The story of Liberia is that of a dream turned nightmare, the descent of a hopeful project into a pit of despair. Until the early 19th century, this African country was as much of a melting pot as any other on the continent, populated by different ethnic groups from neighbouring Guinea, Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone, as we now know them. But an unlikely alliance of anti-slavery Quakers and a group of slaveholders changed all that.
The slaveholders belonged to the American Colonisation Society (ACS), a group of distinguished politicians and professionals that included the incumbent president James Monroe and composer of the national anthem, Frances Scott Key. While the Quakers wanted to see the establishment of a new African state where former slaves could live as free men and women, the ACS's desire to "voluntarily repatriate" black slaves to Africa was driven not by humanitarianism, but as a strategy for avoiding the kinds of uprisings they had witnessed in what is modern day Haiti, as well as a tactic for creating a Protestant outpost in West Africa.
Although white abolitionist groups and blacks opposed repatriation on any grounds as it was seen as capitulating to white supremacist ideology, the ACS had political influence on its side. And so, in 1822, 86 black people, including missionaries, settled on the shores of Cape Montserrado, together with white ACS representatives.
The first settlement was named Monrovia after US President Monroe, and later became the capital. In 1824, the Republic of Monrovia was declared.
The Liberians adopted the American Constitution and Declaration of Independence as models. They also adapted the design of the Stars and Stripes for their flag (using a single white star), and built houses and churches that looked like the southern plantation buildings where they had suffered such cruelty and oppression. They spoke English and even used American dollars as the official currency, until recently. Those who could afford it were sent to America for education. To all intents and purposes, Liberia's prevailing culture was, and remains, American.
But if this was the promised land, it didn't seem very promising. Not only was the climate deadly, replete with malaria and yellow fever, but there was an indigenous population that did not take kindly to selling or giving up their land outright to the ACS representatives. Nor were the indigenous people happy with the settlers' religious evangelising or their vocal condemnation of slavery, which was a lucrative trade among some of the coastal peoples. Civil strife between the settlers and indigenous groups became a constant feature of life.
It was 25 years after the first small group landed that the settlers cut off all ties with the ACS, declared their own sovereign state of Liberia and themselves as Americo-Liberians. There weren't many of them - half the 4,570 who had emigrated during that time had succumbed to disease and the unforgiving climate - but those who survived were determined to create a model of what they had fled.
Given its umbilical ties, it is something of an irony that it took the US 15 years from the time Liberia declared its independence to award it formal diplomatic recognition under President Lincoln (Britain and France gave it immediate recognition). But international recognition did not bring with it peace or stability, then or now. Liberia's history is enshrouded in discord, factionalism and bloodshed and its recent civil war is only the latest chapter.
To understand the reasons for its long history of conflict, we need to look at the oddly colonial attitude of the "repatriates", or freed black slaves who became settlers, back in the 19th century. Despite being the descendants of west Africans, and despite the dehumanisation of their enslavement, the settlers returned to Africa believing that the "natives", as they called the indigenous peoples, required civilising, and that they were the ones to do it. Whether they discriminated against them outright or intermarried with them, the settlers believed themselves to be superior and fated to hold the reins of power. For years, they denied indigenous people citizenship.
A fairly successful economy based on agriculture, shipbuilding and exports was established and did well in the first few decades, but by the early 1900s Liberia was in a perilous state. Numerous run-ins with indigenous groups who resented the settlers' intrusions and claims to domination were quelled only by the appearance of US warships.
There were many skirmishes, with the coastal-based and high-living government determined to expand its influence over the impoverished indigenous peoples in the interior. And Britain and France both exercised their more highly developed colonialist muscle, taking Liberian territory to add to their interests in Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast.
Liberia was soon bankrupt. To help repay huge loans and get itself back on its feet, the Liberian government took out more loans, with the humiliating agreement that American and European receivers would be allowed to administer funds destined for loan repayment.
More civil unrest and financial disaster followed. In the early 1920s, the US Senate blocked a $5m loan proposal and made Liberia an offer it couldn't refuse to help it out of its economic straitjacket: the tyre company Firestone asked the Liberians for a lease on massive tracts of land, on which it established the world's biggest rubber plantation.
The arrangement was to end in tears when the League of Nations - precursor to the United Nations - accused both Firestone and the Monrovia government of forced labour practices. The descendants of slaves were found guilty of allowing the operation of a system that, in the League of Nations report, was "hardly distinguishable from slavery". A new government was quickly in place, introducing repressive laws to keep the frequent flare-ups of civil unrest under tight control.
The country emerged from strife and bankruptcy in the 1940s under President William Tubman. A reform-minded internationalist, he attracted investment and capitalised on the discovery of mineral deposits. In contrast to his predecessors, Tubman had been born not in Monrovia but in Harper, in 1895, and appeared to embrace the rights of the indigenous population in a way that had not been seen before. He gave them the vote to both men and women, and developed the infrastructure of the coastal areas of the country.
Under Tubman, Liberia became an icon of African independence at the UN (of which Liberia was a founder member) as well as an inspiration for the nascent liberation movements throughout the African continent (he was also a founding member of the Organisation of African Unity).
But at the same time as his international and Pan-African reputation as a statesman and benevolent leader seemed unimpeachable, things were different at home. Over his 27 years of leadership, he created a sophisticated intelligence network that helped to quell dissent among the civilian population, repressed political opposition and gagged the press. And to ensure his right to rule autocratically as long as he wanted, he changed the constitution to allow himself to serve seven successive terms.
Tubman showed a lap-dog devotion to the US. Among other things, he allowed Liberia to become a strategic military, intelligence and propaganda outpost against the USSR during the Cold War, for which the USrewarded the country handsomely with massive aid packages that dwarfed all others that were given to African countries.
Tubman died in office in 1971 and his successor, William Tolbert, tried to introduce economic reforms to what was essentially an impoverished country.
But he was ineffectual and in 1980 was killed along with 13 of his government officials in a military coup led by Samuel Doe, in which the country's first indigenous leader was catapulted into power. Liberians were ecstatic.
Inevitably, the ecstasy was short-lived. Doe's People's Redemption Council was in reality a band of young soldiers who knew nothing about governance, let alone about how to run a country with a dead economy. Again, the US came to the rescue with yet more cash. Between 1981 and 1985, Liberia received $402 million, as well as a promise of open-ended support from President Reagan, who invited Doe to Washington for a meeting.
In spite of his gaff in introducing the Liberian president as "Chairman Moe", Reagan was as good as his word and Doe kept in the US's good books, going so far as to establish diplomatic relations with Israel when most African countries cut their ties with that country after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.
Like Tubman, Doe may have been the African apple of the American president's eye, but at home his star was in the descendant. He rigged election results in 1985 in order to remain in power and sowed discord between ethnic groups by playing partisan politics. He also targeted the press and outlawed all political activity in a desperate bid to silence critics.
One of those critics was Charles Taylor, an Americo-Liberian ex-civil servant who worked in Doe's administration before being imprisoned for embezzlement of pound;1 million of government funds. After escaping from jail in the US, where he awaited extradition, Taylor led an ethnically mixed band of rebels - the National Patriotic Front of Liberia. They spearheaded a vicious civil war in 1989, of which the fighting of the past summer is the latest chapter. In 1990, President Doe was tortured and murdered.
War raged between government forces and Taylor's rebel army until the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) engineered a peace agreement in 1996. Soon after, Taylor was elected president and it wasn't long before he proved to be as corrupt, greedy and brutal as his predecessors.
In 1999, former Doe supporters banded themselves together to form Lurd - Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy - and, with other groups, took up the struggle against government forces in Monrovia. The climax came last summer after the announcement that Taylor was being indicted for crimes against humanity during the eight-year civil war in Sierra Leone which began in 1991. During this time, Taylor supplied arms to the rebels in exchange for diamonds. With incursions by Lurd rebels into Monrovia, Taylor eventually agreed to step down and is now in exile in Nigeria.
It took weeks and weeks of pleading by the Liberians to end this latest carnage in the ongoing civil war, including the grotesque dumping of a pile of corpses outside the US embassy in Monrovia, before President Bush relented and sent troops to intervene. While this is a respite from the latest brutal and corrupt regime - Taylor is reputed to have embezzled millions of dollars - it is unlikely to be a happy ending quite yet.
There may be 15,000 UN peacekeeping troops on the streets for at least the next year to control the former government troops' rampage of rape and looting, and Liberians may be spared hunger by yet more Red Cross food aid.
But the long-term prospects for this deeply troubled, anomalous country remain uncertain at best.
http:memory.loc.gov ammemgmdhtml libhtml liberia.html
Liberia: The Heart of Darkness
By Gabriel H Williams, Published by Trafford
This Our Dark Country: The American Settlers of Liberia
By Catherine Reef, Published by Basic Books
* 1460s: Portuguese traders settle in Liberia to trade slaves and spices.
* 1816: The American Colonisation Society forms to "repatriate" freeborn blacks and former slaves to Africa.
* 1822: The first boatload of black "repatriates" land at Cape Montserrado, accompanied by white agents sent by the ACS to rule over them. They either buy or take over land from indigenous chiefs.
* 1824: The first settlement is named Monrovia after American president and ACS member James Monroe. The Republic of Liberia is declared.
* 1847: Liberia declares its independence and Joseph J Roberts, a freeborn black from Virginia, becomes the first president and the first black president in the world.
* 1848: England and France are the first countries to recognise Liberia as an independent country.
* 1862: President Abraham Lincoln belatedly gives US recognition to Liberian independence.
* 1944: Liberia becomes a major player in Africa and the world stage under President William Tubman.
* 1971: Tubman dies.
* 1980: Coup d'etat led by Samuel Doe. President William Tolbert is assassinated.
* 1985: Doe falsely declares himself winner of elections. Newspapers and political activities are banned.
* 1989: Charles Taylor leads insurgents into Liberia. Civil war breaks out between his broad band of rebels and government forces.
* 1990: President Doe is tortured to death by Taylor-led rebels.
* 1997: Taylor is elected president.
* 2003: Forces led by Liberians United for Liberation and Democracy battle government troops. Hundreds die during a few weeks and thousands flee Monrovia. UN peacekeepers are called in. Taylor is forced into exile.