An Agreeable Liberian History: Bicentennial Reflections Part I

Casey Donahue

Liberia is putting a new spin on an old story. A bicentennial marking the arrival of the republic’s first American settlers has elicited proud nostalgia for the civic values they brought with them; but it also conjures painful memories of the unequal and ethnically stratified society they launched. In their quest to reconcile the anniversary’s contentious dual meanings, Liberian leaders have promoted a unifying national myth—one that celebrates Black liberation and nationhood, elides historic settler-Indigenous tensions, and tries to insert the country’s diverse population into a once-exclusive narrative. The stories that surround and prop up this year’s Liberian celebration constitute a singular and dynamic arena of transatlantic memory-making.

Two-hundred years ago to the month, 86 Black Americans, many of whom were formerly enslaved, established a bare-bones fortress on Providence Island, off Cape Mesurado. The Cape was a strip of land on West Africa’s Pepper Coast purchased from a Bassa (or, by some sources, Golah) leader at gunpoint by white agents of the American Colonization Society (ACS). Within three years, that settlement grew into Monrovia, the nucleus and eventual capital of the Liberian state. This nation-building project—animated by a blend of Black nationalism and Christian missionary zeal—resulted in “Africa’s first republic.” It actualized a vision for Black expatriates who dreamed of “a perfected America, free from racial hatred.” But it also birthed a society that systematically privileged the settlers’ “Americo-Liberian” descendants; disenfranchised the land’s Indigenous groups until 1904; fomented vast wealth inequalities that persist to this day; and collapsed in a violent 1980 coup. These historic injustices sowed the seeds of the two-part civil war that consumed the country from 1989 to 2003.

Whose Bicentennial?

This bicentennial comes at a time of considerable and justified optimism for Liberia’s democratic stability. But haunting the country’s progress are lingering intergroup tensions and unprocessed community traumas, which have festered in the absence of consistent state-backed efforts to collectively reckon with a violent past. On January 7th—the day of the bicentennial’s formal kickoff event—a statement from President George Weah’s Executive Mansion stressed that “redefining Liberia’s identity and building a shared sense of nationalism should be at the center of reconciliation in Liberia.”  

Two days earlier, Augustine Konneh, Dean of Monrovia’s African Methodist Episcopal University, posed a question that seemed to anticipate Weah’s priorities: “For whom is the pending celebration?”

Konneh reflected on the “long history of conflicts between the Indigenous Africans and the settlers.” By certain readings of Liberian history, this bicentennial is “irrelevant to Indigenous Africans who had already established institutions and systems” by the time those settlers arrived. And any celebration of 1822 inherently recognizes it as the nation’s origin point, tacitly crediting the settlers, not the Indigenous, as the country’s founders.

The Liberian state recognizes seventeen native ethnic groups, which span some twenty languages and account for over 90% of today’s Liberians. Lumping this diverse group into one “Indigenous” bucket can be, at the least, analytically problematic. Americo-Liberians also have varied origins: while the most famed ancestors immigrated from the United States, others came from Barbados. Others, mostly Congo people, were illegally captured slaves, intercepted by US shipping vessels and “repatriated” into Liberia’s settler society.  But the broad stroke divide between settler descendants and Indigenous Africans is the most historically salient. Americo-Liberians held the presidency from 1847 to 1980, were the chief beneficiaries of state resources, and enjoyed a cultural favoritism in most forms of mass media.

A past is not useful if it is not agreed upon, and Monrovia intends to use this bicentennial for purposes of social unity and economic development. The year-long celebration—announced by Weah in September and co-engineered by a team of American media strategy firms—will pursue an inclusive form of national remembrance. The bicentennial’s theme, “Liberia, Land of Return: Celebrating 200 Years of Freedom and Pan-African Leadership,” implies that while this national project began with the arrival of American freepersons, it was a project destined to unite and benefit all those of African descent.  

African Land, American Politics, Black Freedom

The January 7th event featured a telling revisionist reenactment of the settlers’ arrival. Entering behind a crucifix to audience applause and a rendition of “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” an interracial procession of American settlers and colonization agents confronts a Bassa entourage on Providence Island. A tense standoff ensues; warriors brandish swords and hurl threats at the newcomers. But a cathartic monologue by a Black settler—perhaps Elijah Johnson—turns the tide. He begins with an indictment of the Indigenous Africans’ involvement in his people’s suffering (“you sold us into slavery!”); he then links the hardships of American bondage to the challenges of yellow fever and malaria, which hindered his people’s return to their ancestral continent. The local authority Zola Duma—also called King Peter—is moved. There is an exchange of goods, a recognition of brotherhood, a commitment to share the land, and a bawdy wink toward future intermarriages.

Like any national origin story, this is not exactly how it happened. But the message shines through: Along with smoked fish, tobacco, and wine, these American reenactors brought to Africa a Black, independent, republican ideal. The primary political contribution of the natives was their act of acceptance—their granting of permission for the newcomers to embark on a bold state-building enterprise. And by casting the settlers as triumphant refugees of American oppression, the bicentennial’s organizers can promote an agreeable version of history by selectively emphasizing their liberational qualities. January 1822 does not represent the arrival of an elite minority that monopolized political power and resources; it represents, as President Weah put it, “200 years since the first slaves touched down.”

To be sure, attention to the Black pursuit of freedom is justified. Migration has been a consistently popular and symbolic means of liberation throughout African American history. The Rhode Island Black nationalists of the 1780s; the West Africa- and Haiti-bound emigrationists of the 1820s; the Canada-bound refugees in the post-Dred Scott 1850s; the Kansas-bound “Exodusters” of the late 1870s; and Marcus Garvey’s 1920s Back-to-Africa followers—all are testaments to the ideological diversity and persistent allure of community migration in search of dignity and prosperity. Liberia, “Land of the Free,” is the only nation-state that resulted from these movements, but its early settlers are not historical oddities.

But this transatlantic focus also serves patriotic and economic purposes for the Liberian state. It allows bicentennial celebrants to gloss over the settler-native tensions that characterized much of the founding decades. Dr. William Allen, Chair of the Liberian Historical Society, has noted that the settlers’ arrival began a process of “conflict and cooperation between Indigenous Liberians and peoples of African descent previously separated by an ocean.” These moments of “conflict,” however, are generally relegated to passing references. More important is that these formerly separated folks eventually “converged to form a Liberian identity.”

In the January 7th reenactment, Zola Duma assuages his people’s suspicions and accepts the Americans in under five seconds—a fraction of the time it took for the American settlers to outline their own trials and tribulations while reaching African shores. Prior to the play, Dr. Allen presented a “Historical Context” for the bicentennial, citing archaeological evidence that Indigenous groups had occupied this land for some 3,000 years. Following the reenactment were “traditional” dances and performances by Gio, Vai, Lorma, and other ethnic representatives. While this national celebration had an African American focus, it boasted Indigenous African aesthetics.

This type of presentation has a time-jumping effect. The past two centuries appear as three snapshots, which flip from the ancient Indigenous past, to the moment of first encounter between settlers and natives, to the present state of intergourp harmony. Even if the details of mid-nineteenth century settler-Indigenous relations remain fuzzy, the takeaway is that today’s Liberia was a team effort. “When we recall this day,” said Allen, “we are in essence remembering all of us.”

This origin story may carry a certain dissonance, but it departs significantly from the more jingoistic patriotism of the pre-1980 years. Long gone are federal observations of Matilda Newport Day—a popular Americo-Liberian holiday that, by journalist Helene Cooper’s telling, commemorated the deeds of a quasi-mythical woman who “lit a cannon with her pipe and blew up the native soldiers” surrounding the settlers’ fledgling colony. In parts, the January 7th reenactment had overtones of a civilizing mission (between gleefully tasting the settlers’ wine and embracing a Christian priest, King Peter signed over his land on a servant’s naked back). This is perhaps an awkward vestige of a national myth that once denigrated Indigenous identities. But by and large, native Africans are no longer the story’s antagonists. When Dr. Allen urged his country to “remember [the settlers’] sacrifice, their suffering, and their fortitude,” he was referring to their resilience against disease, the challenges of seasonal land cultivation, and most importantly, an Atlantic system of anti-Black oppression.

This historical framing tracks with Liberia’s National Curriculum, used by an estimated 90% of schools nationwide. According to the History and Social Studies modules set by the Ministry of Education, first graders begin their schooling with simultaneous lessons in patriotism and respect for Liberia’s pluralistic Indigenous culture. Through the 9th grade, children’s civics education focuses primarily on national pride through appreciation of the country’s ethnic and linguistic diversity. Only two modules—in the 6th and 12th grades—deal with the root causes of the 1980 coup and the civil wars.

A Past That Keeps the Peace

There is a utilitarian urgency to this peace-oriented education. Liberia is closing out its second decade of post-civil war calm; it enters its fourth year of stability after the exit of UN peacekeepers. President Weah, the former football star, is gearing up for reelection as the nation’s second democratically elected post-war leader. “As a country which has a divided past and a recent civil war,” said Weah, National Unity and Reconciliation “is our only option for survival and continuity.” What matters first and foremost is that citizens and schoolchildren understand that the long arc of Liberian history bends toward tolerance, unity, and inclusion.

On January 14th, Weah made a dire appeal for religious leaders to participate in the bicentennial. He emphasized 1822’s centrality in the “founding of our country” and obliged them to serve as “ambassadors for peace and unity in their dealings.” Never mind which groups did what in the nation’s early years. “Whether you are Mano, Gio, Sarpo, Grebo, and Kpelleh, we are all the same.” Weah is himself of Kru descent.

The bicentennial also offers hope for foreign investment and tourism. The government-endorsed Liberia Diaspora Affairs Unit (LDAU) seeks to capitalize on the celebration’s transnational elements, labeling the period between December 2021 and December 2022 the “LIB Year of the Diaspora.” The yearlong event—filled with cultural celebrations, tourism advertisements, and corporate partnerships—is designed “to raise consumer awareness about tourism and sustainability and build a global diaspora movement supporting economic development.”

 In 2019 and 2020, Monrovia witnessed mass economic demonstrations, in which police used tear gas and water cannons against civilians protesting rising inflation and declining living standards. The violence served as a stark reminder that civil peace hinges on money as well as memory. The LDAU website therefore uses its “History” section to appeal directly to foreign pocketbooks. Its historical summary makes no reference to Indigenous peoples, but it champions Liberia as “the pinnacle of Africa’s decolonization” and a “mecca for [famous] African Americans in the 60s and 70s.” American actor John Amos, of Roots fame, has been a central partner of LDAU in promoting Liberia as a Black “Land of Return.”

Amnesia, Amnesty, and Unprocessed Memory

Other Liberian voices have cautioned against a national story that wholly avoids past injustices, particularly those that caused and grew out of the civil war era. A 2019 Red Cross report concluded that hostile intergroup attitudes are pervasive and are “inextricably linked to how the conflict is being remembered.” Ethnic tensions, writes author Aaron Weah, have festered because of the central government’s failure to implement key elements of the 2009 Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) Report. The TRC identifies all civilians as victims of the wars, but “holds Liberia’s political elites (past and present) responsible for planning and orchestrating the violence.” Government avoidance and political elites’ hostility toward the report is therefore “robbing the nation of an opportunity for collective remembrance.” The poets Kpana Gaygay and Lekpele Nyamalon have also published memoirs of the war era, framing their poetry as a response to a national culture of silence.

While these memory activists have focused on the 20th century’s violent final decades, their concerns raise important questions for how Liberians choose to remember their country’s beginnings. Does Liberia—or any nation for that matter—need a heroic origin story? When is the elision of historic wrongdoings an act of unity and healing, and when is it an act of erasure? Does selective amnesia about the distant past foster a reluctance to hold perpetrators accountable in the present?

 As this year progresses, it will be important to watch for the ways and levels at which different Liberians participate in the celebrations. Events like the bicentennial test the relevance of the national motto: “The Love of Liberty Brought us Here.” As Liberian author Cyrus Gray has noted, this a maxim that hinges on the word us. It is a pronoun that once placed the immigrant settlers and their descendants firmly at the center of the national story. But, as Gray writes, “if we provide some context… [‘us’] represents the collective estates of all blacks and ‘here’ represents the Black nation, in contrast to a place. By this definition, the ‘love of liberty’ brought all black people under the umbrella of the first African nation state in an era of western domination.” Liberian leaders see this anniversary as a chance to expand the community of those imagined in that first-person plural.

Image: “Map of the West Coast of Africa from Sierra Leone to Cape Palmas, including the Colony of Liberia” ca. 1830. Map by A. Finley, accessed through, Library of Congress.

Casey is a dual Masters candidate in History and Foreign Service. He studies peace processes and sociopolitical movements in the Irish and Middle Eastern spaces. Casey is a former classroom teacher and political risk analyst. He currently works as an elementary school tutor.

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