At the sources of the contemporary African state: late XIX century polity and society in Monrovia and Freetown.

Author:Novati, Giampaolo Calchi

The political processes which were coming to an end in Africa on the eve of the colonial onslaught had either been manipulated, interrupted or destroyed by the Scramble. It is almost a commonplace to attribute the inauguration and organisation of the modern state in Africa to European colonialism. In just a few years the geopolitical map of Africa assumed a completely new profile adapting to the trends of the conquest, treaties with the African rulers, and bilateral or multilateral deals among European powers. However, the over-imposition of logics deriving from an external ratio did not eliminate all the internal dynamics that determined African history, since they too were affected by external inputs in various ways. The African way of thinking had to overcome difficult obstacles to bring about a consistent model of state. This resulted in societies developing around a group of former slaves that had returned to Africa from the Americas and England under the impulse of abolitionism and from which a landmark and a very instructive laboratory arose (1).

Outstanding personalities emerged in the age of liberalism and nationalism, both in Liberia and Sierra Leone, as testimonials of the dramatic transformations needed to rid Africa completely of oppression, exploitation, degradation and distressful memory. They were blacks who belonged to two cultures and were, therefore, fully aware of the importance of interacting with Europe and the West. The cry raised from Africa was eloquent: "Come over and help us" (2). Because of the moral and material devastation inflicted by the slave trade and slavery, spiritual elevation was "the highest ambition of our people" (3). The Negro race was to be rescued for a special and imperative task in the future. They had to remove the malediction that was supposed to have been uttered against the descendants of Canaan justifying racism. "Europeans in the late eighteenth century had already had several centuries of contact with Africans [...]. Whatever their views in detail, one assumption was almost universal. They believed that African skin colour, hair texture, and facial traits were associated in some way with the African way of life (in Africa) and the status of slavery (in the Americas). Once this association was made, racial views became unconsciously linked with social views, and with the common assessment of African culture. Culture prejudice thus slid off easily toward colour prejudice [...]" (4).

The goals--after the pain and distress of an entire people--were not only rehabilitation and emancipation in terms of autonomy and independence, but liberation and salvation beyond the mundane categories of politics.

When in the second half of the XIX century, starting from West Africa, the African elite forged ideas and programs to release Africa and the Africans from European power; Ethiopia was an immediate term of reference. The myth of Ethiopia had to be put at the service of Africa. Traditionally, Ethiopia was celebrated as the Black Mother, the epitome of Africa and the Negroes at large, no matter where they dwelled or had been transplanted. Ethiopia had always had a special significance for black people and gave a psychological lift to oppressed blacks, above all in North America (5). "People of African heritage venerated Ethiopia and were emotionally attached to it. American blacks perceived themselves as part of an extended Ethiopia" (6). Ethiopia as a metonym for Africa went back to the Greek civilization (7). In the African literature that accompanied the re-birth of the Blacks, the terms of Ethiopia and Ethiopian were used as synonyms of Africa, Africans and blacks. Eminent examples in modern times are the pamphlet Ethiopia Unbound, that J. E. Casely Hayford, a pioneer of African nationalism, wrote in 1908 and dedicated "to the Sons of Ethiopia the World Wide Over" (8), and the text "Ethiopia stretching out her hands unto God" which Edward Wilmot Blyden delivered as a speech to the American Colonization Society in May 1880 (9). James Johnson, another leader of the intellectual revolution that took place in the lands animated by the resettlement of former slaves, condemned racism, advocated "Africa for Africans" and popularised the concept of Ethiopianism in his sermons and writings (10). As the Indian scholar and diplomat K. M. Panikkar said, "the cult of Ethopianism was, perhaps, the first struggle towards the rediscovery of the African Personality" (11). The brave struggle of Ethiopia at the time of Menelik against the assault of Italian colonialism added new lymph to that resonant and demanding worth, although by itself the victorious battle of Adwa in 1896 was not sufficient to bring to a halt or hinder the Scramble for Africa (12).

Only Egypt could compete with Ethiopia as far as reputation and glamour were concerned. The Nile was the basis of present-day civilization (13). Blyden postulated that the Sphinx at Gizeh--"looking out in majestic and mysterious silence over the empty plain where once stood the great city of Memphis"--had features "decidedly of the African or Negro type" (14). Several decades later, Cheikh Anta Diop would eulogise Egypt as an integral part of the black civilization (15). The "new Jerusalems" established in West Africa were the offspring of a same archetype. Liberia--the very name proclaimed loudly to the world that the new community bore the torch of Liberty--was welcomed as the core of a West African state and the anticipation of an overwhelming redemption. "In the providential purpose no solution of the African problem was to come from alien sources" (16). The vow about the rising of a black Jerusalem was reiterated by David Boilat, priest and educator, who recommended promoting the return also to Senegal of those who wanted to settle in Africa in order to exhort the resurrection of a "barbaric and savage" land (17).

Abolition and colonisation went together. The abolitionists were the warriors and the politicians; the colonists, sponsored by the American Colonization Society, Sierra Leone Company or other similar associations, could be called the prophets and philosophers. All of them shared the feeling that the economic and political future of the Afro-Americans was bleak and that only Africa offered the possibility of personal or collective improvement.

The white-led American Colonization Society (ACS), which set up Liberia, was very active in the suppression of slave trade (18). Sierra Leone was founded in the late XVIII century, while the humanitarian ideals were attacking slavery and "enlightening" Africa (19). Granville Sharp, the inventor of Sierra Leone (20), intended to mould "a nation of free black Christians".

Ethics had a great part in the whole initiative, despite the fact that the Sierra Leone Company, disregarding Sharp's noble purposes (21), stained philanthropy and altruism because of the rashness, haste and ignorance of its directors (22). Like Liberia, also Sierra Leone was conceived as a focus from which good administration, safety and commerce would radiate all over Africa through the actions of Westernised Negroes (23). The newborn micro-states in Africa were partly inspired by the Utopia based on the pseudo-ethnography of the "noble savage" and partly moved by the search for commercial profits. The intention was always "moral", for practising agriculture would have brought liberty and trading would have civilised Africa. Negroes would be more useful in Africa and Africa was to be rejuvenated by Africans (24). A monthly magazine was launched by Ralph R. Gurley in 1825 aiming at swaying the US public opinion and boosting a national movement: each copy of the "African Repository" and "Colonial Journal" was a "salvo" for Liberia (25).

The emigrationists sought repatriation rather than colonisation. Some of them scorned the initiatives backed and funded by "white racists". Martin R. Delany, maybe the foremost Afro-American pan-Africanist in the XIX century, patronized emigration as an alternative to the black man's plight in America, but to his way of thinking the political entity, built up by the ACS in Liberia, reliant on white American philanthropy for its existence, was not the most desirable answer (26). "The object was not to remove the prejudice but to remove the Negro" even if, obviously, "to transport the entire black population [of America] at once was impractical" (27). The members of the Society, in the words of a contemporary author, were a small number of respectable individuals, prompted only by philanthropic motives, such as charity, benevolence and patriotism, without political power and not immune from the prejudices of the community in which they lived (28). The United States took ambivalent stances regarding the political developments on the African coast. The settlers were essentially American rather than African in outlook and orientation. The initiative of erecting "new empires" clashed with the spirit of the US institutions and raised major critics in America itself (29). But, whatever its faults, colonization remains one of the more dynamic movements in XIX century American history: "It was a widespread scheme which cut across class, colour, sectional and political boundaries to amass financial support from practically every aspect of the American public, as well as from individuals in France and England" (30).

Liberia started as a private venture and became a sovereign state. It was born technically as a colony of the American Colonization Society in 1822 with the assistance of the United States government (31) in order to settle "free" Afro-Americans desirous of fleeing the oppression of slavery and white racism and Africans rescued on the Atlantic Ocean from slave ships by the American navy (32). At stake was the possibility of putting together a home in Africa that would extend the benefits of civilisation and religion to the local communities. "Elizabeth", the first...

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