Continuing Liberia’s Ugly Past

By Siahyonkron Nyanseor

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
September 14, 2017


World “History was designed to justify European domination”, wrote historian Richard Poe. Similar case can be made that the history of Liberia (Settlers’ history) was written to promote antebellum southern plantation culture and religious heritage without regards to the indigenous population (natives) who first occupied the land.

Continuing Liberia’s Ugly Past was first published on September 10, 2004 under the title: “Liberia: A Tale of Two People”. As a country, the elites ruled the Liberian people based on the philosophy of: “So say one, so say all”. In this article I intent to contribute to the current discussion taking place in Liberia and the Diaspora over the issue of Congor and Country. I hope in the end every one will face up to the long-avoided wrong(s) that has divided the country.

This subject has been dealt with in the past by two staff members of In 1966, my colleagues James D. Smith and Abraham M. Williams started a series titled: “Liberia’s Ugly Past” in which they highlighted key indelible elements of the Americo-Liberian legacy. Nothing has changed since; up to the present, the practice continues leaving lasting effects, retard our progress and foster unhealthy social interaction between the descendants of Americo-Liberians and African-Liberians.

For example in the 1950s, the noted America writer, John Gunther warned that “Liberia is a sick country, it may some day it will get well (Inside Africa).” Yes indeed, there was something sick about the way things were in Liberia! 

In the 1980, another American writer, J. Gus Liebenow arrived at similar conclusion. According to him, “the struggle which culminated in the April 12, coup d’état had been long in its gestation.  Indeed, the depth of hostility that lay beneath the surface had been marked to the outside world by the very urbaness and sophistication of these young diplomats and other officials who represented Liberia abroad during the past two or three decades.”

The Americo-Liberians he explained “imposed a set of dominant cultural norms for the new state, which was roughly modeled after those of the society across the seas that had rejected them”. Those norms, he explained, include “the Christian faith; monogamy, a commitment to private ownership and free enterprises; and increasingly Liberianized version of the English language; a preference for American style in clothing, food, architecture, literature; and the creation of a political system which superficially resembled that of the United States.” (J. Gus Liebenow, “The Seeds of Discontent”, Part I – Liberia: The Dissolution of Privilege, 1980, pp. 1-2)

Out of this culture derived the behavior that is commonly referred to in Liberia as “Congo Mentality”.  What is it, and how did it come about?  Who exhibits this type of behavior?  Does it still exist amongst Liberians?  The answer is a resounding YES! Congo Mentality exists in Liberia and amongst Liberians living in the Diaspora.

The word Congo is pronounced KONGOR or CONGOR. As a group, the name Congor came about as the result of the abolition of the slave trade.  When the slave trade was declared illegal in West Africa, there were those who continued to participate in the trade.  The Africans who were recaptured by American gunboats were resettled in Liberia.  It was assumed that these Africans came from the Belgium Congo that is now referred to as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

Prior to the resettlement of the Congor people, there were two distinct groups of people living in Liberia; they were the Americo-Liberians and those the Settlers or Americo-Liberians referred to as Natives or Country people. These descendants of freed slaves were individuals who were actually deported from North America because the American capitalist system had no more use for their services.  The Natives on the other hand, were the indigenous inhabitants of the area that is known today as Liberia.

Based on the socialization of the Americo-Liberians in North America, they adapted the prejudices of their slave masters in their dealing with the indigenous population. They assumed a position of superiority – one similar to the arrangement that existed between them and their slave masters on the plantations in North America.  As the result of this orientation, they considered the indigenous people as backwarduncivilizedpaganheathen, and at times referred to them as Bush Niggers.

It was this general attitude that brought about the division in the Liberian society.  For example as far back as 1864, President Daniel Bashiel Warner was concern about the division created by the Settlers; therefore in his inaugural address of January 4, 1864, he made an attempt to bring it to the attention of the ruling elites. He said:

“Of late, however, I have noticed with emotions of deep regret what I consider indications of a growing feeling of sectionalism among us, manifested particularly within the last few weeks.  Need I say, that, in every point of view, whether affecting the social condition, the material prosperity, or the civil liberty of our country, down among us, for it cannot but exercise a deep and wide – spread influence for evil and only evil continually. (Joseph Saye Guannu, Inaugural Addresses, 1980, pp. 52-53)

Similar concern was raised in President Arthur Barclay’s Second Inaugural Speech (January 1, 1906). It states:
“There is often manifested among the civilized population an active although secret disloyalty, especially in matters affecting the native tribes which has been very troublesome and embarrassing.
“The Americo-Liberian citizens may do, and in the past has done the most harm in connection with the subject (African inhabitants) now considered, by maintaining a contemptuous, ungracious, and unjust attitude toward his aboriginal brother, by a want of politeness and good feelings”. (Joseph Saye Guannu, Inaugural Addresses – 1980: 215)

In the 1800s, these prejudices became common practice in the Liberian society. As the society moved into the 20thCentury, the Americo- Liberian Mentality underwent a transformation. This change came about as the result of one major reason. The Americo-Liberians minority needed to incorporate into their rank other immigrants for the purpose of managing what they perceived as “The Native Problem.” These new immigrants came from places like Jamaica, Barbados (Caribbean), Sierra Leone, Togo, Nigeria, Ghana, etc.

The Americo-Liberian Mentality became so predominant until Arthur Barclay devised a master plan, which he revealed in his First Inaugural Address of January 4, 1904. It reads:
“…The United States is not the only source from which we may draw desirable immigrants has long been recognized.

“We have the West Indies and the English West African colonies.  A large and increasing number of Sierra Leoneans which people with those of Liberians constitute at present the largest Negro English speaking population on the West Coast are now settling in the country. It is an interesting fact. It may have far-reaching consequences.  Be hospitable and liberal, conciliate the populations in the colonies around you, and they will help you to tide over things until our relatives abroad shall come to our assistance.” (Joseph Saye Guannu, Inaugural Addresses, 1980, p. 204)

Based on Arthur Barclay’s ‘Native Plan’, an indigenous person had to meet certain requirements/qualifications before he or she was accepted as citizen of Liberia. These requirements were:
“The willingness of applicants to qualify for Liberian citizen by adopting the Christian faith, Western living conditions, and Western standards of conduct, dress, and general appearance.  An African, in effect, would have to detach himself from his own customs by completely accepting the Americo-Liberian set of values.  Citizenship and voting rights might then follow” (Yekutiel Gershoni, Black Colonialism: The Americo-Liberian Scramble for the Hinterland, 1985, pp. 37-38).

It was based on these requirements that the indigenous population were allowed to become citizens in their own land. Citizenship was extended to the indigenous population in 1904; 57 years after the 1847 declaration of Liberia’s independence.

Indigenous Culture & Land Palaver
Throughout the existence of the human society, land has been a community property. According to Dr. Taryor, land did not only provide “a home for the people, but it was also the source from which they got those things necessary for the satisfaction of their needs. Land itself was never the property of one person. Ownership of land was always in the hands of the village community, as a whole, which divided it among the various households as required” (Taryor, Sr., Justice, Justice, p. 30). 

Despite what you read in Settlers’ history books, the illegal seizure of land has been the mean source of the palaver (conflict) between the Settlers and the indigenous people of Liberia. According to Reeve , “acquisition in Africa of lands of the Africans is based upon similar false titles; and in this direction the Liberian (Settler), excepting for the fact that he has not improved the conditions of the native races, or brought any benefits in the train of Conquest, is no worse than his white neighbor; but what they both construed into a title to land by treaty is merely a right to occupy during the pleasure of the Chief and his people” (Henry Fenwick Reeve, The Black Republic, pp. 44-46. Similar accounts are given in Liberia: Description, History, and Problems, by Frederick Starr, Chicago, 1913).

Due toa series of failures and mounting cost, the American Colonization Society (ACS) turned to the United States Government for help. In December 1821, the American Colonization Society (ACS) dispatched a representative, Dr. Eli Ayres, to purchase land farther north up the coast from Sierra Leone. With the aid of a U.S. naval officer, Lieutenant Robert F. Stockton (also referred to as Captain), Ayres cruised the coastal waters west of Grand Bassa seeking out appropriate lands for the colony. Stockton took charge of the negotiations with leaders of the Dey and Bassa peoples who lived in the area of Cape Mesurado. Stockton being impatience and ignorant of  how Africans conducted land transaction; concluded that the chief and elders were not making sense –similar conclusion the Portuguese reached in referring to their land discussion with native people as PALAVA (Fuss). Stockton not understanding the discussion regarding the piece of land on present day Bushrod Island; forced King Peter (Bassa King Zolu Duma) and other indigenous rulers of the cape, at the barrel of a gun, to sign a treaty (placed X on the document/deed they prepared), which ceded land - a "36 mile long and 3 mile wide" strip of coastal land for trade goods, supplies, weapons, and rum worth approximately $300 to the African-American Settlers. (From "The fourth annual report: African-American Perspectives of the American Society for colonizing the Free People of Color of the United States).

African-Liberian Kinship & Marriage System
Historically, in sub – Saharan Africa kinship system, characteristic of extended families, was tailored to polygamous marriages. There were rites of passage, though, from teen to adulthood of both sexes before marriage.  Nearly, all such betrothals were arranged by the families of the prospective couple. As with all these forms of traditional unions, bride price was presented by the parents of the husband to - be for the hand of the wife to - be. Love was secondary to what were purely business, family alliances, or for procreation purposes. Indeed, the coming of Europeans with their Christianized idea of one man one wife clashed with the longstanding traditional practice of polygamy, which was the glue that held the kinship system together. The outcome was that the nuclear family of only a husband, wife and kids replaced the connectivity of the extended family. This system wrought havoc on the African rural social fabric.

The ruling elites imposed their foreign hegemony on the indigenous inhabitants by any means necessary; and anyone who suggested otherwise was considered an enemy to the status quo. One such individual was Edward Wilmot Blyden. In 1903, Blyden alluded to this reality in one of his statements:

“Every race has a soul, and the soul of that race finds expression in its institutions, and to kill those institutions is to kill the soul… No people can profit or be helped under institutions which are not the outcome of their own character”. 

In addition to Blyden’s concern, Patriot Albert Porte expressed similar sentiment:
“Liberians will always be looked down upon, despised by other nations and peoples, unless as a people, we be courageous enough to cry loudly against existing evils, and our leader be tolerant enough to face our problems calmly and dispassionately, and together we have them remedied.  We cannot delay and wait for others to do these things for us and still expect to maintain our dignity and self respect as a nation…”

Contemporary Congo Mentality
Today, those who practice Congor Mentality are a combination of Americo-Liberians, immigrants from West African countries, the Caribbean, and *Wards (African-Liberians) from both groups. Since these new immigrants could not be identified as Americo- Liberians, they were placed into the Congor category. The Congors and the Americo-Liberians became inseparable. As the result, they too, were referred to as Congor people. This group then recruited from the rank of the indigenous population. Their goal was achieved through the apprenticeship system (Ward), Christianity and the integration policies of the Hinterland. It was through this process, the attitude we referred to as the Congor Mentality developed. Congor Mentality is becoming *Kwii (civilized) for all the wrong reasons. First of all, to become Kwii is not such a bad thing to be. However, in Liberia, Kwii people took the Kwii business to the “far extreme.” When one becomes Kwii, he/she acquired a complete new ATTITUDE and a so-called civilized name to go along with it.  At that point, the person even refused to be identified with the area of the country he/she comes from. Some of these individuals are ASHAMED to be identified with their indigenous parents. ASHAMED of their MOTHER because she is considered a lappalonia (indigenous attire referred to as costume by Congor people). ASHAMED of their FATHER, too because he speaks Waterside English (broken English).

Antebellum Southern Plantation Culture
It is generally believed that Liberia is a Christian nation. (FALSE) As a result, monogamous marriage became the accepted practice amongst the Settlers population. The Polygynous (Polygamous) form of marriage practice by African-Liberians was frown upon. However, having been used to the antebellum southern plantation culture, the Settlers soon adopted a marriage system that I named “Chrismonopoly”.
Prior to the arrival of Setters’ to what is known today as Liberia, polygyny was the acceptable form of marriage practiced by the indigenous inhabitants. The establishment of Liberia as a so-called “Christian State” gave rise to the conflict that developed between polygyny and monogamy forms of marriage. In other words, since the Americo-Liberian settlers condemned the practice of polygyny, monogamy was emphasized like other Western cultural hegemony in Liberia. However, the natives or country people were allowed to continue their polygynous relationship.  In fact, a court (Native Court) system was established to handle palava related to this practice and related matters.

In spite of the Americo-Liberians’ condemnation of polygyny, they too began to practice a brand of polygyny, named Chrismonopoly (Christians’ monopoly of marriage – having it both ways: monogamous and Polygynous relationships). Chrismonopoly became a practice adopted by the Settlers (men). This is an arrangement in which a male Settler who is already involved in a monogamous relationship (with a Christian wife) – engages in polygynous relationship with an “African Liberian woman.”

The adoption of this relationship is no accident! This relationship can be traced back to the antebellum southern plantations, where the Settlers were once held as slaves. On these plantations, the white slave masters were involved in polygynous relationship. For example, a slave master could have any slave woman he chose to have because back then, slaves were properties of the slave master. While the slave master was engage in this practice, he also had his Caucasian wife in the “Big house.” The children the master produced out of the polygynous relationship were considered his properties, and were not part of his immediate family. Therefore, whenever he needed money, he would sell the offspring of these women without regret.

Similar practice was carried out by the Americo Liberian Settlers in Liberia. The Liberian experience was such that the offspring that were produced out of this relationship – Americo-Liberian male and African Liberian female (native or countrywoman) was not considered legitimate children. Instead, they were referred to as “outside children,” whereas the children of the so-called westernized (monogamous) marriage were viewed as “legitimate” and “inside children”. However, there were some exceptions but in most cases, this was the accepted norm in Liberia.

In most cases in the interior, the “country woman” lives on the farm of the Americo-Liberian male, and in the urban areas, a house was either built or a room rented for the “country woman” and her children. Social and economic opportunities as well as certain privileges were reserved for the westernized (civilized woman) wife and her children, while the “country woman” and her children to some extent depended partially on the Americo-Liberian man and the rest she had to provide for herself and her children.

Some children who were born in this relationship (Chrismonopoly) suffered from serious inferiority complex due to the fact that they were regarded and treated by some of the civilized wives as bastards and illegitimate children. Whereas, in a polygynous relationship or marriage; no child or children are considered illegitimate. To the indigenous Liberian, ALL children are the gift from GOD; therefore, no child is illegitimate.

For example to label a child “inside or outside child” or the distinction “half-brother and half-sister that is prevalent in a monogamous relationship is hardly found in a polygynous family. Among two Kwa language speaking ethnic groups (Klao/Kru and Bassa) of Liberia; siblings referred to each other as “Na dee eh ju” (My mother’s child) or “Na me eh ju (My father’s child); similar references are made in Bassa as well. As a matter of fact, the practice “It takes a village to raise a child” is the cornerstone of polygynous communities.

As a true believer in history, it is my honest belief that to right the wrongs of history, the truth must be told in order for the necessary corrections to be made, and for similar wrongs to be avoided. Therefore, as Liberians, it behooves us to make it our obligation to base our account of history of the people of Africa, Liberia in particular on facts by applying that which modern technology has offered us in order to acquire the correct perspective on African history, culture and tradition. In the end, we will be able to wrestle from the clutches of the distorters of our civilization and history that is determined on keeping up such tale as Matilda Newport’s alleged victory against the natives of Liberia. Moreover, in other for us to work on becoming united as one people, it should be our mission to honestly address the issues that are keeping us apart and divided. Seeking truth should be the way forward with the hope of effecting change of attitude. This is in no way to change what has happened (what has already taken place) but rather to correct history and put Liberian history in its proper perspective. I do not know about you, but this is the MISSION I am committed to until I am called to GLORY.

*The Ward System is a common practice by which young African Liberian children are sent to stay with settler families as well as Congo families in exchange for education and assimilation.
*Cultural Explanation of Word Kwii
The word Kwii that is used to describe a so-called civilized person derived from the Klao (Kru), Grebo and the Bassa languages. The original meaning for Kwii – is “spirit”. The word Kwii was later corrupted as a result of African Liberians’ interaction with the Settlers and European missionaries. Today, it is used to refer to a white person or a so-called civilized person. Kwii is plural, while KU is singular. KU means DEAD in Klao; add “Menmen” to Ku, becomes DEAD PERSON in the Klao (Kru) Language. It is a general belief held by the Klao, Grebo, and the Bassa ethnic groups that “White People” are their dead ancestors who had been reincarnated.  According to their oral history, when they die, they go behind the sea to live, and they remained too long under the sea.  By living under the sea, their skin turned white. This group of people (Klao/Kru, Grebo, and Bassa), live along the Atlantic Ocean; made their living as fishermen and some of them worked as stevedores on European ships. Legend has it that their ancestors who live under the sea provided them protection. So when they encountered the first white people, they thought they were dead ancestors reincarnated.

About The Author: Elder Siahyonkron Nyanseor is an Eminent Person of the ULAA Council of Eminent Persons (UCEP), Inc. He is the historian of ULAA; one of its founding member and the 11th President (1986-1988) of the organization. Elder Nyanseor is an ordained Minister of the Gospel. Also, he is a poet, Griot, journalist, a cultural, social and political activist. He can be reached at:


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