The transatlantic slave trade and the liberian civil war

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Two Hundred Years after the Abolition of the Transatlantic Slave Trade: Issues and Perspectives

Alexander K. D. Frempong


The Liberian civil war began in 1989, one hundred and sixty-seven years after the first batch of freed slaves from America was settled in that country by the American Colonization Society (ACS) in 1822. It may therefore seem far-fetched to link the civil war to the slave trade the ending of which led to the settlement of the freed slaves. The slave trade, no doubt had several negative social, political and economic impacts on Africa but to link it to a civil war nearly two centuries later may appear an exaggeration.

However, it is the main contention of this paper that it was the relations between the freed slaves from America and the indigenous people they met that formed the basis of discord and distrust throughout Liberia’s history that eventually resulted in the civil war. Simply put, it was the difficulty of incorporating the native population into the political, social and economic system introduced by the settlers that exploded from time to time throughout Liberia’s history up to the outbreak of the civil war. The civil war therefore had its roots in the founding of the colony for the freed slaves
This article briefly examines the Transatlantic Slave Trade, the factors surrounding its abolition, the formation of the ACS and its role in the re-settlement project, and an analysis of how the presence of the Americo-Liberians contributed to the outbreak of the civil war.
The Slave Trade

The Atlantic slave trade was the purchase and transport of black Africans into bondage and servitude in the New World. The slaves were one element of a three-part economic cycle - the Triangular Trade - which involved Europe, Africa and the Americas and the lives and fortunes of millions of people, for four centuries (Wikipedia, Atlantic Slave Trade). It originated from a shortage of labour for mining, and especially for the plantations1 and to meet this demand, European traders turned to Africa, as source of slaves (Ibid).

Ships from Europe carried cargoes of manufactured goods to Africa which were exchanged for slaves who were transported to the Americas. In the Americas, they sold the slaves and picked up cargoes of agricultural products, often produced with slave labour, for Europe. The value of this trade route was that a ship could make substantial profit on each leg of the voyage (Ibid). The Europeans tapped into the existing African slave trade systems largely along the coast of West Africa.2 African slaves were usually sold to European traders by powerful coastal or interior states in exchange for European goods, such as liquor, textiles and firearms.
While some ecclesiastics actively pleaded slavery to be against the Christian teachings, others supported the economically opportune slave trade by church teachings and the introduction of the concept of the black man’s and white man’s burdens. Under this, black men were expected to labour because they were not Christian and white men were charged with the duty of imposing conditions of labour upon them (Ibid). This forcible transportation in bondage of at least twelve million Africans from their homeland to the Americans enhanced forever the face and character of the modern world but was dehumanizing and exploitative of Africa. The continent experienced the loss of a significant part of its able-bodied population which played a part in the social and political weakening of its societies (Ibid). Although victimized and exploited, the slaves created a new largely African Creole society some of whom would be settled in Liberia.
In the latter part of the 18th century, opposition developed against the slave trade in Britain and other parts of Europe and that led Denmark in 1792 to pass a law to ban the trade with effect from 1803. Britain did likewise in 1807 and the United States banned the importation of slaves that same year (Ibid).

The American Colonization Society (ACS)

While at the start of the 19th Century, the tide of opinion in America was turning against slavery and the slave trade, the whites, fearful of slave revolt agitated for the deportation of the freed slaves to some place outside the limits of the US. From the start, colonization of freed blacks in Africa was an issue on which both whites and blacks were divided.3 But it eventually crystallized in 1816 in the formation of the American Colonization Society (ACS) (AJIL 1909: 959). The ACS was considered the ideal solution to the American racial dilemma. Claiming to be interested in the welfare of the Africans in its midst the ACS advocated colonizing them in Africa. Most of its propaganda tried to demonstrate that the freedman lived in a wretched state of poverty, immorality and ignorance and that he would be better off in Africa. The ACS received widespread support from several sectors of the white community and Congress voted $100, 000 to finance the plan which eventually led to the establishment of the Republic of Liberia (

After several attempts, the ACS succeeded in 1822 in founding a settlement on the west coast of Africa which they called Monrovia, in honour of James Monroe, then president of the US, who had made the government a virtual partner4 of the Society in its efforts to establish an African homeland (Boyd 1962: 109). A few years later, other colonization societies founded other settlements near Monrovia and the various settlements subsequently united into the Commonwealth of Liberia. It was through this process that freed Negroes from America were given a place of refuge in the land of their fathers. The numbers of the colonists were also augmented by slaves found aboard captured slave-trading vessels by the US (AJIL 1909: 960). Between 1822 and 1862, about 5,500 recaptured Africans who were seized from slavers in the Atlantic waters by American naval ships, were also settled in Liberia (Abasiattai 1992: 107). And so, Liberia became the haven for ‘recaptives’ as well as the Promised Land of the repatriates (Boyd 1962: 109).
The pioneer repatriates also took along a constitution, drawn by the managers of the ACS, with governmental and military powers vested in a ‘Colonial Agent’ or governor, an appointee of the ACS. The constitution granted the repatriates ‘all rights and privileges enjoyed by United States citizens” and envisaged the eventual withdrawal of ACS agents, leaving the repatriates to govern themselves (Abasiattai 1992: 112)

The Founding of Liberia

In December 1821, R F. Stockton and Eli Ayres, two agents of the ACS came to Cape Mesurado and after some difficult bargaining convinced King Peter and four other chiefs to cede the Providence Island to them. Accounts of this acquisition differ, but it is quite possible that the threat of force by Captain Stockton caused the indigenous leaders to agree to sell a 36-mile long strip of coastline to the ACS in exchange for $300 worth of rum, weapons and other goods (Wikipedia, History of Liberia). Not surprisingly, when they returned with the repatriates in 1822 to take possession of their newly acquired land, the chiefs refused to acknowledge the ACS’ rights and tried to return the part payments that had been made under the terms of the treaty (Holsoe 1971: 336-337). Thus, sowing the seed of distrust between the new comers and those they met.

The formation of the free colony did not occur altogether without difficulty. The severe conditions, including harsh climate and deadly diseases, took a high toll on both settlers and missionaries. In addition, Liberia was not void of native inhabitants when the emigrants arrived. It was occupied by at least one and half dozen ethnic groups5 (Wikipedia, History of Liberia). The presence of the repatriates also divided the indigenous chiefs and the people. While some saw them as their countrymen by virtue of their color, others saw them as strangers who had forgotten their attachment to the fatherland and were under the protection of white men. As early as November 1822, the indigenous people mounted the first attack on the settlers, and that marked the beginning of several such attacks (Holsoe 1971: 338).The initial contact between the two groups, therefore, was filled with misunderstandings on both sides that resulted in wars (Ibid: 356).
The settlers recreated American society, building churches and homes that resembled Southern plantation-style houses; continued to speak English and adopted other American styles of life. They also entered into a complex relationship with indigenous people-marrying them in some cases, discriminating against them in others, but at other times attempting to civilize them and imposing Western values on the traditional communities. Some coastal ethnic groups became Protestants and learned English, but most of the indigenous Africans retained their traditional religion and language (Wikipedia, History of Liberia). It was distrust and discord that emerged as a result of these attempts by the new comers to forcibly take away lands and to impose an alien system on those they met were never fully overcome (Frempong 1999: 57). Resistance from indigenous groups continued and occasional port calls by American vessels provided ‘a definite object lesson to restive locals’ (Wikipedia, History of Liberia).
From Independence to the End of Second World War

For a quarter of a century, Liberia occupied an anomalous position on the international scene. It was not regarded by the US government as an American colony for it did not exercise any control over or assume any responsibility for acts of the settlers (Americo-Liberians). But it also did not constitute an independent state for the governor was appointed by the ACS, an organization of private American citizens. In this state of affairs it became imperative that Liberia assumed a definite international status (AJIL 1909: 960-961). And, after a referendum among the repatriates, Liberia became independent in July 1847 and adopted a constitution modeled on that of the United States (Abasiattai 1992: 114). The indigenous peoples, however, played no role and were given no status in the process or in the new dispensation itself.

Liberia’s independence in 1847 provided an opportunity for the establishment of a common Liberian identity, but the Americo-Liberians squandered that chance. The 1847 Constitution restricted citizenship to the settler stock while the national motto, flag, anthem and seal all reflected the cultural values of the USA and not the realities in Liberia (Conteh et al, 1999:111). The state seal showed a ship at anchor in a tropical harbour, and bears the inscription, “The Love of Liberty Brought Us Here”.
Thus, Liberia at independence was made up of a few thousands of so-called civilized negroes, for the most part descendants of the original colonists from the US, occupying a territory of 43,000 square miles, in which there were also over a million members of apparently uncivilized native ethnic groups. The civilized population had limited interaction with the natives and had difficulty in controlling them (AJIL 1909: 962). Ethnic struggles with the Kru, Gola, and Grebo groups who resented incursions into their territory occurred several times in the 1890s (Wikipedia, History of Liberia).
The patterns of relations established during the early period remained essentially unchanged until the beginning of the twentieth century when, under pressure from British and French imperial demands, President Arthur Barclay changed the Americo-Liberian government’s interior policies by establishing the effective occupation of the hinterland with resident commissioner and local garrisons to enforce the central the central government’s policies (Holsoe 1971: 356)
Although the forebears of the Americo-Liberians had been denied their freedom in America, many of them did not see it fit to extent their new liberty to the natives. Americo-Liberians treated the indigenes like second-rate and denied them voting rights. Indigenous Liberian representation in the House of Representatives was conditioned on the payment of hundred dollars per year by the ethnic group wishing to be represented to discuss only issues related to native interests (Conteh, et. al., 1999:112). The natives were also used a forced labour until an admonishment from the League of Nations in 1931 halted the practice. The UN Report on slavery saw in the forced labour, a means to suppress the natives, prevent them from realizing their powers and prevent him from asserting themselves in any way whatever (Wikipedia, History of Liberia).
Prior to1940, most parts of the Liberia hinterland were completely lacking in infrastructure. There was virtually no public education, pipe-borne water, road system or electrification (Wikipedia, History of Liberia). For the first hundred years of its existence as a state, Liberia could not effect any positive economic development policies, partly because of the hostilities between the indigenes and the settlers and this in turn exacerbated the social conditions, thereby creating a vicious cycle of inequalities- political, social and economic. Throughout this period, the main focus of the settlers had been to marginalize the indigenes and not to integrate them as equals
The Tubman-Tolbert Years (1944-1980)

The ‘colonial’ relationship in which there were separate laws for the Americo-Liberians and the African-Liberians remained more or less the same up to the end of the Second World War and the assumption of office of William Tubman as the 18th President. Tubman, elected in 1944, sought to unify the country by attempting to bridge the wide economic political and social gaps between the Americo-Liberians and the indigenes. The rise of Tubman to the presidency therefore marked a watershed in relations between the settlers and the natives. He visited the interior and attempted to assimilate the people through his national unification policy and even began wearing native clothing (Wikipedia, History of Liberia). Despite Tubman’s efforts to bring the indigenes into the social and economic mainstream, the gap between them and the ruling elite even in the 1946-60 period of rapid economic development remained. The huge influx of foreign money as a result of Tubman’s Open Door Policy, distorted the economy and exacerbated social inequalities and led to increasing hostility between the two groups. Again, Tubman’s appointments were tainted with allegations of nepotism (Ibid).

More significantly, Tubman personalized his rule and that created serious problems, which in effect linked him to the eventual outbreak of the civil war. His seemingly endless tenure (1944-1971) made Tubman personally indistinguishable from the presidency and the ultimate source of power and wealth; President Tubman had to personally sign all government cheques worth $25 and above (Liebenow 1969: 66). In addition, over the years, he so consolidated the powers of the presidency that the legislature and judiciary were reduced to mere rubber stamps for his decisions (Ibid). Furthermore, Tubman also relied heavily on a complex security network which he did not hesitate to unleash on actual and perceived enemies(Wreh 1969: 27) For instance, when in 1951 Didwho Twe, an indigene, made a desperate attempt to challenge Tubman for the presidency, he was forced into exile before Election Day. Similarly, the violence and repression which followed ex-President Edwin Barclay’s attempted comeback in 1955, under a new party was such that no other political party could emerge for the next quarter century. Lastly, Tubman began his tenure when the Liberian Constitution provided for at most two terms of four years, but he manipulated it to enable him serve an initial eight-year term and an unspecified number of four-year terms.
Such personalization of government weakened the development of civil institutions that could resolve conflict peacefully and according to the rule of law, and created serious problems for his successor, William Tolbert. Similarly, his repression of opponents became a disincentive for participation in the development of society. Also, Tubman’s rule, particularly the use of repression, would prove fatal when power fell into the hands of Samuel Doe.

Tolbert’s administration (1971-80) largely became a victim of a reforming government that lost the support of its conservative base but could not satisfy fully the new constituencies it was wooing. Under the circumstances, the modest reforms that Tolbert introduced were either without conviction or yielded conflicting results. For instant, Tubman’s replacement of ageing soldiers with young men recruited among the urban unemployed, turned out to be the signing of his own death warrant since the 1980 coup makers that overthrew him emerged from that group. This does not, by any means, absolve Tolbert from such mistakes as the decision to host the 1979 OAU summit in the face of serious economic problems; the increase in the price of rice from $22- $30 that resulted in the April 1979 rice riots; and the arrest and detention of the leaders of the Progressive People’s Party (PPP) in March 1980; all of which contributed to the 12 April 1980 coup (Frempong 1999:68-72).

Thus the Americo-Liberians never constituted more than five percent of the population of Liberia but for nearly one and half centuries they reserved within their group all the political and economic leadership. Under the banner of the True Whig Party (TWP), the Americo-Liberians subdued indigenous tribes in Liberia and permitted no organized opposition thus making Liberia a one party state (Wikipedia, History of Liberia).
The bloody 1980 military take-over by non-commissioned officers, led by Master-Sergeant Samuel K. Doe, was initially viewed as the overthrow of the Americo-Liberian hegemony in favour of the indigenes. For the first time, the head of state and all members of the ruling People’s Redemption Council (PRC) were indigenes; and the limited educational backgrounds of the military rulers created the impression that power had shifted from the well-to-do to the down-trodden (Nnoli 1998:145-6). No wonder, there were demands for changes in the country’s name, flag, emblem, and all that symbolized the Americo-Liberian hegemony.
But the contours of Doe’s regime soon wiped out any hope for the restructuring of Liberian society for the benefit of the majority. The new leaders showed an incredible ability to imbibe the habits of their predecessors; the politics of exclusion of the previous era continued, this time, with Doe’s native Krahn as the new hegemon; and Doe demonstrated an inordinate ambition to personalize and retain power as long as he could. Beginning with his second in command, Weh Syen in August 1981, Doe, eliminated all the other coupists on grounds of their plotting to overthrow him.
Replacements/appointments to important government positions and the security services in particular went to the Krahns. To that extent, by 1984, Doe’s personal body guards; executive mansion guards, state security; immigration and police, were all headed by and predominantly composed of Krahns, and by the outbreak of the war, it would be difficult to describe the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) as anything but a Krahn army. (Ibid:148). Such discrimination against the other indigenous ethnic groups alienated them and increased ethnic rivalry.
No sector of Liberian society escaped the repression of the ‘bully boys’ of the Doe regime, and every social and cultural institution that formerly imposed some restrained on the exercise of power was either destroyed or weakened, churches and other religious bodies were denounced, institution of higher learning purged, press houses were closed down and editors imprisoned and business houses looted (Sawyer 1992:294-8). In addition, Doe manipulated the transition to civilian rule, and emerged the elected president following the October 1985 elections.
Another crucial nexus to Liberia’s descent into anarchy was Doe’s relationship with Thomas Quiwonkpa, one of the original coupists and until 1983, the army commander. Quiwonkpa returned from exile in the heat of the confusion that followed the 1985 elections and attempted a coup which had bloody consequences. The coup failed and Quiwonkpa’s mutilated body was publicly exhibited in Monrovia. More significantly, as a collective punishment for the “sins” of Quiwonkpa, his native Gios and Manos in the military were purged and the people of Nimba County suffered reprisals from the Krahn-dominated Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL). Some of these people were forced to flee to Cote d’Ivoire and some of them, particularly the dismissed soldiers, were later recruited for the rebel incursion.
The Doe regime, therefore, was one of particularly bad governance: his over ambition for power made him step on many toes; his style of governance increased ethnic rivalry and eventually sparked off the Liberian civil war (1989-1996) (Frempong 1999: 98).

The Civil War

Charles Taylor and his rebel group, the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) invaded Liberia from the neighbouring Cote d’Ivoire on 24 December 1989, with the avowed aim of ousting the Doe government. This soon degenerated into the bloody seven-year civil war. The Americo-Liberians who would not forgive Doe for the 1980 coup dominated the leadership of the NPFL and also played a significant role in mobilizing the initial financial resources for Taylor’s invasion. The core of the initial NPFL fighters however were from the Gio and Mano ethnic groups from Nimba County who had sought refuge in Cote d’Ivoire in the wake of the reprisals of 1985. These two groups found themselves as allies of convenience (West Africa, 28 July-3 August 2003: 10-11).

Doe reacted to the incursion with another brutal counter-insurgency on the people of the Nimba County, where the rebellion had begun, accusing them of harbouring the rebels; instead of concentrating on quelling the rebellion. The government’s reaction had the unintended impact of swelling the ranks of the NPFL by Gio and Mano youth enraged by the AFL’s conduct (Frempong 1999: 99). When the NPFL forces succeeded in occupying the whole of Nimba County, they exacted a terrible revenge on the Krahns and Mandingos, who were perceived to be either supporters or beneficiaries of the Doe regime. The AFL’s subsequent ‘strategic’ withdrawal to Monrovia gave Taylor and his forces swift advance to the national capital. However, the split in the NPFL with the emergence of the Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia (INPFL) under Prince Johnson denied the NPFL the much anticipated quick military victory and turned the war into a protracted stalemate with serious implications for war-related hostilities.

It should be clear from the foregoing discussion that it was the excesses of the Doe regime that triggered the December 1989 incursion; but it had deep roots in Liberian history. Indeed, the 1989 NPFL incursion was one more link in a long chain of episodes of violent conflicts in Liberian history, from the initial settler-indigene battles of the early 19th century, the pacification campaigns of the1930s-40s, the brutal electoral violence of 1951 and 1955, the rice riots of 1979, the military coup in1980 and the failed Quiwonkpa invasion of 1985. Thus, Liberia, in spite of its long existence as a state, never resolved its internal contradictions of soured relations between the descendants of the freed slaves brought from America and the indigenous ethnic groups they met. Perhaps if the Transatlantic Slave Trade had not led to the settlement of freed slaves and the attendant seeds of discord that were sown on their arrival, Liberia could have escaped the tragedy of the civil war.


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Boyd, William D. (1962) and the Slave Recaptives of 1860-1861: An Early Example of United States-African Relations”, The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 47, No.2, April, pp.108-126.

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Conteh, Al Hassan, et al,(1999), “ Liberia”, in Adebayo Adedeji, ed, Comprehending and Mastering African Conflicts: The Search for Sustainable Peace And Governance, London and New York: Zed Books.

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Streifford, David M. (1979) “The American Colonization Society: An Application of Republican Ideology to Early Antebellum Reform”, The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 45, No. 2, May, pp. 201-220.

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West Africa, 28 July-3 August 2003: 10-11).

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1 The labour in the plantations was for growing, harvesting and semi-processing of sugar, cotton and other prized tropical crops which could not be grown profitably, or not at all in the cool climates of Europe.

2 These included Senegambia (present day Senegal, Gambia, Guinea and Guinea-Bissau), Sierra Leone (including present day Liberia), Windward Coast (Ivory Coast), Gold Coast (Ghana), Bight of Benin( Togo, Benin, western Nigeria), Bight of Biafra, etc

3 Some blacks supported emigration because they thought that the black American would never receive justice in the United States. Others believed African- American should remain in the United States to fight against slavery and for full legal rights as American citizens. Some whites saw colonization as a way of ridding the nation of blacks, while others believed black Americans would be happier in Africa, where they could live free of racial discrimination. Still others believe black American colonists could play a central role in Christianizing and civilizing Africa.

4The first vessel sent to search for a settlement site was chartered and paid for by the United States. It also appropriated the sum of $100,000 to provide for the safe-keeping and support of the repatriates. And the first agents received salaries from the government (Boyd 1962: 109)

5 The main ethnic groups in Liberia include the Kpelle, Bassa, Gio, Kru, Grebo, Mano, Lorma (Buzzi), Krahn, Gola, Kissi, Mandingo, Dey, Vai and Gandi. The groups whose role would be crucial during the crisis are the Gio, Mano, Krahn and Mandingo

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