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Liberian History

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The Early Years | Gaining Independence | The Cold War | Civil Warring | An Uneasy Peace

The Early Years

Photo of houses and a church in Monrovia, circa 1893
Houses and a church in Monrovia, 1893

1461: Portuguese explorers arrive and name the country the “Grain Coast.” During the 1500s, the Portuguese and the British participate in transporting slaves across the Atlantic Ocean.

1816: In the United States, an unlikely alliance of slaveholders and abolitionist Quakers form the American Colonization Society (ACS). The abolitionists wanted to free African slaves and offer them an opportunity to return to Africa, while slave owners feared the assimilation of free people of color and wanted to expel them from America.

1820: With 100,000 dollars from Congress, the Elizabeth sails from New York to West Africa. On board are 86 passengers, nearly all freeborn African Americans, with one white member of the ACS and two representatives of the U.S. government. The ship arrives on what is now Liberia’s northern coast and members negotiate with local kings to purchase land for a settlement. Twenty-five of the ship’s passengers die within weeks from yellow fever.

1822: The Battle of Crown Hill is the first of many armed clashes between native Africans and the Liberian colonists.

1824: The ACS names the colony Liberia and the capital Monrovia, after President James Monroe. White American agents are employed to govern it, including the cousin of U.S. president James Buchanan. More than 2,600 freed African Americans migrate to Liberia over the next decade, following an agreement with the U.S. government.

Gaining Independence

Black and white photo portrait of Joseph Jenkins Roberts in an oval frame
Joseph Jenkins Roberts

1847: Liberia becomes an independent state and elects Joseph Jenkins Roberts—the colony’s first black governor—as its president. Roberts is re-elected three more times and serves for eight years. During his presidency several countries in Europe, Central and South America formally recognize Liberia as an independent nation. The country also extends its boundaries, following conflicts with tribal chiefs, to include a 600-mile coastline and establishes what later becomes Liberia University.

1862: The U.S. formally recognizes Liberia’s independence, having withheld it because southern states would not accept a black ambassador in Washington, D.C.

1871: Edward Jenkins Roye, a black man born in Ohio, becomes Liberia’s fifth president. He takes out a major loan for Liberia from England, intended to construct new schools and roads. The loans are agreed to without Roye consulting the legislature, and the terms include a high interest rate. Roye is accused of embezzlement and deposed from office.

1874: Indigenous local chiefs meet in the Liberian legislature for the first time. For the next few decades, territorial disputes continue with both European colonists and African tribes. The country’s two-tiered society consists of a ruling elite—lighter-skinned “Americo-Liberians” of mixed ancestry—that exploits native Liberians for their land and money. The Kru, Gola and Grebo tribes repeatedly struggle against settlements that have encroached on their lands.

1917: Despite having declared neutrality at the start of World War I due to Germany being its strongest trading partner, Liberia joins the Allies and declares war on Germany. Germany responds by bombing Monrovia. The Liberian economy is in shambles.

1926: Firestone Tire and Rubber Company of Ohio opens a rubber plantation in Liberia. An agreement with the Liberian government allows Firestone to lease one million acres of land for 99 years and to exploit any materials found on the land. The plantation employs 25,000 workers, and Liberia accepts a five-million-dollar loan from Firestone for a 40-year period.

1930: President Charles D.B. King resigns following the exposing of forced labor and slavery practices in the country. Edwin Barclay becomes president and serves until 1944. During Barclay’s presidency, the Kru tribes struggle with the Liberian government over land, labor and taxation issues.

The Cold War

Photo of five soldiers, circa 1940s, standing together, smiling. The man in the center holds a rifle.
U.S. forces establish bases in Liberia 1940s

Black and white photo portrait of William V.S. Tubman, sitting at his desk, posing with a pen in his hand as if about to sign a document
William V.S. Tubman

1944: William V.S. Tubman becomes president. Liberia supports the Allies in World War II, declaring war against Germany and Japan. Tubman’s administration develops the iron ore and rubber industries, higher educational institutions, foreign investments and a policy of national unification.

1951: The U.S. and Liberia sign a Mutual Defense Assistance agreement. As the Cold War begins, the U.S. increases foreign aid to Liberia, viewing it as an ideal place to fight communism in Africa.

1957: The U.S. places a Voice of America relay facility in Liberia, the first of several communications facilities that it will erect in the country during the Cold War.

1971: President Tubman dies after 27 years in office, during which his administration had grown increasingly autocratic. Vice President William Tolbert becomes president. During his presidency, Tolbert adopts a more non-aligned stance in the Cold War, forming diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union and severing diplomatic ties with Israel. He welcomes Soviet, Cuban and Chinese ambassadors to Liberia and speaks out in support of the Palestinians. Meanwhile, the Liberian economy grows with foreign investments in rubber, timber and iron.

1975: Liberia joins the formation of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) with the intention of creating a common market in West Africa and regional economic stability.

1979: A proposed increase in the price of imported rice spurs riots, leading to violent deaths and the destruction of infrastructure in Monrovia. Read more »

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