1820: The “Mayflower of Liberia” Sets Sail

On February 6, 1820, a ship of freed black slaves set sail from New York for the coast of West Africa, where they would found the nation of Liberia.

Freed Blacks Set Sail for Africa

Liberia’s founding can be traced to an unlikely alliance between Quakers and slaveholders, who believed that American blacks should migrate to Africa. Quakers saw more hope for blacks and former slaves in Africa than in America, while certain slaveholders thought the formation of an African colony could prevent slave revolts.

In 1815, Paul Cuffee, an African-American Quaker, led a small group of freed slaves to Sierra Leone, where they were able to establish a colony. The American Colonization Society, founded in 1816 by a group of Quakers and slaveholders, including Justice Bushrod Washington, Speaker of the House Henry Clay and Francis Scott Key, was encouraged by Cuffee’s voyage and began working on a voyage of its own.

Many Abolitionists, including William Lloyd Garrison, opposed the idea, believing it an attempt to rid the country of free blacks while fortifying the slaveholding community. But influential advocates such as Clay and Key “thought slavery was unsustainable and should eventually end but did not consider integrating slaves into society a viable option,” according to Slate.

The ACS, with $100,000 from Congress, arranged for 88 free blacks and three ACS agents to sail to West Africa aboard the Elizabeth, nicknamed the “Mayflower of Liberia,” on February 6, 1820. The group started a colony on a small island, where it was ravaged by malaria over the course of a year. One of the ACS agents purchased a piece of land in present-day Liberia, which became the colony’s home the following year.

In 1824, the colony was named Liberia and its capital was named Monrovia in honor of President James Monroe. Over the next four decades, between 15,000 and 20,000 freed slaves and Africans rescued from illegal slave ships would join the colony, which suffered great hardships through disease and conflict with local tribes.

In the 1840s, the practically bankrupt American Colonization Society requested that the settlers declare independence. The settlers did this in 1847, founding the Republic of Liberia, the first independent democratic republic in Africa, and just the second republic—after Haiti—to be founded by blacks. Joseph J. Roberts, a free black born in Virginia, became the country’s first president.

Sources in this Story

Liberia Today

The nation has faced economic hardship throughout its history, and tensions persisted between the politically dominant descendants of the settlers and the indigenous populations.

The descendants of American slaves, who make up roughly 5 percent of Liberia’s population, controlled the country for much of its history. This changed in 1980 when William Tolbert was ousted by Sergeant Samuel Doe, drastically changing the social, political and economic situation in the nation.

Civil war broke out in 1989, precipitated by a rebellion led by Charles Taylor. The war resulted in the deaths of 250,000 people. Taylor became president in 1997, but was pressured to step down in 2003. Taylor is now being tried at The Hague for war crimes.

In 2006, economist Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was elected president, the first female president in African history.

This article was originally written by findingDulcinea Staff; it was updated December 6, 2016.