Providence Island, the spot on which we can truly say that the Liberian Republic began, is indeed one of the nation’s most sacred sites.
It was there that the first group of pioneers from America landed on January 7, 1822 to found the Liberian Republic. They had been refused habitation at Shebro Island in Sierra Leone. Why? First, because the British who, at the advent of their colonial conquest of Africa, had already colonized Sierra Leone in 1787 resettling blacks who had fought on the British side during America’s war for independence (1775). Second, Sierra Leone’s governor Charles McKarthy remembered that these American blacks had fought on the American side during its war for independence. For this reason the
British felt that the pioneers did not deserve the protection and privileges of the British crown.
There may have been a third reason: the British were afraid to welcome these African Americans who were seeking a place in their homeland, Africa, to enjoy an independent existence. The word
“independent” frightened imperial Britain, which was firmly on the way to expanding “the British Empire.” No group from anywhere, therefore, would be allowed to “poison” the minds of British colonial subjects.
Discouraged by their Shebro rejection, many decided that they had better return to America. It was then that the great Elijah Johnson, with faith in God, firmly told his fellow pioneers, “for two long years I have sought a home. Here I have found one and here will I remain.”
The weary pioneers, whose ancestors, African chiefs and kings, over 300 years earlier had sold them into slavery and shipped to the Americas in chains, agreed with Elijah Johnson. On the ship Elizabeth they traveled east.
By God’s grace, after being lost at sea for days, they spied in the distance Cape Mesurado against the background of the sunrise in the east. As they drew nearer toward the cape, they saw a vast opening in the water between Bushrod Island and Cape Mesurado, which they entered and spotted an island at southern tip of the Mesurado River. Liberian historian Emmanuel Bowier said the indigenous people called it Dozua Island. There the settlers immediately landed.
They appropriately renamed it “Providence Island,” in thanksgiving to God for graciously leading them there.
That landing marked the fusion of two cultures—the Western culture which the pioneers brought and the indigenous culture of the majority indigenous Africans whom the pioneers met here. The rest is history.
In a story in last Thursday’s Liberia life, the Daily Observer’s weekly art and culture supplement, we quoted a very important revelation by the officer in charge of the United Nations Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization (UNESCO), Stevenson Seidi. He told a gathering at the Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism (MICAT) that Liberia was cheating itself by not having ratified the Hague Convention for the “Protection of Cultural Heritage properties.”
Many benefits could accrue from ratifying that Convention, he stated, including recognizing Providence Island as a “World Cultural Heritage Site.”
Many Liberians know that in Senegal and Ghana, among other places, there are heritage sites marking places from which people were forcibly carried abroad into slavery.
Liberia has a unique experience, which is parallel only to Israel. Like Canaan, the Promised Land to which the Jews returned following 400 years of slavery in Egypt, Providence Island, is where Africans who had been enslaved in the Americas returned to the land of their nativity.
Rev. Bowier describes Providence Island as indeed “the universal joint that connects the two groups—the indigenous and their kith and kin who returned from captivity in America.”
It is because of this rich historical acknowledgement that we propose that the Liberian Legislature, as soon as possible, ratify the Hague Convention, so that UNESCO may give Providence Island its due recognition as a “World Cultural Heritage Site.” The nation would immediately begin to receive benefits from UNESCO for the development of Providence Island and other cultural and tourist attractions in Liberia.
Second to benefit from this UNESCO recognition is the very next thing the pioneers did, just as they began their negotiations for land with their indigenous brothers and sisters. The pioneers built the nation’s first religious shrine, Providence Baptist Church, on a hill in the middle of Broad Street in downtown Monrovia. Remember, that was where the Constitutional Convention was held in June, 1847, followed by the formal Declaration of Independence on July 26, 1847, which was signed in that same church.
We make three more historical recollections, starting with the most recent: it was in that same old church that the Liberian Council of Churches met each Friday for several months, beginning in 2014, to pray for God to deliver us from the deadly Ebola virus. The beneficent Creator answered the prayers, and thankfully, Ebola is gone!
Secondly, during the First World War, the Germans bombed the French Cable on Snapper Hill, Broad Street. Terrified by this naked German aggression, President Daniel E. Howard took his Cabinet to the Providence Baptist Church to fast and pray for God’s protection.
In addition to Providence Island, we need to return to Bopolu and turn the grave of King Sao Boso of the Condo Confederacy—comprising the Vai, Lorma, Gola, Kissi and Mandingo—into a national Cultural Heritage Site. For it was he who made that landmark decision that brought harmony between the indigenous people and the settlers.
We need further, to find an appropriate site in Suakoko, Bong County, that we can identify as a World Cultural Heritage Site in memory of our legendary first Liberian woman paramount chief, Madam Coco Suakoko. It was she who persuaded her people in that part of the Central Province beginning in what is now Bong County, to allow the Liberian government to extend its authority further into the interior.
Can we also find the spot in Brewerville on which President Edwin Barclay, our legendary poet-President, was born and recommend it as a World Cultural Site?
Barclay saved Liberia from being colonized by European powers following the Fernando Po Crisis in 1930. We could recommend to UNESCO that Barclay’s poetic works be published by that Organization.