The Independent African States



Liberia

Liberia is a country in West Africa that was founded, established, colonized, and controlled by citizens of the United States and ex-Caribbean slaves as a colony for former African American slaves and their free black descendants.

Learning Objectives

Describe what distinguishes Liberia from other African states

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • From around 1800, in the United States, people opposed to slavery were planning ways to achieve freedom for more slaves and ultimately abolish the institution.
  • At the same time, slaveholders in the South opposed having free blacks in their midst, as they believed the free people threatened the stability of their slave societies.
  • While mostly free across the North, former slaves and other free blacks suffered considerable discrimination, and some territories and states in the Northwest prohibited migration by free people of color.
  • Some abolitionists and slaveholders discussed the idea of relocating freed African-American slaves to a colony in Africa, which led to the American Colonization Society (ACS), established in 1816 by Robert Finley of New Jersey.
  • From 1821, thousands of free blacks who faced legislated restrictions in the U.S. moved to Liberia.
  • In 1847, the legislature of Liberia declared the nation an independent state.
  • By 1867, the ACS had assisted in the movement of more than 13,000 Americans to Liberia.
  • Liberia retained its independence throughout the Scramble for Africa by European colonial powers during the late 19th century, but the country remained in the American sphere of influence.

Key Terms

  • American Colonization Society: A group established in 1816 by Robert Finley of New Jersey that supported the migration of free African Americans to the continent of Africa. It helped to found the colony of Liberia in 1821–22 on the coast of West Africa as a place for free-born American blacks.
  • Joseph Jenkins Roberts: The first (1848–1856) and seventh (1872–1876) President of Liberia. Born free in Norfolk, Virginia, he emigrated to Liberia in 1829 as a young man. He opened a trading store in Monrovia and later engaged in politics. When Liberia became independent in July 26, 1847, he was elected the first black American president for the Republic of Liberia, serving until 1856. In 1872 he was elected again to serve as Liberia’s seventh president.

Liberia, officially the Republic of Liberia, is a country on the West African coast. Liberia means “Land of the Free” in Latin. It is bordered by Sierra Leone to its west, Guinea to its north, and Côte d’Ivoire to its east. English is the official language and over 20 indigenous languages are spoken, representing the numerous tribes who make up more than 95% of the population. The country’s capital and largest city is Monrovia.

The Republic of Liberia began as a settlement of the American Colonization Society (ACS), who believed blacks would face better chances for freedom in Africa than in the United States. The country declared its independence on July 26, 1847. The U.S. did not recognize Liberia’s independence until during the American Civil War on February 5, 1862. Between January 7, 1822, and the Civil War, more than 15,000 freed and free-born black Americans, who faced legislated limits in the U.S., and 3,198 Afro-Caribbeans relocated to the settlement. The black American settlers carried their culture with them to Liberia. The Liberian constitution and flag were modeled after those of the U.S. On January 3, 1848, Joseph Jenkins Roberts, a wealthy, free-born black American from Virginia who settled in Liberia, was elected as Liberia’s first president after the people proclaimed independence.

Liberia is the only African republic to have self-proclaimed independence without gaining independence through revolt from any other nation, being Africa’s first and oldest modern republic. Liberia maintained and kept its independence during the European colonial era.

Settlement and Independence

Between 1461 and the late 17th century, Portuguese, Dutch, and British traders had contacts and trading posts in the region. The Portuguese named the area Costa da Pimenta (“Pepper Coast”) but it later came to be known as the Grain Coast due to the abundance of melegueta pepper grains. European traders bartered commodities and goods with local people.

In the United States, there was a movement to resettle free-born blacks and freed slaves who faced racial discrimination in the form of political disenfranchisement, and the denial of civil, religious, and social privileges in the United States. Most whites and later a small cadre of black nationalists believed that blacks would face better chances for freedom in Africa than in the U.S. The American Colonization Society (ACS) was founded in 1816 in Washington, DC for this purpose, by a group of prominent politicians and slaveholders. But its membership grew to include mostly people who supported abolition of slavery. Slaveholders wanted to get free people of color out of the South, where they were thought to threaten the stability of the slave societies. Some abolitionists collaborated on relocation of free blacks, as they were discouraged by racial discrimination against them in the North and believed they would never be accepted in the larger society. Most African-Americans, who were native-born by this time, wanted to work toward justice and equality in the United States rather than emigrate. Leading activists in the North strongly opposed the ACS, but some free blacks were ready to try a different environment.

In 1821, the ACA began sending African-American volunteers to the Pepper Coast to establish a colony for freed African-Americans. By 1867, the ACS had assisted in the migration of more than 13,000 African Americans to Liberia. These free African-Americans and their descendants married within their community and came to identify as Americo-Liberians. Many were of mixed race and educated in American culture; they did not identify with the indigenous natives of the tribes they encountered. They intermarried largely within the colonial community, developing an ethnic group that had a cultural tradition infused with American notions of political republicanism and Protestant Christianity.

Reflecting the system of racial segregation in the United States, the Americo-Liberians created a cultural and racial caste system with themselves at the top and indigenous Liberians at the bottom. They believed in a form of “racial equality” which meant that all residents of Liberia had the potential to become “civilized” through western-style education and conversion to Christianity.

On July 26, 1847, the settlers issued a Declaration of Independence and promulgated a constitution. Based on the political principles denoted in the United States Constitution, it established the independent Republic of Liberia.

The leadership of the new nation consisted largely of the Americo-Liberians, who initially established political and economic dominance in the coastal areas that had been purchased by the ACS; they maintained relations with United States contacts in developing these areas and the resulting trade. Their passage of the 1865 Ports of Entry Act prohibited foreign commerce with the inland tribes, ostensibly to “encourage the growth of civilized values” before such trade was allowed.

Charles D. B. King, 17th President of Liberia (1920-1930), with his entourage on the steps of the Peace Palace, The Hague (the Netherlands), 1927.

Republic of Liberia: Charles D. B. King, 17th President of Liberia (1920-1930), with his entourage on the steps of the Peace Palace, The Hague (the Netherlands), 1927.

Ethiopia

Ethiopia achieved international prestige with its uniquely successful military resistance during the late 19th-century Scramble for Africa, becoming the only African country to defeat a European colonial power and retain its sovereignty.

Learning Objectives

Explain how Ethiopia managed to maintain its independence

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Ethiopia is one of the few African nations that remained independent during the European colonial period.
  • Ethiopia’s modern history begins with the Emperor Tewodros II, who unified land from a decentralized kingdom ruled by various princes.
  • During the Scramble for Africa, Italy set its sights on Ethiopia (then known as Abyssinia) after colonizing neighboring Eritrea and Somalia.
  • After a dispute over a treaty that the Italians argued gave them rule over Ethiopia, the Italians invaded, facing an army much larger than they anticipated. This began the First Italo-Ethiopian War.
  • Italian defeat came about after the Battle of Adwa, where the Ethiopian army dealt the heavily outnumbered Italians a decisive loss and forced their retreat back into Eritrea, a victory that became a rallying point for later African nationalists during their struggle for decolonization.
  • This was not the first African victory over Western colonizers, but it was the first time such a military put a definitive stop to a colonizing nation’s efforts, with Ethiopia remaining independent until the eve of World War II, when Mussolini successful invaded and occupied Ethiopia.

Key Terms

  • Tewodros II: The Emperor of Ethiopia from 1855 until his death. His rule is often placed as the beginning of modern Ethiopia, ending the decentralized Zemene Mesafint (Era of the Princes).
  • First Italo-Ethiopian War: A war fought between Italy and Ethiopia from 1895 to 1896. It originated from a disputed treaty that the Italians claimed turned the country into an Italian protectorate. Much to its surprise, the Italian army, invading Ethiopia from Italian Eritrea in 1893, faced a powerful united front. Italian defeat came about after the Battle of Adwa, where the Ethiopian army dealt the heavily outnumbered Italians a decisive loss and forced their retreat back into Eritrea.
  • Battle of Adwa: A battle fought in March 1896 between the Ethiopian Empire and the Kingdom of Italy near the town of Adwa, Ethiopia, in Tigray. This climactic battle of the First Italo-Ethiopian War was a decisive defeat for Italy and secured Ethiopian sovereignty.

Independent Ethiopia

Ethiopia is a country located in the Horn of Africa. Formerly known as Abyssinia, it shares borders with Eritrea to the north and northeast, Djibouti and Somalia to the east, Sudan and South Sudan to the west, and Kenya to the south. Some of the oldest evidence for anatomically modern humans has been found in Ethiopia, widely considered the region from which modern humans first set out for the Middle East and places beyond. Tracing its roots to the 2nd millennium BC, Ethiopia was a monarchy for most of its history. During the first centuries AD, the Kingdom of Aksum maintained a unified civilization in the region, followed by the Ethiopian Empire circa 1137.

Ethiopia was reunified in 1855 under Tewodros II, beginning its modern history. The country slowly modernized under the leadership of Yohannes IV and defended itself from an Egyptian invasion in 1874. Emperor Yohannes fought and won wars against Egyptians, Italians, and Mehadists to keep his people free from foreign invaders. He was killed in action in 1889.

Under Menelik II, Ethiopia defeated an Italian invasion in 1896 and came to be recognized as a legitimate state by European powers. More rapid modernization took place under Menelik II and Haile Selassie, but this did not deter another Italian invasion in 1935. The Italian army occupied parts of the country from October 1935-May 1940. A joint force of British and Ethiopian rebels drove the Italians out of the country in 1941, and Haile Selassie was returned to the throne.

Ethiopia derived prestige from its uniquely successful military resistance during the late 19th-century Scramble for Africa, becoming the only African country to defeat a European colonial power and retain its sovereignty. Subsequently, many African nations adopted the colors of Ethiopia’s flag following their independence. It was the first independent African member of the 20th-century League of Nations and the United Nations.

First Italo-Ethiopian War

As the 20th century approached, Africa had been carved up among the European powers at the Berlin Conference. The two independent exceptions were the Republic of Liberia on the west coast and Ethiopia in the eastern Horn of Africa region. The newly unified Kingdom of Italy was a relative newcomer to the imperialist scramble for Africa. Italy had two recently obtained African territories: Eritrea and Italian Somalia. Both were near Ethiopia on the Horn of Africa and both were impoverished. Italy sought to improve its position in Africa by conquering Ethiopia. Menelik II was the Ethiopian leader who pitted Italy against its European rivals while stockpiling weapons to defend Ethiopia against the Italians.

The First Italo-Ethiopian War was fought between Italy and Ethiopia from 1895 to 1896. It originated from a disputed treaty that the Italians claimed turned the country into an Italian protectorate. Much to their surprise, they found that Ethiopian ruler Menelik II, rather than being opposed by some of his traditional enemies, was supported by them. When the Italian army invaded Ethiopia from Italian Eritrea in 1893, they thus faced a more united front than they expected. In addition, Ethiopia was supported by Russia, an orthodox Christian nation like Ethiopia, with military advisers, army training, and the sale of weapons during the war. They were also supported diplomatically by the United Kingdom and France to prevent Italy from becoming a colonial competitor. Full-scale war broke out in 1895, with Italian troops having initial success until Ethiopian troops counterattacked Italian positions and besieged the Italian fort of Meqele, forcing its surrender. Italian defeat came about after the Battle of Adwa, where the Ethiopian army dealt the heavily outnumbered Italians a decisive loss and forced their retreat back into Eritrea. This climactic battle of the First Italo-Ethiopian War was a decisive defeat for Italy and secured Ethiopian sovereignty. As a direct result of the battle, Italy signed the Treaty of Addis Ababa, recognizing Ethiopia as an independent state.

This was not the first African victory over Western colonizers, but it was the first time such a military put a definitive stop to a colonizing nation’s efforts. According to one historian, “In an age of relentless European expansion, Ethiopia alone had successfully defended its independence.”

This defeat of a colonial power and the ensuing recognition of African sovereignty became rallying points for later African nationalists during their struggle for decolonization, as well as activists and leaders of the Pan-African movement. As the Afrocentric scholar Molefe Asante explains,

After the victory over Italy in 1896, Ethiopia acquired a special importance in the eyes of Africans as the only surviving African State. After Adowa, Ethiopia became emblematic of African valor and resistance, the bastion of prestige and hope to thousands of Africans who were experiencing the full shock of European conquest and were beginning to search for an answer to the myth of African inferiority.

Almost 40 years later, in October 1935 after the League of Nations’s weak response to the Abyssinia Crisis, the Italians launched a new military campaign endorsed by Benito Mussolini, the Second Italo-Abyssinian War. This time the Italians employed vastly superior military technology such as tanks and aircraft as well as chemical warfare, and the Ethiopian forces were defeated by May 1936. Following the war, Italy occupied Ethiopia for five years (1936–41), before eventually being driven out during World War II by British and Ethiopian forces.

An Ethiopian painting Ethiopian troops defeating the Italian troops during the Battle of Adwa.

The Battle of Adwa: Ethiopian forces, assisted by St George (top), win the Battle of Adwa. Painted 1965-75.