Liberia — History and Culture
Liberia is unique amongst African states in that it was founded by freed slaves from the American South, bringing with them their own culture and displacing ancient tribes who’d farmed the land and traded with European enclaves in west Africa for centuries. For the first time since its founding, the diverse ethnicities of the region are joining together in the aftermath of the devastating 14-year civil war to create a new, peaceful and successful, chapter in both history and culture.
The history of the region now known as Liberia began between the 12th and 16th centuries with mass migrations of diverse tribes fleeing desertification of their homelands. The new arrivals brought skills such as iron smelting, weaving, spinning, and the cultivation of rice and other staple crops in addition to political and social skills and traditions. By the 15th century, trade with West African settlements along the coast from Cap Vert to the Gold Coast was well established.
Contact with Portuguese explorers was first made in 1461, with the mariners naming the region the Pepper Coast due to an abundance of melegueta seasoning. Dutch and British trading posts were setup by the mid-17th century, but the region remained isolated until 1921 when the first shipment of former slaves arrived from America, spurred by abolitionists who believed freed slaves would be unable to coexist in American society. As a result, much effort and money went into creating an African enclave for these individuals, with Liberia’s independence first declared in 1847. Plantation owners backed the move as they feared the effect on their livelihood.
From 1847 to 1980 Liberia was governed by the Americo-Liberian descendents of the original arrivals, a small minority around five percent in the country as more indigenous tribes migrated to the region. Four interactive developments formed the colony’s history, all intertwined and reactive. Relations between indigenous tribes and the ruling colonists, the US and other world powers and the economic strengths of natural resources and industry all combined to influence Liberia’s development.
Integration between the colonists and the indigenous people caused contention since the freed slaves’ arrival, leading eventually to a revolution in 1980 which overthrew the Americo-Liberian government and ruling class. Tribal natives hated the lighter-skinned, mixed-ancestry migrants, their Christian beliefs and supposed cultural superiority, all displayed in the Americanized way of life and architecture.
The final straw came after WWII, when fortunes in unregulated foreign investment were received by the government, destabilizing the economy and many of the funds embezzeled by political officials. From that point on, hostility between the two factions increased until 1979 when inflation of the rice price sparked riots ending in the 1980 military coup and the formation of the People’s Redemption Council, led by Master Sergeant Samuel Doe.
Doe was elected president in a ballot widely derided as fixed, with the resulting civil strife, counter-coup and government repression ramping up an already unstable situation. Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia led the revolution in 1989 with the help of Cote d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso military, and the devastating Civil War period began with the defeat of Doe’s forces and his execution.
From then until 1996, one of Africa’s bloodiest conflicts raged, with over 200,000 Liberians killed and millions displaced into refugee camps across the country’s borders. Infrastructure was destroyed, and by the time a peace deal had been brokered, Liberia was a wreck. Worse was to come, as under Taylor’s presidency the country became a world pariah for illegal timber exports and blood diamonds to support neighboring Sierra Leone’s Revolutionary United Front in their own civil war.
By 1999, Liberia was again up in arms, with the rebel Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy fighting against Taylor’s rule. In 2003 they were joined by another rebel group, the Movement for Democracy in Liberia, resulting in Taylor being indicted for crimes against humanity in June. Under pressure from the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace and the international community, Taylor finally resigned and fled to Nigeria, leaving the country to recover under the United Nations Mission.
New elections, considered fair and free, took place in 2005, with Harvard-trained economist Ellen Johnson Sirleaf becoming Africa’s first female president. Her first move was to successfully request the extradition of Taylor from Nigeria and his removal to The Hague for trial. Since then, her government has inaugurated a Truth and Reconciliation Commission tasked with addressing the causes of the civil war and the crimes committed. The government has also done much to improve stability and security.
The culture of Monrovia has two distinct roots, the Southern US heritage of the freed Americo-Liberian slaves and the ancient African descendants of the indigenous people and migratory tribes. Most former Americans belonged to the Masonic Order of Liberia, outlawed since 1980, but originally playing a huge part in the nation’s politics. Settlers brought the skills of embroidery and quilting with them, with both now firmly embedded in the national culture. The haunting slave music and songs of the American South with ancient African rhythms and harmonies blended well with indigenous musical traditions of the region.
The diverse tribal ethnicities making up the population of Liberia today have all added to the richness of cultural life in the country. Christian music is popular, with hymns sung a-capella in the iconic African style. Spirituality and the region’s ancient rituals are reflected in the unusually intricate carving style, and modern Liberian artists are finding fame outside the country. Dance is a valued heritage, with the Liberian National Culture Group giving performances both in the country and overseas based on traditional themes. The gradual integration of all Liberia’s ethnic groups has given rise to a renewed interest in its tribal culture as a reminder of the diverse roots of the new country.