Bicentennial Rekindles Renewed Interest In History, Culture -UL Professor Raps on Origin of Liberian State

MONROVIA – It is widely held within the Liberian academia that, generally, not too many Liberians, particularly contemporary Liberians, take delight in scholarly subjects, mainly reading about the country’s history and culture. Some say the reading culture is becoming endangered if not extinct. Whether that is true or not, the publicity that underpins the Bicentennial Celebrations is triggering something interesting—seemingly, more citizens have lately been gravitating towards the unlikely subjects of culture and history which are dominant discussion points on public radio and at other gatherings. A Liberian professor, who has followed the national discourse over a long period of time has noticed the rather positive shift, stating in his presentation at the launch of the Bicentennial Celebration on Monday at the SKD Sports Stadium that many citizens are showing unusual interest in the country’s history and culture. The Analyst reports.

Professor William Ezra Allen of the University of Liberia has made a remarkable discovery: Liberians are now paying more attention to issues about their history and culture.

Dr. Allen, who is Chairperson of the Bicentennial sub-committee on History, made the revelation speaking on the Historical Significance of the Bicentennial Celebration on Monday, February 24, 2022 at the Samuel K. Doe Sports Stadium.

“This year of the Bicentennial has generated a renewed interest in Liberian history and culture,” the UL History Professor said. “Aside from the well-publicized programs organized by the National Bicentennial Committee, some independent groups are undertaking projects.”

He said the projects include the publication of a children’s illustrated history textbook; the collection of oral history; a national history essay contest; and the repatriation of Liberian archival materials from the 1960s and early 1970s from overseas.

Dr. Allen stressed: “Distinguished guests, I want to let you in on a not-very-well-kept Liberian secret: Liberians LOVE their history. Any topic on Liberian history on our local radio stations is sure to generate many calls and diverse opinions from the public.”

He noted that the Bicentennial Celebration is about the foundation of the Liberian nation, Africa’s first independent Republic.

“No one can rewrite this history,” Dr.  Allen said. “Facts are stubborn, and irrepressible things: Liberia is the FIRST Independent Republic on the African continent! Welcome to the first Republic. Welcome to Liberia’s 2022 Bicentennial!”

He said the founding date of Liberia marks a momentous occasion in Liberia’s history, for it was on January 7, 1822 that a group of free Blacks descended from their ship onto what is now Providence Island.

He said: “Some had been in Sierra Leone, our neighbors to the east, since 1820 when they arrived from the United States on the ship Elizabeth. Death from largely malaria cut their number drastically from 86 to 25. That number would drop even further to 22 by mid-1823. In addition, locals and foreign traders threatened the small group of emigrants. Under these unfavorable circumstances, it is reasonable that a few had thought about returning.”

Excerpts from Dr. Allen’s Speech

However, Elijah Johnson, one member of the original 1820 group, emphatically rejected that idea: “No,” he said, “I have been two years searching for a home in Africa and I have found it; and I shall stay here.” Twenty-five years later, Elijah Johnson was one of eleven signatories of the Declaration of Independence. This Bicentennial recognizes these men, women, and children who disembarked here on January 7, 1822. They laid the foundation for Africa’s first independent Republic which was founded in 1847.

For the benefit of our international guests, I will summarize the historical meaning of all this in what I call A Bicentennial Memory. The Republic that was declared on July 26, 1847 consisted of four main groups in the nineteenth century. All present-day Liberians are people who descended, by and large, from these four categories: the free Blacks, the Indigenous people, the Congoes, and the Barbadians. It is this ethnic and regional diversity that lies at the heart of our Liberian identity. Three of the four groups were here in 1822. They met at Providence Island, which the indigenous people called Dozoa (likely from the Gola language). The third group arrived eighteen years after the Republic was founded. Together, these four groups are our common ancestors.

The Free Blacks

The free Blacks that landed here were descendants of the enslaved Africans from the present United States. Slavery hardly spared any location on the West African Coast. It is therefore reasonable that some of the forebears of the free Blacks may have been captured on these very shores and transported to the United States. During slavery, a small population acquired freedom: some were born to mothers that had been freed; others bought their freedom; still many more fled to the Northern states where slavery had gradually been abolished. Though free, they still faced discrimination. Elijah Johnson, probable from New York in the North, along with the eighty-five emigrants on the Elizabeth departed in the face of this racism. They came to their ancestral land to find a home with “liberty and justice for all.”

The Indigenous People

They comprise the majority of Liberia’s population. There are presently seventeen ethnic groups (Sapo was added in the 2008 Census). Archaeology indicates that the indigenous people have lived here for about 3,000 years. The evidence is based on artifacts which include tools made from rock, fragments of pottery, and burnt oil palm kernels. It was some of the indigenous people who ceded the land that the free Black Americans occupied in 1822. In short, when the free Black Americans arrived, they met the indigenous people. The indigenous people had occupied Dozoa long before it became Providence Island. Some indigenes collaborated with the Free Blacks; others resisted. An example of one who cooperated is King Sao Boso or Boatswain. He is said to have told chiefs who attempted to renege on the land sale: “Have you not sold your land and accepted payment? You must let the Americans have their land immediately. If not, I will come to the coast and cut off your heads.”

The Congoes

The “Congoes” are known in the early records by several names, including Recaptured Africans and Recaptives. They were freed by the American Navy from slave ships and resettled in Liberia.          A number of Recaptured Africans landed here with the free Blacks in 1822. In fact, one was killed in 1822 in the battle between the free Blacks and the indigenous people. The last group of Congoes arrived in the early 1860s. By then they numbered 5,722. Although some Recaptives came from West Africa, the majority claimed to have come from the Congo in central Africa. So, in Liberia they became known as the “Congoes.”

Barbadian Emigrants

Three hundred and forty-six Barbadians arrived in May 1865. They, like the free Blacks from the United States, were descendants of Africans enslaved in Barbados. Even though they were freed by the British in the 1830s, the Barbadians also faced racial discrimination. Their journey here began when newly elected President Joseph Jenkins Roberts visited Barbados in 1848. He met a group of Barbadians who expressed their desire to emigrate to Liberia, telling President Roberts “. . . we have received” information of the “establishment of your independence . . . another demonstration to the world . . . that the descendants of Africa . . . are not inferior in civilization . . .” It was this ideal of an independent Black Republic that inspired the Barbadians to come to the “promised land,” Liberia, in 1865.

These four groups, the free Blacks, the various indigenous people, the Congoes, and the Barbadians have forged a common Liberian identity. However, that identity was fragile. It splintered in 1980 and culminated into fourteen years of brutal civil war that we are still recovering from.

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