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The coast upon which the colony was established had for several hundred years been one of the chief resorts of the slave dealers of the western shores of Africa. Their “factories” were situated at numerous points on both sides of the early settlements. The coast tribes, broken up and demoralized by the traffic, waged ceaseless wars for the sole purpose of obtaining for the trader a supply of his commodity. It was their only means of getting supplies of the products and manufactures of civilization; and, as we have seen, when they found the presence of the newcomers an obstacle to their chief industry, they took up arms to expel them.
Until the year 1807 there was no restriction whatever on the traffic, and the proportions which it reached, the horrors it entailed, are almost incredible. Sir T. F. Buxton estimated on careful calculations that the trade on the western coast resulted in a loss to Africa of 500,000 persons annually. At length the progress of humanity drove England to declare war on the infamous traffic, and her cruisers plied the length of the continent to prevent infractions of her decree. At enormous expense the entire coast was put in a state of blockade.
The result was mortifying. Instead of disappearing, the exportation of slaves was found actually to increase, while the attending horrors were multiplied. Small, swift cutters took the place of the roomy slave ships of older days, and the victims, hurriedly crowded into slave decks but a few feet high, suffered ten fold torments on the middle passage from inadequate supplies of food and water.
The colonists, even in their early feebleness, set their face resolutely against the slave trade: its repression was a cardinal principle. Their first serious wars were waged on its account. Ashmun risked his life in the destruction of the factories at New Cesters and elsewhere. The slavers, warned by many encounters, forsook at first the immediate neighborhood of the settlements, and, as the coast line was gradually taken up, abandoned at length, after many a struggle, the entire region. Six hundred miles of the coast was permanently freed from an inhuman and demoralizing traffic that defied every effort of the British naval force. Nor was this all. The natives were reconciled by the introduction of a legitimate commerce which supplied all they had sought from the sale of human beings.
In still another way did the colony exercise a humane influence. Among the natives exists a domestic slavery so cruel and barbarous that the lot of the American plantation Negro seemed paradise in comparison. Life and limb are held of such small value that severe mutilation is the penalty of absurdly slight transgressions, or is imposed at the arbitrary displeasure of the master, while more serious offenses are punished by death in atrocious form: as when the victim is buried alive with stakes driven through his quivering body. The institution is of course a difficult one to uproot. But among the natives in the more thickly settled portions of the country it has ceased, and is mitigated wherever the influence of the Government penetrates, while the number of victims is greatly diminished by the cessation of inter tribal warfare.
In this way Liberia has proved, from the standpoint of humanity, pre-eminently successful.