonization evolve over time?) or find Liberian sources (of which there do not appear to be many that are digitized).
Humphrey, Edward P, and African American Pamphlet Collection. Africa and colonization: an address delivered before the American Colonization Society. Washington, D.C.: M’Gill & Witherow, Printers and Stereotypers, 1873. https://www.loc.gov/item/92838006/.
Latrobe, John H.B.. Liberia: its origin, rise, progress and results. An address delivered before the American Colonization Society, January 20th, 1880. 1883. Retrieved from the Digital Public Library of America, http://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/100336666. (Accessed January 26, 2019.)
“LIBERIA. – Of late, we have thought, that the principal obje”. Freedom’s Journal. New York: February 21, 1829. Retrieved from African American Newspapers. http://www.accessible.com.proxy2.cl.msu.edu/accessible/print