Historical Methodology and Writing the Liberian Past: The Case of Agriculture in the Nineteenth Century1

By Allen, William E. | History In Africa, January 1, 2005 | Go to article overview
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Historical Methodology and Writing the Liberian Past: The Case of Agriculture in the Nineteenth Century1


Allen, William E., History In Africa


Some of the late nineteenth century success of Liberia coffee, sugar, and other commodities can be attributed to the leasing of plantations to enterprising foreigners, although a few leading politicians did own successful farms ... For most Americo-Liberians, the role of dirt farmer was decidedly beneath their station.2

Yet the reasons for this apathy among most Americo-Liberians for agriculture, which prevailed up to the early 187Os, were not far to seek. The majority of them being newly emancipated slaves, who had in servitude in America been used to being forced to work, erroneously equated their newly won freedom with abstinence from labour.3

I

Both arguments are inaccurate, yet the authors made essential contributions to the writing of Liberian history. J. Gus liebenow became renowned within Liberian academic circles for his earlier book, Liberia: the Evolution of Privilege. In that book he analyzed the policy that enabled the minority Americo-Liberians (descendants of free blacks from the United States who founded Liberia in 1822), to monopolize political and economic power to the exclusion of the majority indigenous Africans for more than a century.4 M. B. Akpan dissected Liberia's dubious political history and concluded that Americo-Liberian authority over the indigenous population, was identical to the discriminatory and oppressive policy practiced by European colonizers in Africa.5

liebenow and Akpan's charge of Americo-Liberian antipathy for agriculture was not new. Scattered accounts of this allegation appeared now and again in the nineteenth-century Liberian archives.6 After the turn of the century, the charge of Americo-Liberians' aversion to agriculture became apparent in secondary sources.7 Its continual appearance in recent historiography (especially following the revisionism that characterized African nationalist history in the 1960s and 1970s) suggests a general acceptance.8 This study examines the methodology employed by scholars (including Liebenow and Akpan) to determine how they arrived at what is turning out to be a colossal misrepresentation-Americo-Liberians' disdain for agriculture.

II

Repatriation of free blacks to Africa in the nineteenth century was conceived out of the growing trepidation that white America held for a burgeoning population of free blacks, by widespread racism in the United States, and by the resolve of a few philanthropists. The ideology of equality that enlivened the American War of Independence of also inspired slaves, and some slave masters, to fight for emancipation. Consequently, by 1810, the free black population in the United States had climbed to 150,000, nearly tripling the 60,000 number recorded in the census of 1790. Although the increase was much slower in the decades after 1810, the population of emancipated blacks continued to grow.9

It was this growth that spawned fear in many white Americans. Thomas Jefferson's dire prediction about the danger posed by the expanding black population was typical: "[d]eep-rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousands recollections by the blacks . . . will divide us . . . and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race."10 Jefferson also warned that "a revolution of the wheel of fortune" might place the slave over the master.11 These ominous predictions, combined with a wellspring of virulent racism in the United States, galvanized the ongoing national debate about the repatriation of free blacks to Africa.

The most crucial impetus of the colonization movement, however, was provided by Rev. Robert Finley of New Jersey, who was convinced that the United States had a moral obligation to "repair the injuries" resulting from the slave trade.12 Noting that "[e]very thing connected with their [slaves'] condition, including their colour is against them" in the United States, Finley and a handful of men espoused African colonization as the solution to the "Negro" problem.

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