It's a story written in red: red for courage and red for blood. Set against the backdrop of nascent abolitionism versus strong support for slavery in the early 1800s, the colonization of the West African coastal region that would become Liberia was a strange, almost botched notion that somehow became a reality, transplanting free American people of color to Africa, from whence their forebears had come in chains. The lures were land and independence, the setting lush and tropical. But these new settlers, called Americoes, would face many of the same problems that newly arrived populations faced in the early days of the formation of the United States: a hostile climate and suspicious and unaccepting native tribes.
History writer (Atlas of African American History) James Ciment has taken on the challenge of explaining Liberia, something even many Liberians would be hard-pressed to do. Founded as a way, some reckoned, to rid America of its “useless and pernicious people” (Henry Clay) or, in the mind of others, as a way to “provide a home for the dispersed and oppressed children of Africa” (Liberian Declaration of Rights), the residents were only nominally its rulers since the American Colonization Society and its official and unofficial offshoots pulled many strings from across the ocean, notably controlling finance well into the twentieth century.
The first settlers had to distance themselves culturally from the natives--would, if they could have, distanced themselves racially, finding there to be few similarities. These Americoes soon learned that the region’s astounding greenery came at cost of a monsoonal climate nearly unbearable for about half the year: a baking summer, and pounding rains kept people indoors for months at a stretch. They soon set about increasing the dissonance between themselves and indigenous people by building mansions in the jungle and all but enslaving the locals, ironically imitating the patterns of inequality they had once sailed away from.
Ciment offers a well-researched. if ultimately dismaying, account of the Liberian dictatorships and savage uprisings of the past 100-plus years, only offering a sliver of hope in the final few pages with the election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as Liberia’s
(and Africa’s) first female President. She has succeeded in restoring some sense of order and confidence in the country’s governance, its electoral process, even its utilities, which were shut off for six years under her predecessor, the notorious Charles Taylor. Johnson Sirleaf won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 and has brought women onto the political landscape as never before.
Ciment observes that, “In the wake of the great social upheavals and transformations of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, the term ‘Americo’ no longer serves as a synonym for ‘elite.’” His book concludes before the 2014 Ebola outbreak, but readers may extrapolate from the facts presented here as to how Liberians will deal with this new enemy within.