Inventing Liberia: imagining and representing colony and nation in American, Liberian and European writing 1820-1940
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Liberia, the West African nation, whose name connotes freedom, was the creation of the American Colonisation Society (ACS) whose initial aim was to rid the United States of a growing population of ‘free people of colour.’ Yet it became a unique imaginative space on to which were projected the hopes, dreams and fears of various groups in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This study examines the various ways that the country (established as a colony in 1820 and declared a republic in 1847) was imagined, constructed and represented in a wide variety of American, Liberian and English texts from 1820-1940. Ultimately, Liberia came to be widely regarded as not merely the reversal of the Middle Passage but a path whereby the descendants of slavery, figured as socially and spiritually unmoored in the New World, might be anchored and regenerated in Africa. For the pioneering members of the free black community and newly emancipated slaves who colonised it, Liberia came to be represented as a recovered homeland, a space in which the experience of New World slavery could be rendered meaningful in the secular and sacred arenas through nation-building and the Christianisation of the African continent. White Americans promoted colonisation as the Manifest Destiny of the free black community, giving them the opportunity to carry the ideals of revolutionary America to their ancestral home. Late nineteenth-century American and Caribbean black commentators figured Liberia as a base for a Pan-African nation that presented a historic opportunity to define the ultimate destiny of the African Diaspora. These different representations positioned the Black Republic as a supposed utopia where black masculinity and femininity, so deeply undermined by the institution of slavery, could be restored and revitalised. For contemporary English and European visitors, the nation was a troubling anomaly in a continent ruled by European imperial powers. The accounts of these travellers to Liberia represented it as a state in crisis, whose failure they attributed largely to the incapacity of African people for self-government. Liberia represents a re-figuring of the very concept of settler colonialism. Its distinctive and contested nature offers a singular paradigm that transforms and destabilises understandings of discourses regarding race and colonial relationships, complicates ideas of liberty and agency, and widens the scope of abolitionism, black nationalism and American imperialism. It adds a new dimension to our conceptualisation of the Black Atlantic and extends the developing genre of black American literature beyond the borders of the United States.