What Should I Know About Liberia?

Brendan McGuigan
Brendan McGuigan
Liberia, which is located on the Atlantic coast of West Africa, was colonized by freed American slaves.
Liberia, which is located on the Atlantic coast of West Africa, was colonized by freed American slaves.

Liberia is a small country in Western Africa. It covers 43,000 square miles (111,400 sq. km), making it a bit larger than the state of Tennessee. It shares borders with Guinea, Cote d’Ivoire, and Sierra Leone, and has coastline along the Atlantic Ocean.

People began to settle permanently in the area sometime after the 12th century, moving there from elsewhere along the coast. The Mane people from Ghana and the Ivory Coast conquered many of these small tribes sometime in the 16th century. Not long after, Vai people leaving the lands of the now-defunct Mali Empire started to settle parts of the region, despite opposition from the Mane.

Europeans made contact with Liberia near the middle of the 15th century, trading with the Portuguese, Dutch, and British. It was involved in a number of different types of trade, including slaves once the slave trade began in earnest. The area was not ideal for trading, however, and very few trading posts were established during this era, with virtually no trade occurring during the 18th century.

In 1822 Liberia was founded as a free state, making it something of an irregularity in Colonial Africa. The state was founded by an American organization, the American Colonization Society (ACS), who created it with the sole intent of populating it with freed slaves from the United States. The motives of ACS members varied, although for many their reasons were anything but benevolent. Freed slaves were seen by many in the United States as a growing problem, undercutting white workers’ wages, dragging down society, and offering an example to existing slaves to work towards freedom.

The reaction to the creation of Liberia, and the ACS, was mixed from the outset. Many believed that racial integration would never occur in the United States, and that this was the best possible solution. Others saw it as immoral to ship people away from the country of their birth, as by this time many freed slaves had been in the country for generations. Still others saw it as an attack on the institution of slavery and the slave economy at large. Despite these mixed feelings, the country continued to expand, creating a society in the image of the United States, building fortresses to protect against attacking tribes, speaking English, and engaging with trade with their neighbors. In many cases the new Liberian citizens reenacted the worst of the country they had left and were re-creating, treating their native neighbors as less than equals, and in some cases even enslaving them.

A number of states in the United States began to create their own groups to finance freed slaves who wished to move to Liberia. Mississippi, New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland all formed their own colonies in the country, all of which were eventually absorbed.

In 1847, bankrupt and losing support, the ACS instructed Liberia that it would be in its best interests to declare independence. The United States refused to treat it as a territorial interest, and some European nations had begun to eye the colony as a political problem, belonging to no nation and yet having no nationhood of its own. In 1847 the country declared its independence, and was soon recognized by other nations.

For the next hundred years the freed slaves and their descendants, known as the Americo-Liberians, ruled the nation as a one-party state, exercising complete dominance over the indigenous people, even though the Americo-Liberians constituted never more than 5% of the total population. This caused intermittent hostility that would last until reforms began in the 1940s.

From World War II onwards, Liberia was viewed by the United States as an important strategic nation. During the War, it was the United States’ only source of natural rubber, and the US entered into a defensive pact with it to protect it from Axis powers. Following the war, and during the Cold War, the US viewed Liberia as an important base in Africa from which to fight the spread of communism.

Following a brief period of growth, violence began to build up. A bloody coup changed the country’s leadership in 1980, and the constitution was suspended. In 1989 a large group of indigenous soldiers who had fled to the Ivory Coast returned to the country, sparking the Liberian Civil War. After much violence, severe ethnic cleansing, and the loss of more than 200,000 lives, in 1995 a fragile peace was eventually reached. This peace was not to last, however, and in 1999 the Second Liberian Civil War began. This war lasted until 2003, and in 2005 new elections were held, generally agreed upon by the international community as being open and fair.

Whether or not traveling in Liberia is safe is a question that is somewhat up in the air. Although the violence from the war seems to have died down, an open democracy has not existed long enough to rule out the possibility of a new outbreak of ethnic cleansing and war. Crime is rampant, and violent crimes are common. Although the country contains some fascinating historical structures, beautiful beaches, and the exquisite Sapo National Park, traveling outside of Monrovia is simply too dangerous to make visiting most of the country viable for all but the most confident travelers.

People can travel into the country by plane via Ghana, the Ivory Coast, or Sierra Leone. Overland transport is also available from Guinea and Sierra Leone, but this can be dangerous.

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    • Liberia, which is located on the Atlantic coast of West Africa, was colonized by freed American slaves.
      Liberia, which is located on the Atlantic coast of West Africa, was colonized by freed American slaves.