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Joseph Jenkins Roberts-From African American to American African
In the early years of the 19th century, Virginia had a growing population of free African American citizens. One of them, Joseph Jenkins Roberts, was to become a politician and leader of international importance.
Born on March 15, 1809 in Pocahontas on the Appomattox river in southern Virginia, Joseph Jenkins Roberts was the son of Amelia and James Roberts who had a shipping business on the James River.
In 1816, some bigwigs in Washington formed the American Colonization Society for the purpose “to persuade free Negroes and ex-slaves to emigrate to a foreign land and finance them on the voyage to this land.”
Some of the supporters of the Society were well-intentioned abolitionists while others were supporters of slavery who wanted to get rid of free African Americans who in their view were a disturbing element. The Society obtained money from Congress and was soon able to send a ship to the West African coast where—under white leadership—a new homeland for the African Americans was to be established.(1)
The Society called the new country “Liberia”, following the tradition of a number of experiments in—usually short-lived—utopian republics that had existed in the past.
From 1696 to 1725, for instance, an egalitarian republic named Libertatia had been established by an American pirate, Thomas Tew, together with some colleagues, on the east coast of Madagascar. In Libertatia, slaves from Angola were set free and re-hired as “Liberi” against full wages. Later on, the utopian republic morphed into a local kingdom.
The first years of the new American colony of Liberia were about as hard as the struggle for survival of the British settlers in Jamestown had been in the early 1600s. Yellow fever, primitive conditions and hostile tribes took a terrible toll among the arriving Americans. No friendly Pocahontas was there to save them. Yet, against all odds, the utopian state survived to this day, mainly because of Joseph Jenkins Roberts, later called “the founder of Liberia.”
Over a period of 31 years, from 1820 to 1851, the Society sent almost 7,000 migrants to Liberia; 2,400 of them were African Americans from Virginia.. Among the 160 passengers from Virginia on board of the ship Harriet in 1829 were J.J. Roberts, six of his siblings, and their mother Amelia. Shortly before arriving in Monrovia, Liberia’s capital, J.J. Roberts celebrated his 20th birthday.
Amelia Roberts must have been an extraordinary woman. Realizing that in her lifetime, and in that of her children, free African Americans in Virginia would never have a chance to be more than second class citizens (and might even run the danger of being re-enslaved), she risked her life and that of her seven children in the hope of becoming full citizens in an unknown land somewhere in Africa.
Upon arrival, the Roberts brothers built a house on the allotted land and started a successful local trading business. Jointly with his friend and former employer, William N. Colson, J.J. Roberts established a trans-Atlantic trading company and did business with New York, Philadelphia and other American ports. He also started trading successfully with the “natives” of the new colony, which means that he must have been a remarkable linguist because 29 languages are spoken in Liberia.
The local tribes resisted the expansion of the settlements, and the British traders and slavers active along the coast instigated the tribes to fight the Americans whose expanding business threatened British interests. The London government generally supported the traders against Liberia. The society in Liberia developed into three segments: The settlers from America; freed slaves from slave ships and the West Indies; and indigenous native people. Two of Joseph’s younger brothers achieved success: John Wright Roberts became bishop of the Methodist Episcopal church in Liberia; Henry J. Roberts left Liberia to study medicine at the Berkshire Medical School in Massachusetts. After graduation he returned to Liberia and established a successful practice in Monrovia.
Joseph Jenkins Roberts was in 1833 elected Sheriff of Liberia in charge of controlling the tribes and fighting slavery which some unscrupulous Liberians were carrying on. His success led to his appointment as Lieutenant Governor in 1839. In 1842 he became the first non-white Governor. In 1847, the legislature of Liberia declared itself an independent state, with J.J. Roberts elected as its first President. “J. J. Roberts, Liberia’s first President, spent his first year as Liberia’s leader attempting to attain recognition from European countries and the United States. England and France were the first countries to accept Liberian independence in 1848. In 1849, Portugal, Brazil, Sardinia, Austria, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Hamburg, Bremen, Lubeck, and Haiti all formally recognized Liberia.
However, the United Stated withheld recognition until 1862, during the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, because the U.S. leaders believed that the southern states would not accept a black ambassador in Washington D.C. Roberts was re-elected three more times to serve a total of eight years. During his leadership, an institution of higher learning, later to become Liberia University, was established. By 1860, through treaties and purchases with local African leaders, Liberia had extended its boundaries to include a 600 mile coastline.”(2) “Roberts’s genius as a leader lay in his diplomatic abilities: he dealt effectively with African tribes and maneuvered skillfully in the complex field of international law. His leadership in the colony’s efforts to secure its sovereignty and independence was subtle and calculated. Even in the 1840s, before the Colonization Society decided that it could not carry its burden of responsibility for the colony’s economic well-being, Roberts had begun to argue that Liberia was an independent nation. Its people, he maintained, had gained their sovereignty upon emigrating from the United States.”
He visited the U.S. several times for fund-raising, political and trade talks. After his fourth term as Head of State, Roberts preferred to be elected in 1856 President of Liberia College, his favorite project. In 1861, he was also named Professor of Jurisprudence and International Law, a position held until his death.
After Roberts’ death in 1876, the INDEX AND APPEAL wrote that his career had been a source of pride to many blacks throughout the country.
However, despite Roberts’ achievements, Liberia’s troubles were far from over. Manufacturing cities in Europe soon became aware of the inexhaustible supply of tropical and subtropical raw products in West Africa, and Liberia with its underdeveloped natural resources offered them a choice temptation. England and France eventually began a campaign against Liberia with the ultimate objective of removing her from the map of Africa. Their main fear was that the free Negroes who were entering the country might find access to British and French possessions and give the native population politically “dangerous” ideas.
Consequently, England and France robbed Liberia of thousands of valuable agricultural and forest lands. In 1908 England brought false charges against the country and followed these up with a fruitless attempt to take military possession of Monrovia. The United States, however, intervened in Liberia’s favor during the administration of Theodore Roosevelt and prevented further European meddling.”(5)
In the 20th century, Liberia badly suffered from the Great Depression, and became later dependent on the Firestone Company of America that operated large rubber plantations in the country and obtained mining and planting concessions on 40 percent of Liberia’s land.
In 1980, Samuel Doe assumed power. Doe was a native Liberian; his bloody coup ended the rule of the Americo-Liberian elite which constitutes only between 2.5 and 5 percent of the population and was accused of having ruthlessly exploited the natives through forced labor and high taxation. (6)
However, under Doe’s dictatorship things did not improve. The U.S. stopped giving financial support. In 1989, Charles Taylor—a Boston-educated American-Liberian who had escaped from prison in Massachusetts—started an insurrection. After seven years of a cruel civil war the successful warlord was elected President.
After another episode of civil war, an international action ousted him. Today, Liberia is a democracy with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a Harvard-trained Professor of Economics and Nobel peace prize winner in 2011, as the first female president in Africa.
Over 150 years after Liberia became the first independent African country after Ethiopia and the continent’s first free republic, it still has ample reason to remember the golden days when the genius of Joseph Jenkins Roberts overcame all challenges. J.J. Roberts’ central achievement remains undisputed: Liberia’s statehood and independence.
English is still the official language.
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