The 19th-century story of the pursuit by free African-Americans to found and govern the Republic of Liberia.
Independent scholar Ciment (Atlas of African-American History, 2007, etc.) recounts the rarely told tale of Liberia’s formation. Reminiscent of the Mayflower journey 200 years before, in January 1820, a small contingency of free African-Americans set sail aboard the Elizabeth in an effort to form a new nation in Africa. At the encouragement of the American Colonization Society—a group fearful of the effects of free blacks on the established order—90 or so willing participants left their old world behind to try their luck overseas. Motivated by evangelism, economics and the chance to escape the “indignities, inequities, and outright dangers free black men and women faced in a white man’s country,” the pioneers were soon disheartened to learn that luck was not with them. Faced with disease and poverty, several years passed before they found their footing. Yet even upon ratifying Liberia’s “Declaration of Rights” in 1847, it was soon apparent that the new country maintained the same shortcomings as the one they’d left behind. “In combining higher ideals with self-interest,” Ciment writes, “Liberia’s founders were not so different from the framers of the American Constitution.” Self-interest became a scourge for the fledgling nation, proving that greed, ambition, corruption, bribery and extravagance transcend oceans and color barriers. By the 20th century, Liberia further deteriorated due to its growing dependence on foreign loans, allowing for European encroachment on the once-sovereign land. In 1980, a violent coup destabilized the country further, prompting Ciment to deem Liberia “a noble experiment that had ended awfully”—and that got even worse with the terrifying reign of Charles Taylor.
A scholarly yet accessible examination of Liberia’s tumultuous history that gleans new insight into America’s own struggles with democracy.