170 years ago today, 26 July 1847, the West African country of Liberia declared independence.
Liberia has a fascinating history which has long interested me. Their historical identity is very much tied up in their flag which resembles the flag of the United States of America – and this is no coincidence!
The nation was largely founded by freed slaves from the American colonies and is Africa’s “first and oldest modern republic”. Liberia joins Ethiopia in being one of only two countries on the continent that resisted the Scramble for Africa and direct colonisation.
Originally called the “Grain Coast” by European traders it is part of the Guinean coast and was located under the archaically named “Negroland” area of mapped Africa. Liberia gained it’s current name over 100 years later after it declared itself a sovereign nation.
Liberia has it’s roots in the slavery abolition movement in the US where in 1816 the American Colonization Society was formed with the intention of helping free-born and freed African and African-American slaves in returning to Africa. Unfortunately, it was nearly impossible to return many to their actual homes and so many were sent to Liberia to form a new free-slave colony.
The Republic of Liberia’s constitution, laws and government were largely based off of those from the USA and to this day Liberia has a love affair with America and it’s culture (though, many have pointed out that this eschewing of Black African culture in favour of American western culture may be toxic to Liberia and it is time for Liberia to rediscover it’s own heritage.)
The first president of Liberia was an American free-born by the name of Joseph Roberts who named Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, after the fifth president of the USA, James Monroe. A further link is the Liberian flag which makes use of American iconography to demonstrate it’s links as well as it’s own independence. The white star emblazoned on a blue background symbolises the freedom granted to slaves with the blue referring to the African mainland and colony all their own. The white and red stripes represent the eleven men who were responsible for signing the Liberian Declaration of Independence and turning Liberia officially into a sovereign nation.
Due to the manner in which this country came about, many other nations recognised it’s legitimacy with the UK being the first. (This is possibly why Liberia was not viewed as a conquerable territory by other nations who would begin carving up Africa less than forty years later, as it had been formally recognised as a nation-state by other nation-states whereas most of Africa was considered free game.) Oddly enough, the US did not recognise Liberia’s independence until 1862, despite support from multiple prominent political figures, such as Abraham Lincoln and James Monroe himself.
Whereas Liberia has had a colourful history since it’s founding, it has unfortunately largely become know for a devastating civil war that ended in 2003, costing thousands of lives, and an Ebola outbreak in 2014.
Despite these issues, Liberia forms part of a trend in Africa of economic growth and civil discourse with many individuals in Liberia itself moving to pull the country out of the mire of corruption and social destitution it has found itself in. Time will tell if Liberia will continue to hold true to it’s founding and become the liberal republic it was meant to be