So I knew that Liberia was colonized by free black Americans in the early 1800s, and I knew the name “American Colonization Society,” but I also thought these groups were one and the same. I thought the American Colonization Society was a free black invention, like a sort of proto-Marcus-Garvey situation.
What a silly, naive bunny I was to think that. The American Colonization Society was a bunch of white guys who came up with the great idea of sending all the free black people to Africa, which would serve the dual purpose of getting rid of black people the American government didn’t want, and maybe converting some heathen Africans to Christianity. So then they want to some black churches all:
Guess what. It was not that fun.
Guess what else. There were already people living in that land, and they were not as excited about the arrival of a whole bunch of self-righteous Americans as the ACS might have been imagining. Most of the rest of Liberian history is the Americo-Liberians doing whatever they wanted, and the indigenous tribes of Liberia being super disenfranchised, which is one reason for the bloody and horrible coups and civil wars that plagued the nation in the late twentieth century.
My book, James Ciment’s Another America: The Story of Liberia and the Former Slaves Who Ruled It, doesn’t spend a ton of time on Liberia’s modern history. As the title suggests, he’s far more interested in the Americo elite than in the indigenous folks who were there first, which means that I came away from the book without much notion of what Liberian history looked like for 95% of the population.
That’s okay! I’ll try again with another book about Liberia! This one was very much written about the elite populations, and also very much written by a white dude: In the early parts of the book it was all “So-and-so led as good a life as a slave could expect in Kentucky.”
Meanwhile, I’ve decided to start a new feature in my nonfiction reading which I shall entitle Lebanese Diaspora Watch. Because what I have discovered as I’ve read more and more history is that the Lebanese diaspora pops up absolutely everywhere. Apparently during the Tubman presidency, there was a lot hostility towards the Lebanese people who had moved to Liberia and it was like “they come in here and use up all our dollars, these Lebanese interlopers.”
This is interesting to me for two reasons, the first of which obviously is that Liberia does not seem like the most predictable destination for expat Lebanese folks to go. The second is that I was just very recently reading about how there is also a substantial Lebanese population in Brazil. Brazil. Why Brazil? Why Liberia? What’s going on, Lebanon?
Let’s close with what, in Liberian history, counts as a delightful anecdote. One time not too long after the ACS had colonized Liberia, the natives of Liberia attacked the colonial settlement, and although the colonists repelled the attack, the natives made off with several American children. But hey! It’s not what you’re thinking! They were totally nice to them:
The children had been turned over to elderly ladies who had been “proverbially tender and indulgent”; they had sent messengers to the colony to inquire “the proper kinds of foods” to which the children were “accustomed.”
Aww. Also, they gave the children back after not too long. So it was okay.