Liberia an(d) Empire?: Sovereignty, ‘Civilisation’ and Commerce in Nineteenth-Century West Africa

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In the 1840s, Liberia was a black settler state on the West African coast which avowedly supported the connected ideologies of Christianity, commerce, and ‘civilisation’. However, from the 1870s, as the rest of West Africa began to be divided up into colonies, adherence to these ‘Western’ values did not spare Liberia’s leaders from some of the disruptive consequences of European expansionism. This article frames these consequences in the context of commercial clashes between the Liberian state and European traders (and their companies). These clashes predated Liberia’s declaration of independence in 1847, worsened thereafter, and later became increasingly politicised with the stricter enforcement of colonial law in the region in the 1870s, partly as a result of economic crisis. On the coast, Liberian officials struggled legally and militarily to stave off the activities of European smugglers with diplomatic backing. In the interior, commercial alliances were forged with local authorities in an attempt to keep out the French and the British, in particular. Conflicts over the collection of customs duties, the setting of borders, and, ultimately, the nature and extent of Liberian sovereignty, reached a climax during the Berlin Conference (1884–1885). The Conference led Liberia, by 1904, to implement its own version of colonial ‘indirect rule’: first and foremost to safeguard its independence, secondarily as a tool of expansion. In spite of major losses Liberian leaders were ultimately able to strengthen the country’s standing as a member of the international community of nations.