Joseph Jenkins Roberts – the African-American merchant who became Liberia’s first President

He was the first president of the Republic of Liberia when the country was declared as an independent nation in July, 1847. Prior to his presidency, he served as the first African-American governor of Liberia for six years. The brilliance and diplomacy he displayed in dealing with the indigenous people who settled around Monrovia have been applauded over the years.

Joseph Jenkins Roberts – Not only is Jenkins Roberts the first president of Liberia, he was also the first African-American to serve as governor of the Liberia.

Early Years

Joseph was born in Norfolk, Virginia in the early 19th century, a period which saw increase in industrialization as a result of scientific innovations. He was one of seven children of his mother, Amelia.

Jenkins Roberts, from an early age, learned to be enterprising and resourceful. During his teens, he worked as a handler on his stepfather, James Roberts’ flatboat.

At the age of 20, he moved to settle in Liberia with his family. There, he earned a living as a merchant and soon became a thriving businessman. Together with his brothers, he started the firm, Robert’s, Colson and Company. They exported palm products to the United States while selling imported American products at a company store located in Monrovia. As the business flourished, they bought a vessel, the Caroline, that conveyed goods and people between Liberia and the United States.

The Commonwealth of Liberia and Jenkins’ rise to power on the West African coast

In 1833, Jenkins Roberts served as the high sheriff of the colony of Liberia. His duties included employing the services of the militia to collect taxes from the indigenous people.

In 1839, Ralph Gurley, then-secretary general of the American Colonization Society (ACS), put forward a plan to merge surrounding settlements, which included Monrovia, Caldwell, Marshall, Sinoe and Maryland, into the Commonwealth of Liberia. Apart from Maryland and Sinoe, the settlements were unified to become the Commonwealth of Liberia.

Per the 1839 Constitution, Thomas Buchanan (1808-1841), a senior envoy of the ACS, was made governor and Joseph Jenkins served as his vice. The two worked well together until Buchanan’s death in 1841. Eventually, Joseph replaced him to become the first Black governor of the Commonwealth of Liberia.

Did you know: 15th US President James Buchanan was related to Thomas Buchanan, the first official governor of Liberia?

Independent Liberia under Joseph Jenkins Roberts

In early 1847, Joseph began pushing for the legislature to grant Liberia’s independence yet maintain partnership with the A.C.S. in an attempt to secure the economic stability of the colony.

July 1847 witnessed the declaration of the new republic of Liberia. Joseph was elected as its first president following his victory in an election on October 5, 1847. Americo-Liberian politician, Nathaniel Brander, was chosen as his vice.

During his tenure, he was able to build an effective relationship with the natives and operate skillfully with regards to international laws and relations.

After his first presidential term, he was appointed as a major general in the Liberian army, where he served for fifteen years. During this period, he also represented his country in diplomatic affairs in Britain and France.

In 1862, he became the president of the New Liberia College,  which he had contributed towards its establishment.

On the ticket of the Republican Party, he won another election and returned to power in 1872. This made him the 7th president of Liberian. He was in office for two terms until 1876, when he was succeeded by James Spriggs Payne, the fourth and eight president of Liberia.

Diplomatic Victories and Other Notable Achievements

While visiting England in 1848, he met with Queen Victoria and succeeded in getting Britain to recognize Liberia’s sovereignty. Over the next few years, he achieved same results with France, German and other nations. After much hold up,  he was able to gain the recognition of the United States in February, 1862 during Abraham Lincoln’s tenure as president.

Under Joseph’s leadership, he was able to extend Liberian’s coastline to a couple of miles. Through direct education and religious conversion, he tried to get the native settlers to adopt the Americo-Liberian way of life.

Read More: Major Accomplishments of Queen Victoria

Joseph Jenkins Roberts’ Family

Joseph was first married to  Sarah Robert with whom he shared a daughter. Soon after settling in Monrovia,  he lost both his wife and child. Later in 1836, he remarried Jane Rose Waring, a colonist. Liberia’s first First Lady Jane Waring was born free in Virginia like her husband. She was the daughter of Colston Waring and Harriet Graves.

Additional Facts about Joseph Jenkins Roberts

Joseph Jenkins Roberts

Painted portrait of Joseph Jenkins Roberts from c. 1871

For the many who regarded Liberia as a proof of the African-American’s ability to rule a republic, promote its commercial and educational success, they heralded Joseph as a symbol of black achievement.

Following Joseph Jenkins Roberts’ death on February 24, 1876, barely two months after his second term, it was discovered in his will that he had bequeathed $10,000 and his estate to the country’s educational system.

Roberts International Airport, the main airport of Liberia, the town of Robertsport and some streets in Liberia were named in his honor.

His portrait appeared on the Liberian ten dollar bill issued in 2000 in memory of him.

Joseph Jenkins Roberts’ birthday, March 15, was instituted as a national holiday in Liberia.

Read More: The two countries in Africa that weren’t colonized 

Did You Know?

The settlers were committed to maintaining the American culture they carried from the United States. The settlement was named Liberia and its capital Monrovia, to honor 5th president of the U.S. James Munroe for his financial contributions towards the venture.

Though Liberia became independent of the American Colonization Society in 1847, the flag of Liberia remains a reminder of the history and relationship with America.

The Liberian ten dollar bill with the image of Joseph Jenkins Roberts


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