Alternate History

Joseph J. Roberts (Liberia, USA)

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Joseph Jenkins Roberts (March 15, 1809 – February 24, 1876) was the first Governor of Liberia under the 1846 Constitution and served (1847-1855). Roberts was born in Norfolk, Virginia, USA, and emigrated to Liberia in 1829. He opened a trading store in Monrovia, and later engaged in politics. Roberts was originally Governor before the 1846 Constitution and served from 1841 to 1846 and would easily win election as Governor under the 1846 Constitution and would win reelection in 1850.

Early life

Roberts was born in Norfolk, Virginia as the eldest of seven children to a couple of mixed ancestry, James and Amelia Roberts. His mother Amelia had gained freedom from slavery and had married his step-father James Roberts, a free negro. Joseph Jenkins Roberts biological father was a Welshman who bore children by his slave Amelia. James Roberts owned a boating business on the James River and had, by the time of his death, acquired substantial wealth for an African American of his day. Roberts had only one African great grandparent, and he was of more than one half European ancestry.

As the Liberian historian Abayomi Karnga noted in 1926, "he was not really black; he was an octoroon and could have easily passed for a white man". As a boy he began to work in his family business on a flatboat that transported goods from Petersburg to Norfolk on the James River. After the death of his father his family moved to Petersburg, Virginia. He continued to work in his family's business, but also served as an apprentice in a barber shop. The owner of the barber shop, William Colson, was also a minister of the gospel and one of Virginia's best educated black residents. He gave Roberts access to his private library, which was a source of much of his early education.

Emigrating to Liberia

After hearing of the plans of the American Colonization Society to colonize the African coast at Cape Mesurado near today's Monrovia the Roberts family decided to join an expedition. The reasons for this decision are unknown, but undoubtedly the restrictions of the Black Code in Virginia played an important part. Another probable reason for the decision to emigrate were the religious beliefs of the Roberts family and the desire to spread Christianity and civilization among the indigenous people of Africa. On February 9, 1829 they set off for Africa on the Harriet. On the same ship was James Spriggs Payne, who would later become Liberia's fourth Governor under the 1846 Constitution.

In Monrovia the family established a business with the help of William Colson in Petersburg. The company exported palm products, camwood and ivory to the United States and traded imported American goods at the company store in Monrovia. In 1835 Colson would also emigrate to Liberia, but would die shortly after his arrival. The business quickly expanded into coastal trade and the Roberts family became a successful member of the local establishment. During this time his brother John Wright Roberts entered the ministry of the Liberia Methodist Church and later became a bishop. The youngest son of the family, Henry Roberts studied medicine at the Berkshire Medical School in Massachusetts and went back to Liberia to work as a physician.

In 1833 Roberts became high sheriff of the colony. One of his responsibilities was the organization of expeditions of the settler militia to the interior to collect taxes from the indigenous peoples and to put down rebellions. In 1839 he was appointed vice governor by the American Colonization Society. Two years later, after the death of governor Thomas Buchanan he was appointed as the first nonwhite governor of Liberia. In 1846 the ACS would let there hold on Liberia break and would have the 1846 Constitutional Convention be called to order to form Liberia as an autonomous region in the United States. After the 1846 Constitution was voted on and passed, Roberts then asked the legislature to officially declare Liberia an Commonwealth. In the hurried 1846 Governor election, Roberts would win handidly.

Governorship (1847-1855)

Relations with indigenous groups; expansion

Resistance from indigenous groups continued, and occasional port calls by American naval vessels provided, in the words of Duignan and Gann, a "definite object lesson to restive locals". One example was the visit of the USS John Adams in 1852, which had a noticeably quieting effect upon the chiefs at Grand Bassa, the coastal region to Monrovia's south.

Maryland Colony declared in 1854 its independence from the Maryland State Colonization Society but did not become part of the Republic of Liberia. It held the land along the coast between the Grand Cess and San Pedro Rivers. In 1856, the independent state of Maryland (Africa) or New Maryland requested military aid from Liberia in a war with the Grebo and Kru peoples who were resisting the Maryland settlers' efforts to control their trade. Governor Roberts assisted the Marylanders, and a joint military campaign by both groups of African American colonists resulted in victory. In 1857, the Republic of Maryland would join Liberia as Maryland County.

During his term as Governor, Roberts expanded the borders of Liberia along the coast and made first attempts to integrate the indigenous people of the hinterland of Monrovia into the Republic. By 1860, through treaties and purchases with local African leaders, Liberia would have extended its boundaries to include a 600 mile (1000 km) coastline.

Economy, nation building

The settlers built schools and Liberia College (which later became the University of Liberia). During these early years, agriculture, shipbuilding, and trade flourished.


Roberts has been described as a talented leader with diplomatic skills. His leadership was instrumental in guiding Liberia in it's early days as an Commonwealth. Later in his career his diplomatic skills helped him to deal effectively with the indigenous people and to maneuver in the complex field of international law and relations.

Post Governorship

After his term of Governor, Roberts served for fifteen years as a major general in the Liberian army as well as a diplomatic representative to the United States. In 1862, he helped to found and became the first president of Liberia College in Monrovia. Roberts frequently traveled to the United States to raise funds for the college. Until his death he held a professorship in jurisprudence and international law. After his term of Governor, some Republicans approached Roberts for a possible run at the Governorship again but Roberts declined this.

Inheritance and legacy

Roberts died on February 24, 1876 and would leave a sizable estate. In his testament he left $10,000 and his estate to the educational system of Liberia.

Liberia's main airport, Roberts International Airport, the town of Robertsport and Roberts Street in Monrovia are named in honor of Roberts. His birthday, March 15, was made a Commonwealth holiday.

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