Review of Liberia & the Quest for Freedom

Liberia & The Quest for Freedom is a veritable compendium that brings to the fore “The Half That Has Never Been Told.”  Written by former Vice President for Academic Affairs at Cuttington University, Dr. Patrick Burrowes, it delves into the checkered past of Liberia pre-colonial, post-colonial and present day,  whilst also offering recipes for the future.

Beginning with a cursory review of historical terms whose meanings have been lost - whether in the classrooms of secondary and tertiary institutions- and untold of, Burrowes excavates the historical context of the name of the tribes Belle and Gio and other terms often use loosely. Conger. Americo-Liberians. Congolese. Indigenous. Repatriates. Dan. 

Belle, he states, is a derogatory name for people who call themselves Kuwaa ; derived from the Malinke word for “savages.”

Gio, he added, is also a derogatory name for the people who call themselves Dan; derived from the Malinke word for “slaves.” Known for his flair of storytelling and worldly paintings, Burrowes reveals that prior to 1822, present-day Liberia was given the name “Windward Coast” by the European explorers and the territorial limits of the country reached as far as Assini in Côte d’Ivoire.

In pre-colonial Liberia, Burrowes, backed by materials from the esteemed Library of Congress and other historical sources, determined that the total number of people taken from the Windward Coast during the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade were over 150,895, according to documents reviewed from the various ports of disembarkation.

Slave outposts- or Barracoons as Burrowes describes it - were found from present day Grand Cape Mount County to Maryland County and beyond. 

These Windward inhabitants were sent to North America, Caribbean, Spanish America Mainland and other parts of the then “Dark Continent.”

Often captives of tribal war, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or just being servants of chiefs, he goes to lengths to prove that the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade was beneficial to African rulers as it was to European explorers, American sailors, and traders who had the acquiescence of the respective sovereigns and governments and acted in their interests. 

“Fattened in parts by profits from slave selling, several empires developed in the Sahel region of West Africa. West African rulers and traders who captured and sold Africans to the Middle East grew richer and more powerful.”

These men and women, when sold, had a grim fate.  According to Burrowes, in Arab societies, black women were used as sexual pets while black men often had their testicles - and sometimes their penises - chopped off to prevent them from having children. Sometimes their owners justified it by purging their heathenism. Bringing men and women to light has often been the recurring justification by apologists of the slave trade. Burrowes shows that this theme was not limited to a specific religion.

For example, revered Moroccan scholar, Mohammed Ibn Batuta saw the hand of God in the enslavement of non-Arabs, according to Burrowes. 

“Loyal helpers, who were the House of Islam under the rule of slavery, which hides in itself a divine blessing. By means of slavery, they learn glory and blessing and are exposed to divine providence,” Batuta stated of Turkish slaves. 

According to Burrowes, this “twisted religious justification would be echoed 350 years later by Christian theologians in the context of the American slave system.”

This theme would also later be used by recaptured slaves and freed slaves from the Americas and the Congo Basin to pattern a way of life and government after the antebellum south.  The legal quest for freedom, “which began in 1772 - with the case of James Sommerset, a “Negro” on a writ of Habeas Corpus before the King’s Bench in London” - would metastasize half a century later in 1822 with the formation of Liberia. 

A quarter of a century later, it led to the hoisting of an American flag, declaring independence on July 26, 1847 and officially becoming “The Republic of Liberia.”

However, the road to independence was fraught with setbacks as beneficiaries - indigenous Africans and Caucasians - of the lucrative trade who still saw it as their divine right to sell and buy human resisted at great lengths those who had bought their freedom and wanted to chart a new order, so to speak. 

Burrowes juxtaposes that the history of the road to independence and freedom has not been kind in remembering those who played small but important roles in wiping the coast and town of slave outposts effectively. Gatumba. Jheudi Ashmun. Lott Carey etc.  As well as those who saw it their right to sell humans indefinitely. Conneau, Gatourah etc.

In post-colonial Liberia,   Burrowes contends the quest for freedom did not end with the hoisting of the flag, declaring independence. 

It took on new forms when former Liberian President, Charles Dunbar Burgess King, legalized the “pawning of persons.” Known widely as the Fernando Po Labor scandal, its findings - commissioned by the then League of Nations and led by the British Cuthbert Christy - saw the country nearly losing its independence.

Saved a courageous few whose actions - not cited and often ignored by contemporary historians - were able to save the republic from losing its independence.

Therein lies Burrowes’ contention on the findings of the League of Nations: its report that the the Americo-Liberian community were shipping of and selling their indigenous counterparts. He maintains that is it flawed. 

According to Burrowes, those involved were a motley crew led by President King, and included Vice President Allen N. Yancy, EGW King (brother of the President), Samuel Ross, Thomas Pelham and Robert Draper and some traditional chiefs. 

Blaming an entire community for the crime of a few, while ignoring the tacit, overt and covert roles played by some indigenous Liberians is a bone of contention the author is picking with those who continues to parrot that view from a narrow vantage point. 

The author believes history has not been kind to Albert Porte, J. I. A. Weeks, Attorneys Doughba Caranda & Christian Abayomi Cassell, Prof. P. G. Wolo, former President Howard, Mrs. Chesson and others who led the demonstration for the resignation of the King administration.

Strangely, according to the author, this view would be shared in the aftermath of the coup of 1980, blaming all Americo-Liberians, Conger, Congolese, Repatriates.  And they (mentioned supra) blamed their counterparts for selling them into slavery.

The trans-Atlantic slave trade ended centuries ago but the effects, psychological or otherwise, continue to traumatize us, Burrowes believes.  According to Burrowes, vestiges of the trade such as cannibalism and distrust were seen during the civil war which reportedly left 250,000 people dead and millions of dollars in property destroyed.

Human intestines strewn the on road side and the splitting of the pregnant women stomachs to guess the gender of the child are few examples of inhumane behaviors the author believes are remnants of slave trade. 

Distrust came to full circle during the 2014 Ebola outbreak when citizens believe it was a scheme to swindle western bilateral partners. Liberia & The Quest for Freedom is as educative revealing in shattering the half-truths, often taught and parroted in Liberian schools. 

Though not voluminous but very easy to read and digest, it presents and offers us a chance to rewrite our story from our vantage point, and urges us to look deeper into our troubled past which has a lot of lessons to be learnt.

As George Santayana reminded us: “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.”