Last month, the West African nation of Liberia marked 170 years of independence. The country has a unique and complex history, with a pivotal era of its founding as a colony captured in maps.
The Geography and Map Division preserves a collection of twenty maps of Liberia produced in the mid-19th century, covering several decades before and after independence (1830 to 1870). The maps were authored by the American Colonization Society, which played an important, yet controversial, role in the country’s history. The foundation for the modern day Republic of Liberia was, in part, borne out of a difficult political, social, and cultural question in the United States: what did the future hold for free African Americans?
At the turn of the 19th century, the population of free blacks and former slaves was growing rapidly throughout the United States. Racism among white Americans around the country spurred the popular belief that free blacks were incompatible with broader American society. Some staunch abolitionists believed that free blacks could never achieve true freedom and opportunities in American society due to discrimination, while slave-owners in the south worried that freed blacks could instigate slave revolts and cause unrest. In 1816, this unlikely common ground would give rise to the American Colonization Society (ACS), which worked to facilitate the migration of consenting, free African Americans to Africa.
While most freed blacks in the U.S. would remain uninterested in relocation to Africa, some were receptive to the migration. In 1820, the ACS sent its first group of migrants to Sherbro Island in the British colony of Sierra Leone, on the western coast of Africa. However, difficult, swampy conditions on the island soon forced the ACS to seek out other locations for settlement.
The following year, ACS representative Eli Ayres and U.S. naval Lieutenant Robert F. Stockton were tasked with surveying the coast near Sherbro Island and purchasing a more suitable stretch of land for the migrants. Ultimately, a 36-mile stretch of coastal land was purchased from local leaders, but by some accounts, this purchase was made under the threat of violence to the indigenous population (a map of the territories of indigenous tribes around this time appears below). Nevertheless, the ACS began sending migrants to this region in 1822. In 1825, formal laws and government were established for the colony, which took on the official name of Liberia.
Over the following two decades, the migration of free African Americans to Liberia would continue, as the ACS and other state-based groups unaffiliated with the ACS continued to facilitate the trans-Atlantic voyages. At the time, Liberia received most of its revenue from custom duties (or taxes on goods flowing across international borders). This angered indigenous traders as well as British merchants, who did not recognize the rights of the ACS, a private organization, to levy the taxes. In the face of these external pressures and the desire for full self-government, the Americo-Liberians saw one way forward: independence. In 1846, the settlers voted for independence and the following year, on July 26th, the Liberian Declaration of Independence was adopted and signed. The Constitution of Liberia was ratified in 1847.
David D. McClellan’s “Map of Liberia” from 1850 shows the the priorities of the ACS as well as the complex geographies of coexistence between the Americo-Liberians and the indigenous tribes. In the below detail from the map, McClellan includes depth soundings of the nearby waters to aide maritime navigation, and there are relief sketches of major Liberian mountains. A mix of indigenous tribes and new settlements populate “Maryland in Liberia.” This region centered on Cape Palmas was settled with freed and freeborn African Americans by the Maryland State Colonization Society (the state’s branch of the ACS) and was briefly an independent nation in the 1850s, before quickly being annexed by Liberia. Elsewhere on the map, McClellan recorded notes hinting at future developments, such as potential routes for new roads charting further inland.
Ultimately, the American Colonization Society assisted in the migration of about 13,000 free African Americans to Liberia, and today about 5% of Liberia’s population trace their lineage to these settlers. While the ACS’s work affected only a small segment of the free African American population in the United States, this migration would have profound, and often contentious, impacts on Liberia’s political, economic, and cultural life that still resonate strongly today.
The Maps of Liberia, 1830 to 1870 collection can be found online, alongside a variety of other Library of Congress resources on Liberia, including a timeline of the country’s history and links to original historical documents and personal stories relating to the American Colonization Society and the experiences of Liberian colonists.