Indigenous African peoples have lived on the Pepper Coast, also known as the Grain Coast, since at least the 12th century. Many minor ethnic groups were forced southward toward the Atlantic Ocean when Mende-speaking people moved westward from Sudan. The Dei, Bassa, Kru, Gola, and Kissi were among the first peoples in the region to be recorded.
The fall of the Western Sudanic Mali Empire in 1375 and the Songhai Empire in 1591 exacerbated the migration. Additionally, when the interior areas were desertified, residents relocated to the moist shore. From the Mali and Songhai empires, these newcomers brought cotton spinning, textile weaving, iron smelting, rice and sorghum farming, as well as social and political structures. The Vai people of the old Mali Empire came to the Grand Cape Mount County region shortly after the Mane captured the area. The ethnic Kru were opposed to the inflow of Vai and formed an alliance with the Mane to halt it.
From Cap-Vert to the Gold Shore, people along the coast constructed boats and traded with other West Africans. Arab merchants arrived from the north, and a long-standing slave trade sent captives to northern and eastern Africa.
Portuguese, Dutch, and British merchants established connections and commercial stations in the area between 1461 and the late 17th century. The region was originally called Costa da Pimenta (“Pepper Coast”) by the Portuguese, but owing to the quantity of melegueta pepper grains, it became known as the Grain Coast. Local people would exchange commodities and products with European merchants.
There was a movement in the United States to relocate free-born blacks and freed slaves who faced legal restrictions in Africa, thinking that blacks would have greater prospects for freedom there than in the United States. A group of influential politicians and slaveholders formed the American Colonization Society in Washington, DC in 1816 for this goal. However, it expanded to encompass a majority of individuals who supported the abolition of slavery. Slaveholders wanted free people of color out of the South, where they were seen as a danger to the slave communities’ security. Some abolitionists worked together to relocate free blacks because they were disheartened by racial prejudice in the North and thought they would never be welcomed in society. Instead of emigrating, most African-Americans who were native-born at the time preferred to fight for justice in the United States. Leading Northern activists were hostile to the ACS, but some free blacks were willing to try something new.
The American Colonization Society started sending African-American volunteers to the Pepper Coast in 1822 in order to create a liberated African-American colony. By 1867, the ACS (and state-affiliated chapters) had helped almost 13,000 African Americans migrate to Liberia. These free African-Americans and their descendants began to identify as Americo-Liberians after marrying inside their group. Many were of mixed race and had been schooled in American culture; they did not identify with the tribes’ original inhabitants. They mostly intermarried within the colonial society, resulting in an ethnic group with a cultural heritage imbued with American political republicanism and Protestant Christianity.
The American Civilization Society (ACS), a private group backed by notable Americans including Abraham Lincoln, Henry Clay, and James Monroe, felt that repatriation of free blacks was preferable to universal emancipation of slaves. Mississippi-in-Africa and the Republic of Maryland, both of which were subsequently acquired by Liberia, were colonized by similar state-based organizations.
The indigenous peoples they met, particularly those in more remote “bush” settlements, did not resonate with the Americo-Liberian immigrants. Their cultures, languages, and animist religion were unknown to them. In the jungle, encounters with tribal Africans often devolved into violent clashes. The Kru and Grebo attacked the colonial towns from their interior chiefdoms. The Americo-Liberians evolved into a tiny elite that controlled political power because they felt set aside and superior to indigenous peoples due to their culture and education. It denied indigenous tribesmen birthright citizenship in their own territories until 1904, mirroring the treatment of Native Americans in the United States. Due to ethnocentrism and a cultural divide, the Americo-Liberians envisioned establishing a western-style state into which the tribesmen would integrate. They urged religious groups to establish missions and schools to educate indigenous peoples.
The settlers published a Declaration of Independence and established a constitution on July 26, 1847. It created the independent Republic of Liberia based on the political ideals outlined in the United States Constitution.
The Americo-Liberians dominated the new nation’s leadership, establishing political and economic supremacy in the coastal regions acquired by the ACS; they maintained relationships with United States connections in developing these areas and the commerce that resulted. Their enactment of the 1865 Ports of Entry Act, purportedly to “promote the development of civilized ideals” before such trade was permitted, banned foreign commerce with interior tribes.
By 1877, the Americo-Liberian True Whig Party had become the country’s most dominant political force. It was mainly made up of members of the Americo-Liberian ethnic group, who retained social, economic, and political supremacy long into the twentieth century, following in the footsteps of European colonists in other African countries. Within the party, competition for office was generally limited; a party candidacy almost always guaranteed election.
Liberia’s claims to vast areas were lost due to pressure from the United Kingdom, who controlled Sierra Leone to the west, and France, which had interests in the north and east. Some areas were annexed by Sierra Leone and the Ivory Coast. Liberia has had a difficult time attracting investment in order to build infrastructure and a bigger, industrial economy.
In the late nineteenth century, Liberian commodities output declined, and the government suffered financially, resulting in debt to a succession of foreign lenders.
Rubber manufacturing was a significant business in the early twentieth century, with American and other foreign interests focusing on resource exploitation.
Liberia started to modernize with American aid in the mid-twentieth century. During World War II, the US invested heavily on infrastructure to assist its military operations in Africa and Europe. Before entering World War II, it used the Lend-Lease program to construct the Monrovia Freeport and Roberts International Airport.
President William Tubman welcomed international investment in the country after the war. During the 1950s, Liberia enjoyed the world’s second-highest rate of economic growth.
Liberia started to get increasingly involved in foreign issues as well. In 1945, it became a founding member of the United Nations and a strong opponent of South Africa’s apartheid government. Liberia was also a supporter of African independence from European colonial powers and Pan-Africanism, and contributed to the funding of the Organisation of African Unity.
On April 12, 1980, President William R. Tolbert, Jr. was overthrown and murdered by a military coup headed by Master Sergeant Samuel Doe of the Krahn ethnic group. A majority of Tolbert’s cabinet, as well as other Americo-Liberian government officials and True Whig Party members, were subsequently killed by Doe and the other plotters. To administer the nation, the coup leaders established the People’s Redemption Council (PRC). Doe got considerable financial support from the United States during the Cold War, while opponents criticized the PRC for corruption and political persecution.
Following the adoption of a new constitution in Liberia in 1985, Doe was elected president in following elections that were widely seen as rigged. Thomas Quiwonkpa staged a botched counter-coup on November 12, 1985, in which his troops temporarily seized the national radio station. As a result, government persecution increased, with Doe’s soldiers killing members of the Gio and Mano ethnic communities in Nimba County.
With the support of neighboring nations such as Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast, the National Patriotic Front of Liberia, headed by Charles Taylor, began an insurgency against Doe’s government in December 1989. The First Liberian Civil War erupted as a result of this. Doe’s troops held just a tiny region just outside the city by September 1990, and Doe was arrested and killed by rebel forces later that month.
The rebels were quickly divided into different groups that were battling one other. A military task force was formed by the Economic Community Monitoring Group under the Economic Community of West African States to intervene in the situation. From 1989 through 1996, one of Africa’s deadliest civil conflicts erupted, killing over 200,000 Liberians and forcing a million more into neighboring nations’ refugee camps. In 1995, opposing groups negotiated a peace agreement, which led to Taylor’s election as president in 1997.
Due to its exploitation of blood diamonds and illicit wood exports to finance the Revolutionary United Front in the Sierra Leone Civil War, Liberia became regarded as a pariah state under Taylor’s leadership. Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, a rebel organization headquartered in the country’s northwest, started an armed insurgency against Taylor in 1999, starting the Second Liberian Civil War.
A second rebel organization, the Movement for Democracy in Liberia, started attacking Taylor from the southeast in March 2003. In June of that year, peace negotiations between the groups started in Accra, and Taylor was charged for crimes against humanity by the Special Court for Sierra Leone in the same month. The rebels had begun an attack on Monrovia by July 2003. Taylor resigned in August 2003 and went into exile in Nigeria, under pressure from the international community and the domestic Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace movement.
Later that month, a peace treaty was concluded. In September 2003, the United Nations Mission in Liberia arrived to provide security and oversee the peace agreement, and an interim government seized control in October of that year.
The elections that followed in 2005 were widely considered as the most free and fair in Liberian history. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a Harvard-educated economist and former Finance Minister, was elected as Africa’s first female president. Sirleaf sought Taylor’s extradition from Nigeria and handed him to the SCSL for prosecution in The Hague shortly after her appointment.
To address the origins and atrocities of the civil war, the government created a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2006.