Module Fifteen, Activity Six

The Return to Sierra Leone & Liberia

Thus far in the unit, we have focused on the movements of Africans from Africa to other parts of the world. However, the movements between Africa and the rest of the world do not occur in only one direction. At several periods in history, Africans and people of Africa descent have migrated back to Africa. In this activity, you will learn about the return to Africa and the founding of the African countries of Sierra Leone and Liberia (Map: Colonial Africa). The “back-to-Africa” migrations that resulted in the formation of these two countries came from highly organized efforts in the Nineteenth century on the part of Africans in the diaspora to return to Africa.

Africans in the Americas and Europe continued to return to live in Africa in somewhat smaller numbers throughout the twentieth century. For example, there were a number of African American missionaries who moved to Africa. Moreover, when African countries became independent in the 1960s and 1970s a number of African Americans and Africans in Britain immigrated to these newly independent African countries. Ghana, which became independent in 1957, was one of the most popular destinations for Africans from the diaspora. For example, Professor W.E.B. Du Bois, a very important African American scholar and civil rights leader, was among those who immigrated to Ghana in 1958. He remained in Ghana until his death in 1963.

Professor W.E.B Du Bois
Professor W.E.B Du Bois

Most recently, when South Africa became independent in 1994 after a long period of struggle against Apartheid, people of African heritage in the United States, Canada, and the West Indies moved to South Africa.

After you have read the information included in this section of the module, please read and respond to the questions and complete the activities at the end of the activity.

I. Resettling in Africa: Sierra Leone [Map: Sierra LeoneInfo on Sierra Leone]

As we learned in Activity 4, many American slaves and slaves from other parts of the world came to London in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to find freedom. This group of blacks became the first to be resettled in Sierra Leone, a country in West Africa. Two main reasons explain why whites organized and financed the resettlement of blacks in Africa. First, the former slaves lived in poverty and were considered a social problem for the government. Second, a group of men who believed that slavery was wrong wanted to help create a free, black community in Africa.

An English botanist (a scientist who studies plants) had been to visit Sierra Leone to study its plant life, and sent back reports about the country to the English government. The reports said that the country would be good for farming, so the government decided that it should repatriate (return to the place of their birth) the former slaves to this country. Four hundred and eleven immigrants left England in February 1787 and arrived in Sierra Leone on May 14, 1787.

Sierra Leone, consequently, has a unique history. Most of Africa’s 54 countries were colonies of European nation-states from the late 19th Century. Sierra Leone became a colony of Britain nearly 100 years earlier in the late 18th Century. This means that Sierra Leone became a colony of Britain just after the thirteen American colonies gained their independence
from Britain.

Sierra Leone was also different in another way from other African colonies. Britain formed the colony to be a home for freed slaves from North America. The first freed slaves returned to Africa from Canada in 1787. In 1808, the British government outlawed the slave trade. In an
effort to stop the Atlantic slave trade, the British navy intercepted slave ships from Africa which were heading across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas. The slaves freed from these ships were taken to Sierra Leone. Tens of thousands of freed slaves captured from slave
ships or groups who returned from North America (many coming from the West Indies), settled in Sierra Leone during the 19th Century. Only one other African country was founded by freed slaves from the Americas, Liberia, a name taken from the word liberty, Sierra Leone’s neighbor to the south.

If you have seen the movie Amistad, you may remember that at the end of the movie the slaves freed from the ship Amistad were sent to Sierra Leone.

Based on this information we can see why the capital city of this colony was called Freetown.

For most of the 19th Century, the colony of Sierra Leone was limited to the area along the coast and nearby hinterland. Hinterland refers to an area to the interior of the coast. Since the freed slaves came from many different parts of West Africa, North America and the West
Indies, they spoke different languages. In Sierra Leone, these settlers developed a new language based primarily on English but with many words and phrases from African languages. This language is called Krio. By the end of the 19th Century, the descendants of the freed
slaves became known as the Creole community.

Although the freed slaves who settled in Sierra Leone played an important role in the history of the country, most Sierra Leoneans are descendants of ethnic groups that have lived there for hundreds of years. Long term inhabitants of a given area are called indigenous people. Native Americans are the indigenous population of the United States; the main indigenous ethnic groups in Sierra Leone are the Mende and the Temne. Both of these ethnic groups spread across the boundaries of Sierra Leone into neighboring Guinea and Liberia.

As you can imagine, relationships between the new immigrants from North America and the West Indies and the local Temne peoples, who lived in the coastal regions near Freetown, were not always good. They were educated and Christians and felt that they had an obligation to covert and “civilize” the indigenous peoples. The Temne, not surprisingly resisted efforts by the returning Africans to take control of the coastal areas that had belonged to them for many years.

Towards the end of the 19th Century, two important changes took place in Sierra Leone. First, British businesses and the British government became interested in expanding their control into the interior of the colony. Secondly, as a result of this expansion, many Temne and Mande peoples from the interior moved to Freetown and the coastal region.

British business companies were interested in taking advantage of agricultural and mineral resources offered by Sierra Leone. In the early part of the 20th Century, colonial officials encouraged the production of palm oil, cocoa beans (chocolate) and coffee. In the 1930s, diamonds mines were opened. Later bauxite (mineral from which aluminum is made) and rutile (gemstone) were found in deposits large enough to be mined. These raw materials became the basis of Sierra Leone’s export economy. However, the vast majority of the people made their
living as small scale farmers, growing rice, casava, and groundnuts (peanuts).

In the first century of colonial rule, the British allowed the Creole (freed-slave) community to participate in the administration of the colony. However, by the beginning of the 20th Century, as they expanded colonial rule into the interior, the British reduced political participation by Sierra Leoneans. The British colonialists, as they did elsewhere in West Africa, instituted a system of indirect rule. [See Module Seven B African History and Module Ten: African Politics] In this system, the colonialists appointed local chiefs and headmen to help them govern. While this system helped traditional rulers to maintain some of their power, it did not allow for the majority of Sierra Leoneans to participate in governing their own communities or

During the time of colonial rule, Christian mission societies began to build schools. Through these efforts, and with some support from the colonial government, a system of elementary and secondary schools was built in Sierra Leone. At independence in 1961, approximately one
third of the population was literate, and could read and write in either English, Mende or Temne. These efforts were complimented by Islamic schools, which taught students to read the Q’uran (Muslim holy book) in Arabic. In spite of the low levels of school attendance, Sierra Leone has a proud history of higher education. In 1827, Fourah Bay College was founded by the Church Missionary Society. This college was the first English-media college in all of West Africa. Indeed, for almost 100 years it was the only college in British governed West Africa which offered degrees. Students came to study at Fourah Bay from as far away as Nigeria and Ghana. On April 27, 1961, Sierra Leone gained its political independence after nearly 160 years of British rule. All of Sierra Leone’s neighbors in West Africa also gained their political independence from either Britain or France between 1957 and 1962.


You can read more about contemporary issues in Sierra Leone on the Special Topics page of Exploring Africa. [See specifically, Diamonds and Warfare, The Africa Connection]

In addition to the information contained in the Current Events activity, you are encouraged to find out more about contemporary Sierra Leone by visiting the following web site. In addition to the information provided on this site, please use some of the links you find on it to learn more about Sierra Leone, such as the links to newspapers written there. By reading stories and reports from these newspapers, you can gain a perspective on what Sierra Leonians think about issues in their country, in Africa, and indeed in the United States.


II. Resettling in Africa: Liberia [Map of LiberiaInfo on Liberia]

Liberia was the second African country to be formed in part by Africans in the diaspora returning to Africa. The history of Liberia however, is somewhat different from that of her neighbor Sierra Leone, even though freed African slaves played an important role in the founding of both countries.

One difference in the history of these neighboring countries was that almost all the returning Africans who settled in Liberia were ex-slaves from the United States, whereas most of the returnees in Sierra Leone came from Britain, Canada and from slave ships captured by the British navy after Britain had abolished the slave trade in 1807.

The second difference in the history of these two countries is more significant. Sierra Leone was formed as a colony of Britain and remained so until independence in 1961. Liberia, as you should remember from Module Seven B: African History, was one of only two countries in Africa never to be colonized by a European power. Do you remember the other African country that was not colonized?

The return of freed African slaves from the U.S was at first facilitated by the American Colonization Society (ACS). This society was formed in the early 19th century by a group of wealthy white men in the United States. The prime objective of the ACS at its founding was to locate a place in West Africa suitable for “colonization” and then to assist freed African slaves return to this area.

From the text so far you may find a couple of issues or things that are somewhat strange.

  • First, why was the ACS founded and controlled by white men -particularly since there were freed slaves in America who were interested in returning to Africa? Clearly even freed Blacks in early 19th century America did not have the opportunity to organize and have their voices heard. In this social and political environment, sympathetic whites had to take leadership in this movement. However, while some of the leaders of the ACS were strong abolitionists who thought that a return to Africa was in the best interest of freed slaves, there were others whose motives were quite different. Part of the leadership of the ACS was composed of men who supported slavery. Can you think of any reason why they would support the return of freed blacks to Africa?
  • Secondly, why was it called the American Colonization Society when we indicated that Liberia escaped colonization? It is true, and very important, that Liberia was not colonized by a European power as were all of its neighbors. However, the leaders of the ACS did perceive the returning Africans from the U.S. as colonists. Yes, they were returning to Africa the continent of their recent ancestors, but for most of them they would not be returning to the exact location from which their ancestors had been captured and sent to America as slaves. Moreover, the new Liberians did not settle in an empty area. Just as was the case in Sierra Leone, the returnees had to interact with the indigenous populations -thirteen ethnic groups -already living in what was to become known as Liberia. In addition, from 1847, when the African immigrants in Liberia declared their independence from the American Colonization Society and formed the Republic of Liberia.Until 1980, Liberia was controlled by this community that was very small in comparison to the indigenous population. In reality, the thirteen indigenous groups had limited political and economic rights and opportunities. Consequently, some indigenous Liberians have argued that while they were never colonized by an another country, what they experienced had somewhat similar to what their neighbors experienced under direct European colonialism.

The American Colonization Society founded in 1816 sponsored the first group of African “colonists” to West Africa in 1820. Money for this initial endeavor came from three sources: support from the U.S. government, grants from wealthy white members of the ASC, and from membership subscriptions sold to freed African slaves in America. The membership fees were $30, a princely sum in the early 19th century! Yet, the ACS was able to raise $50,000 between 1816 and 1820. This demonstrates the strong support on the part of free Blacks in the U.S. to the goals of the ASC!

To facilitate the 1820 trip, the ASC purchased a ship, the Elizabeth. This first effort faced considerable difficulty. Soon after landing in what is now the north west coast of Liberia, the immigrants became very ill, and they had to retreat to Freetown, the capital of neighboring country, Sierra Leone. However in the following year, new groups of African immigrants arrived in West Africa, and the ASC was able to establish a permanent settlement south of Sierra Leone. They called this settlement Monrovia after the U.S. president James Monroe, and they called the colony they hoped to establish Liberia. Can you think of why they might have decided on the name Liberia?

Over the next three decades, the African settler population in Liberia grew steadily through continued migration from the U.S. As their population increased, the Americo-Liberian African immigrants began to identify themselves more independently, and demanded more and more autonomy from the American Colonization Society that governed Liberia. On July 26, 1847, the Liberians declared their independence from the ASC under the leadership of Joseph Roberts, who became the first president of the Republic of Liberia.

Soon after declaring its independence, Liberia was officially recognized by the United States, Haiti, and a number of European countries. This official recognition was important since it meant that the international community would respect Liberia as a sovereign country. This international recognition meant that during the Scramble for Africa (1885-1914) when Europe was colonizing the rest of Africa, no attempt was made to colonize Liberia. [See Module Seven B: History of Africa and Module Ten: African Politics]

The constitution of the independent Republic of Liberia was based on the U.S. constitution. The government was divided into three branches: the executive branch (president and cabinet), the legislative branch (congress), and the judicial branch (courts). The Americo-Liberians developed two political parties to represent their interests: the Republican Party and the True Whig Party. However in 1870, the True Whig Party won control of the Presidency and congress and remained in power for 110 years, until 1980 when the President William Tobert was overthrown in a military coup d’etat.

Politically, the relationship between the Liberian government and the Americo-Liberians, on the one hand, and the indigenous population on the other hand were often strained. Politically, the Americo-Liberians, who never comprised more than ten percent of the population, wanted to make sure that interests of their community were protected. This meant for most of the period between 1847 and 1980, the indigenous population had only a limited franchise, and although they were in the majority, they were never able to take control of congress or to elect a president from one of the thirteen indigenous ethnic groups.

In an attempt to allow the indigenous population a voice in their own affairs, the Liberian government implemented a system of indirect rule in the rural areas. You will remember you learned about in-direct rule in Module Ten: African Politics. In this system, African ethnic groups were given some responsibility in their own local affairs. However, in-direct rule did not provide for participation in the central government where all the major decisions and policies were made.

To promote economic development in Liberia, the government encouraged a plantation system under the ownership of Americo-Liberians. Sugar and coffee were the primary plantation crops in the nineteenth century. However, while the Liberian plantations were efficiently run, there was much competition from other nations in the world market. Liberia’s national economy got a boost in 1926 when the U.S. based Firestone Tire and Rubber Company opened a huge rubber plantation in Liberia. However, this investment came at a cost to Liberia. Land that was controlled by Liberia and used for the production of food crops was converted into rubber plantations. Moreover, to insure an adequate supply of labor, the Liberian government set up policies that encouraged Liberians to work very cheaply for the Firestone plantations.

While there were certainly similarities between Liberia and neighboring European colonies in the political and economic arenas, there were also fundamental differences. Unlike most colonial regimes, the Liberian government was dedicated to developing a politically and economically viable independent African state -a state in which race was not a factor. In promoting this agenda, the government supported education and health care to an extent not matched in neighboring colonies. Indeed, the Liberian government opened Liberia University in the 1850s, the first western style university in West Africa.

However, the Americo-Liberians believed that their community alone was capable of realizing this important vision for Liberia. This meant that the vast majority of the Liberian population felt that they were politically disenfranchised and economically disadvantaged. In the 19th century, these feelings led to a series of rebellions against the government, but these dissents were suppressed. Throughout the twentieth century, opposition to the government of the True Whig Party grew. In 1980 President William Tolbert, the last Americo-Liberian president to govern Liberia, was overthrown in a military coup d’etat.

You are encouraged to find out more about contemporary Liberia by visiting the following web site. In addition to the information provided on this site please use some of the links to learn more about Liberia. For example, there are links to newspapers in Liberia. Reading stories and reports from these newspapers you can gain a perspective on how Liberians think about issues in their country, in Africa, and indeed in the United States.



Please complete that following questions and activities.


  1. Why do you think that West Africa was selected for Africans in the diaspora who wanted to return to Africa? Why not Central Africa, Southern Africa or East Africa?
  2. Why did freed slaves in the U.S., Canada and Britain decide to return to Africa?
  3. Why do you think that British called the capital of Sierra Leone, Freetown? Why did the founders of Liberia select this name for their new country?
  4. What was the nature of the relationship between the Africans who returned to help found Liberia and Sierra Leone and the indigenous peoples of these areas? What reasons can you give for nature of these relationships?


1. On a copy of a world map that your teacher will provide draw in the routes, using a different color to show each route, taken by returning Africans who settled in Sierra Leone and Liberia. On your map you should label Sierra Leone, Liberia and the countries from which the freed ex-slaves came from: Britain, Canada, West Indies, and the United States. [Printable World Map]

2. Write a short story in which you imagine that you are a 14 year old girl or boy whose family is among the returning Africans who moved to Liberia in the middle of the 19th century. In your story, you can report on the reasons why your family decided to leave the United States, the trip across the Atlantic Ocean, and settling in Liberia. You can comment on how this new life was different from the one you left behind in America.

Go to Activity Seven or select from the other activities in this module: