A former World Bank official in Liberia chronicles the country’s turbulent history in this debut book.
Liberia has carried the weight of great expectations ever since the first group of 86 free blacks from the United States—inspired by Paul Cuffe, a biracial Quaker—set foot on its shores in 1820. Cuffe had a “vision of aiding fellow blacks both in Africa and America,” Reese writes, one that would be enthusiastically shared by others seeking a solution to the U.S. racial dilemma. But as the author successfully, if somewhat laboriously, details in his history of Liberia from 1820 to the military coup led by Sgt. Samuel Doe in 1980, those expectations have largely—and ironically—been dashed. “The society that soon emerged” in Liberia “curiously mimicked, in some respects, that of the American old South from which many of the settlers had escaped,” Reese observes. “Liberia in many ways came to smack of antebellum Mississippi or nineteenth-century Rhodesia.” Using a wealth of contemporary and secondary sources, the book skillfully captures the immense challenges that faced those who projected their dreams of redeeming African-Americans and “civilizing” Africans onto a tribal, agricultural society that was singularly ill-equipped for nationhood. Some settlers were “surrounded by hostile warriors, their stores nearly exhausted, and fevers ever threatening,” with a colonist and an English sailor killed in an early skirmish. Much more blood would be shed right through the long presidency (1944-71) of William Tubman, the “Maker of Modern Liberia,” and the assassination of his successor, William Tolbert, in Doe’s coup. The author clearly highlights the key flaw in the Liberian nation-building project—the “chasm” between the worlds of the privileged Americo-Liberian elite and the impoverished indigenous peoples. “The Americo-Liberians simply failed to forge a nation out of and in association with the mix of tribal Africans they ruled,” Reese asserts. But he neglects to acknowledge that the disasters of the Americo-Liberians flowed from the settlers’ racist attitudes. Even Cuffe himself complained that if the free people “of Colour would exert themselves more and more in industry and honesty, it would” greatly help those still enslaved.
This account effectively shows how the failure of Americo-Liberians to develop a nation doomed the dreams of the original settlers.