The Greatest Liberians in History

Emile Hoffman


Joseph Jenkins Roberts-the ”Rod” against Slavery

Most of the problems the early Black American settlers faced in Liberia during the 1830’ and 1840’s were due to their attempts to eradicate slavery in Liberia.  Joseph Jenkins Roberts was a thorn in the side of slavers, and slaving tribes in Liberia. He was responsible for destroying dozens of slave holding settlements called slave factories along the Liberian coast.

Roberts was responsible for saving thousands of Africans from being sold into slavery before and after he became President of the republic. He readily accepted thousands of people who were liberated on the high seas by European and American navies.

After becoming President, Joseph Jenkins Roberts continued his fervently anti-slavery policies. He enforced Articles 20 and 21 of the Liberian Constitution of 1839 to the fullest, and did so to the dismay of several coastal tribes who had been profiting out of the slave trade for at least two centuries. In particular, the Vais who were inveterate slave traders suffered from the lost of their profitable trade. The Bassas also lost important slaving revenue.   Roberts actions against slaving tribes led to several wars.
The most famous protracted war was against Grando the great Bassa Chief.
Britain’s Queen Victoria was fervent in stopping the transatlantic slave trade. The immediate recognition of Liberia’s independence by the British was not for naught, it was done primarily to serve as a catalyst for anti-slavery campaigns. What better way to fight the West African slave trade than help a nation founded by ex-slaves to lead the charge? The British provided Joseph Jenkins Roberts with a gun boat called the Lark and active support.


                                             King Sabsu

King Sabsu aka King Boatswain was the most powerful Liberian king of the nineteenth century. He established his Mandingo kingdom in Kondo (Hondo) an old Mane- Dey Kingdom. His capital was Boporu (Bopolu). According to historian Harry Johnston, Sabsu got the name Boatswain from serving in that capacity on British ships.
Sabsu (Boatswain) was so powerful that even his Mandingo people were sometimes called Boatswains. Kondo had many different people besides Mandingoes. Sabsu most likely took over the Kingdom of Kondo during the first decade of the nineteenth century. By 1820, he was the overlord of most of the area we now call Liberia and a sizable portion of eastern Sierra Leone. Sabsu was the great king who was instrumental in allowing the free Black Americans to establish the Colony of Liberia.
Although Sabsu may have had very little to do with the internal affairs of other tribes in Liberia, they followed him in matters of war and obeyed his decrees. Sabsu had more to do with solutions to inter-tribal rivalry and played the role as enforcer of the peace in Liberia.

King Sabsu orders were enforced by the threat of terror against those tribes that were brave enough to disobey him. Although Kondo had a sizable army, Sabsu had many mercenaries from different tribes among his forces. King Sabsu is often portrayed as a cruel, blood-thirsty and slave trading ruler, however, he was a much more complex character.

King Sabsu’s Slaving Enterprises

Upon taking over the Kingdom of Kondo (Hondo) with some of his Mandingo brethren, Sabsu decided to make his kingdom rich and powerful by trading slaves to Europeans on the coast. Nineteenth Century historians who wrote about West Africa mentioned that King Sabsu was one of the most notorious slave trading kings in Africa. During his reign, Sabsu sold thousands of neighboring tribal people into slavery.  He was the godfather of all the petty slave traders on the Liberian coast.

Sabsu was a man that the European slave traders could trust to deliver human cargo on time at any cost. He sent gangs of slave hunting mercenaries from Bopulu( Boporu) out to roam deep into the Liberian hinterland as far inland as northern Lofa county and as far west  as Sierra Leone for slaves.

The main reason Sabsu sold the neighboring tribe’s people was for profit, and also because he hated infidels or unbelievers. In a warped way, he figured that all of this was proper jihad.
“This Mandingo king, who was Moslem, had no use for infidels. He raided towns and villages over a 300 mile distance, and sold his victims into slavery. The battle cry among the black Moslems in West Africa, toward infidels or “Caffre” was: "Stand and you are a slave; run and you are a corpse."
The Kondo (Boporu) merchants terrorized, captured, shackled, and sometimes massacred neighboring tribal people. Those who survived the march to the coast were sold to European slave traders. The slaving business was a very profitable venture for Sabsu’s Kingdom of Kondo. He had thousands of gangsters who were systematically trained and experience in capturing their fellow Africans who were often dragged or marched to the coast and sold for liquor, foodstuffs, and weapons.
Unlike some places in Africa where slaves were sold by the victors during warfare, the victims of Sabsu’s thugs were mostly vulnerable, peaceful people. With the help of mercenaries, Sabsu’s gangs became the masters of coastal Liberia.

Below is an example of Sabsu’s (Boatswain) actions:

"Boatswain received a quantity of goods in trade from a French slaver for which he stipulated to pay in young slaves. He made it a point of honor to be punctual to his engagements. At the time the slaver was about to return, he foun d he had no slaves on hand with which to fulfill his obligation. Looking around the peaceable tribes within his vicinity for victims, he single out the Queahs, a small agricultural and trading people, inoffensive in character. His warriors were skillfully distributed to the different hamlets, and making simultaneous assaults on sleeping occupants in the dead of night accomplished with little difficulty or resistance, the annihilation of the whole tribe. Every man and woman was murdered; very young children generally shared the fate of their parents; the boys and girls alone were reserved to pay the Frenchman."

Excerpts from : Greatest Liberians in History Book

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