The present debate about returning Liberia to a Christian state is not only a malicious effort for destabilization but also a sign of how the colonial churches succeeded in their role as facilitators of Americo-black imperialism in the place now called Liberia.
The quest for Christian statehood is based on the misconception that Liberia was founded on Christian principles. This idea has been around for a while and mainly shared and promoted by some uncritical Liberian Christians who are seeking to continue the ideological imperialism in Liberia. The fact is, Liberia was NOT founded on Christian principles. Especially if Christian principles mean the “principles of living that Jesus Christ taught about our general behaviour and relationship with one another as human beings and creations of God”.
This paper is aimed to shed light on the idea that Liberia was founded on colonial imperialist principles to serve as dumping place for former American black slaves, primarily for the interest of those who once enslaved them. It was a situation whereby the imperialists American Government, through the American Colonization Society (ACS) imposed themselves on a foreign land and people for the purpose of enhancing their economy, political and social interest, as well as enforcing their imperialist culture and religion on the native population.
We are all aware that prior to the formation of the private organization that led the colonization of Liberia, the question of what to do with the black population in America was always alive in the minds of the American people. Amongst the various debates and discussions going on then, the popular solution most people leaned towards was the idea to remove free black slaves to some sort of territory beyond the border of the United States of America (see Sherwood, 1916).
Some of the well-known arguments advanced then were that: Politically, the two races could not live in harmony with equal political power because there will be prejudices and recollection of injuries between them. Physically, one race could oppose to the other on the bases of “color, form and beauty”. Morally, it was argued that blacks were inferior to whites in intelligence and moral ideals. The only solution therefore was “to transfer the blacks to another country” (ibid, p.493).
By the late end of the 18th Century, advocates for the deportation of blacks to Africa project had gained higher momentum and well known individuals like Thornton who was ready to sacrifice his entire fortune for the project and Hopkins who introduced the idea of the need to salvage Africa. However, Efforts made then were mainly through individuals but paved the way for the formation of the American Colonization Society (ACS) (ibid, p. 507)
The American Colonization Society (ACS) was formed in1816 as collective effort aimed to facilitate the colonization of free blacks of the United States (Poe, 1970).Key people behind the ACS were both “religious” and secular. There were individuals like Reverend Finley who believed in the idea of divine mission to colonize free blacks into Africa and slave holders from the South who supported the ACS because it meant to remove dangerous elements from their society. There was Paul Cuffe a philanthropist and rich businessman of the Quakers community whose interest was to just do something about the plight of black slaves. The interesting thing was that both religious and socio-political arguments were constantly used for different audience just to gain support for the ACS at all cost (see Sherwood 1970). The ACS later won the support of the American government under the leadership of James Monroe and no need to mention here that this was done purely for the interest of America.
Colonizing Africa was not an idea supported at all quarters of the black leadership. Some blacks truly argued that “colonization was an attempt to mask the ongoing problem of slavery, and in the process provided white colonizationists an opportunity to mollify their consciences without genuinely addressing the larger issues”. On the other hand, others saw it as once in a life time opportunity to obtain a full flesh freedom and sense of dignity in a land they can call theirs. While the religious patrons saw it as a God given opportunity to plan their form of Christianity in Africa in disguise of something else (see Stepp, 2007).
One year after what some called “dodgy procurement of land” by the ACS in Cape Mesurado of present Liberia; the first colonist ship arrived in March 1822. Despite intense resistance from the indigenous people the colonists occupied the Island, named it as Christopolis and began building dwellings (Holsoe 1971). Historians recorded that from March up till December that year (1822) indigenous people put up series of resistance against the colonists but failed in their efforts to prevent them from settling.
Even the questionable account of King Kamara’s (Sao Boso) intervention at the time did not help to prevent attacks against the colonist. As the indigenous leaders around the coastal areas of the Island who are mostly known by their imperialists imposed names including “Kings Bromley, Todo, Governor, Konko, Jimmy, Gray, Long Peter, George, Willey, and Ben, as well as all of King Peter’s and King Bristol’s…” (ibid, p .338); put their warriors together and executed a massive attack on the colonist in November of 1822 but failed to get them out.
Few months after the arrival of the first ship, ACS brought in Reverend Jehudi Ashmun, to administer the colony on their behalf. A Reverend that the black colonist led by Reverend Lott Carey revolted against due to what they called “Ashmum’s unfair attitude” towards them. Internal revolts plus perceived threat of encroachment from imperialist Britain and France were too real to be taken for granted. By 1847, the colony was declared Independent from ACS (White control) and named Liberia with its capital as Monrovia.
The story of Christianity on pre-Liberian soil can not be told without mention of Reverend Lott Cary. He and Teague led the first Baptist Mission into West Africa. The key source of the claim that Liberia was founded on Christian principles is principally premised on the works of those two men and later by activity of Reverend Day of the Southern Baptist Mission. Lott Cary established the first church in Liberia and became vice governor of the colony; while Teague became part of the team that drafted the 1847 Liberian Constitution. However, it is important to be aware of the following salient points about early Christianity in pre-Liberia.
Firstly, Lott Carey and Teague were never official delegates of the American Colonization Society (ACS) to Africa. They were sent by the Triennial Convention upon the recommendation of William Crane to spread Christianity in Africa. The two Christian missionaries plus their families first settled in Sierra Leone and later joined the colonist in 1822 for Liberia. In fact it was recorded that Lott Carey had Sierra Leone in mind as destination while his contract was being arranged by the Church group (see Poe 197 p. 51).
Secondly, prior to setting off for Africa, both Lott Carey and Teague were seriously urged to keep away from politics of the colony as much as they could and to “render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s…” (See Stoughton to Carey and Teague in Seventh Annual Report of Baptist Board for Foreign Missions, 1821,p. 397) as cited by (Poe19 p. 55).
Thirdly, Lott Carey involvement into politics was not favoured by everyone in the Triennial Convention. This is why the first report sent to the six Triennial General Missionary Convention one year after his death included the remark that “…. could he (Lott Carey) had devoted his whole time to (the work of the church) much good might have been expected to have resulted from his labours….” (See Fisher, 1922, p. 416). This is one of the reasons why some writers argue that Lott Carey and his Christian team had plans different than that of the American Colonization Society. Unfortunately, their Christian work was somehow an encoded imperialism.
In spite all of these; indigenous Liberians will always remember Reverend Lott Carey as the great colonial missionary who died from injury sustained while preparing ammunition to be used for killing our people (Stepp, 2007, p. 51).
It should therefore be noted that reference made to Christianity and God in the 1847 Constitution should not seen as a genuine attempt to seeking goodness for all (indigenous inclusive). The reality then proved that this was not the case. Ironically, every social injustice issues they experienced as mentioned in the preamble of the 1847 constitution were the exact issues native people were to later be faced with from the so-called “Christian country” (see Liberian 1847 constitution). This is why it is important to raise the question of which Christianity were they talking about? Was it a Christianity that suited their understanding of “freedom”- a concept they understood as the acquisition of property, Black control of churches and their own destiny with their own “distinctive political culture”(Denise 2011). Or was it Christianity without Jesus Christ (Burrowes, 2011) that was being used as cover for imperialism and subjugation of the natives?
What is clear among scholars and at least echoed by Dunn (1997, p.712) is that once established in the place now called Liberia, these former slaves, and their descendents proceeded to enslave the ethnicities among whom they settled in the I820S in an exactly similar fashion which characterised European colonial rule over Africans in other parts of Africa .
These black colonists or settlers were filled with combination of anger about their past experience, extreme desperation and desires to get out of the control of their former slave masters. Their sole focus was on themselves and their plight. So they could do anything to get what they wanted. An example of their mindset then is illustrated by Burrowes (2001), when he recorded that once in 1841 when the president of the American Colonization Society (ACS) wrote Teage to complain about an offensive article in the Liberian newspaper against the whites, Teage (one of the Christian leaders then) responded that as in common with all colored men, he had certain sentiment…. and it was his indefeasible rights to hold those opinions against their former slave masters. What sort of Christianity then that the country is said to be founded on when everything that transpired since their presence on our soil were based on injustice, exploitation and unfair sufferings of native people?
Truly, Christianity filled with unfairness and injustice should not be equated with the Christianity connected to Jesus Christ. The latter is true Christianity while the former is imperialism in disguise. Against this background, it can be said that the founding of Liberia is nothing other than an exercise of imperialism.
In the first place the land was taken by treachery and presented to us as normal transaction. Fisher (1922) listed gunpowder; rum tobacco iron pots, looking glasses and other items not more than $ 300 as the exchange articles for the “valuable track of land which was the nucleus of Liberia”. The claim about signing treaty with native chiefs is a bit of mockery. How could they possibly do a fair deal with chiefs that were not literate in English language and did not speak English? No wonder the natives refused to allow them settle and put up fight to the best of their abilities.
Native people who out-numbered the imperialist at almost 100 to one ratio were denied every form of political participation in the so called “Christian country”. The 1847 constitution that is said to have set the Christian principle basis of Liberia did not assign any citizenship to the native people yet still they later introduced and imposed compulsory hut-tax on them. Not only that land was forcefully taken but natives were more or less a defector subjects to those colonial imperialists. A good “imperialist Christianity” – I guess!
They also practiced a very harsh form of assimilation policy in Liberia whereby natives were forced to undergo a “brainwashed education” to become “Christians” for several reasons. One of those reasons was to make religion an antidote to critical consciousness towards any attempt to question their hegemony. Another was to make their form of Christianity as a deliberate attempt to disrupt the cultural and moral value system existed in pre- Liberia (see Akpan, 1973, pp. 226-227). Not surprising that even in this day and age, one still sess the impact of the decade long brainwashed education in Liberia.
When it was clear that the assimilation policy was not working due to resistance from the Poro and Sande societies on one hand and Islam on the other, the colonial imperialists instituted an indirect rule system that subjected the natives to some of the harshest forms of maltreatments and exploitations. Like other colonial imperial powers, Liberia colonial imperialists placed natives against each other. They formed the Liberian Frontier Force, an on record notorious force to implement the indirect rule policy. Through this Frontier force, the Liberian colonial imperialists created the right atmosphere that allowed them to do to the natives what they experienced from their slave masters (see ibid pp. 229-231)
In conclusion, it is save to state that any claim that links the founding of Liberia to “Imperialist Christian principle” is not only demeaning to real Christianity but also an expression of concocted fallacy based on “brainwashed education”. In view of the historical situation explained earlier plus the realities seen on the ground in present day Liberia, the most rational position on the matter is the view that Liberia was founded on imperialist principles- those that advance domination, exploitation, institutional discrimination and social inequality.
- Akpan, M. B. (1973). Black Imperialism: Americo-Liberian Rule over African Peoples of Liberia, 1841-1964. In Canadian Journal of African studies, Vol. 7, No. 2.
- Burrowes, C.P. (2001) Black Christian republicanism: a southern ideology in early Liberia, 1822 to 1847. In the Journal of Negro History. Vol. 86, No. 1.
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- Dennis, D. A. (2011) the Mississippi Colonial Experience in Liberia, 1829-1860 (Doctorate Desertation). Retrieved from ProQuest. UMI 3466928
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- Flowers, E. H. (2008). “A Man, a Christian… and Gentlemen?” John Day , Southern Baptists, and the Nineteenth Century Mission to Liberia. In Baptist History and Heritage, Vol.43, No.2
- Holsoe, S.V. (1971). A Study of Relation between Settlers and Indigenous People in Western Liberia, 1821-1847. In African Historical studies, Vol. 4, No. 2
- Poe, W. A. (1970). Lott Cary: Man of Purchases Freedom. In Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture, Vol.39, No. 1 [Peer Reviewed Journal].
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- Sherwood, H. N. (1917). The Formation of American Colonization Society .In The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 2, No.3
About the Author
The Author is a trainer and facilitator with several years of group work experience with families and individuals from CALD background. He holds a BA (ED) History from Bayero University in Nigeria and postgraduate qualifications in Social Science and Family Mediation from Australia. He is presently pursuing his Master degree in Social Work at the Charles Sturt University in Australia.