In 1822, the American Colonization Society (ACS) founded a colony on the west coast of Africa that came to be called Liberia, ‘land of the free’. Its capital, Monrovia, was named after fifth US President James Monroe, who supported the project. Prior to the Emancipation Proclamation by Abraham Lincoln in 1863, many white American abolitionists believed that blacks should be free, but integration was impossible. West Africa offered an alternative.

the promised land

In the first half of the 19th century more than thirteen thousand freed slaves were paid to make the journey ‘back’ across the Atlantic, although few had actual experience of Africa. The indigenous people living on the continent resented the settlers and sometimes attacked them, but thousands more arrived from the Caribbean or were liberated from British slave ships. Helped with ACS money, a Liberian society, culture and a political organisation developed. Calling themselves Americo-Liberian or Congo people, many practised Christianity and spoke African-American English, which developed into Liberian English. Following the country’s independence in 1847, Joseph Roberts, a freed slave from Virginia, became the Republic of Liberia’s first president.


For over a century, Liberia was a one-party state ruled by elites. Indigenous tribes-people, meanwhile, lived in impoverished communities. By the 1970s, massive inequalities had pushed the country to breaking point. In 1980, a military coup led by Samuel Doe resulted in the murder of President William Tolbert and the public execution of thirteen of his cabinet members.

While elections were held in 1985, few believed they were fair. In 1989, a group of rebels led by Charles Taylor killed Doe, and two consecutive civil wars followed that killed at least two hundred thousand people, causing another eight hundred thousand to become refugees; up to fifteen thousand child soldiers fought in the war.

442 Land of Free Liberia AGE


When peace finally came in 2003, the Liberian economy was devastated. In 2005, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became the first woman in Africa to be elected as president of her country. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for her incredible efforts to bring women into the peacekeeping process.


Today, more than thirty languages are spoken in Liberia, where the official language is English. English Pidgin, a creole language, is spoken in Liberia’s rural areas. Corruption, however, remains rife. In Liberia’s education system, bribery, abuse of resources and sex for grades are common. One of the world’s youngest countries, with the average age of its citizens under eighteen years old, Liberia is linked with the trafficking of children for forced labour in diamond mining areas, and sexual exploitation. A culture of silence makes reform difficult. Navigating the challenges, current president George Manneh Weah has pledged to mark Liberia’s bicentennial in a positive way, celebrating its founding as a well-meaning attempt to repatriate freed slaves.