Dan Mask





The Grain Coast, Malaguetta Coast or
Pepper Coast before 1822


The early inhabitants

According to the traditions of many African tribes their ancestors were Pygmies, or persons of small size, and memories of them still live on in numerous stories and legends. Although no trace of their existence was ever discovered in West Africa they are well-known to the peoples of this subregion. The Sousou in what is now Guinea call them ‘Doki’, the Ouolofs in Senegal call them ‘Kondrong’, the Malinke ‘Komo Koudoumi’
while in Liberia they are called ‘Jinna’.

The first inhabitants of the region which is now known as Liberia may have been of small size too. No recorded history can prove their existence, but they still play an important role in the oral history and the religious life of some of Liberia's tribes. When the Golas, who are supposed to be the oldest of the Liberian tribes, travelled from the interior of Central Africa to this West African region they reportedly met these small-sized peoples, who were bushmen and who ‘dwelt in caves and the hollows of large trees, and lived on fruits and roots of wild trees’, according to Liberian historian Abayomi Karnga.

A second group of peoples is reported to have arrived in the region about 6.000 B.C. Though their origin is not very clear they most likely came from the Western Sudan. These newly arrived people defeated the Golas and other tribes such as the Kissi, and established an empire under the leadership of King Kumba, after whom they were called. The Kumbas comprised distinct groups which developed into different tribes after the death of their leader; the Kpelle, the Loma, the Gbande, the Mende, and the Mano, all belonging to the same linguistic group. They were chiefly agriculturalists but also developed arts such as pottery, weaving, and basket making. Their blacksmiths were able to make spears, arrow-heads, hoes, knives, rings and iron rods. These iron rods were used as a medium of exchange.

Kissi money

The third group of peoples who arrived and settled in the region which is now known as Liberia migrated to this part of West Africa quite recently. They were the Kru, Bassa, Dei, Mamba, and Grebo tribes. They came from what is now the Republic of Ivory Coast. Population pressure - due to the mass emigration of tribes from the Western Sudan where the mediaeval empires had declined after their conquest by the Moroccan army - had resulted in tribal wars. The Kru arrived in the early sixteenth century. They came by sea, as did - later - a part of the Grebo. Those Grebos who took the sea-route were later called ‘seaside Grebos’ in order to distinguish them from their kinsmen who decided to travel by land, the safer way. Those who braved the dangerous waves still feel superior to these so-called ‘bush-Grebos’. All the peoples of this group belong to the same linguistic group.

The last group of tribes to arrive from ‘over land’ was the Mandingo-group, comprising the Vai and the Mandingo tribes. The Vai also migrated to the West African central region in the 16th century and had probably the same motivation as the tribes of the third group. They crossed the western part of the actual republic of Liberia, clashed with the Gola whom they subsequently defeated, and - later - moved to the coast where they settled. The Vai form the first tribe of this region which was moslem, unlike the tribes previously mentioned which were all animists. It was one of the few tribes of Black Africa who developed its own script.

About the 17th century the Mandingos began to arrive in Liberia. They were moslems too. They too originated from the Western Sudan. They left this region after the Empire of Mali - of which they formed a part - was considerably reduced by the Emperor of Gao, Askia Mohammed, in the 16th century.

The European Traders

Documents reveal that the first white men who landed on this part of the West African coast were probably Hanno the Cartaginian and his sailors, in the year 520 B.C. Hanno the Cartaginian may have reached the coast near Cape Mount, where he encountered the Golas. Trade started, but the contacts between the two races were limited to only a few trade visits.

It was not until the 14th century that further and more frequent contacts were established. About 1364 the Normans settled (temporarily) at a few places on the coast of Liberia and started trading with the coastal tribes from whom they bought ivory, pepper, gold and camwood. The Portuguese also frequented the Liberian coast as from this period and soon even controlled the trade. In fact they had a monopoly for over a century, before they were replaced by other European maritime powers (France, England, Holland).

From the 15th century onwards the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, English and French sailors and traders became common and accepted visitors of the West African coast. Their influence on the history of the area was considerable and their impact on the lives of the peoples of the coast quite distinct. The Portuguese e.g. named regions, mountains and rivers, and some of these names are still in use. In the Liberian area the Portuguese gave names such as (from west to east) Gallinhas River, St. Paul's River, Mesurado River, St. John River, Cestos River, Sanguin River and Cavalla River, and named the promontories Cabo do Monte (at present Cape Mount), Cabo Mesurado (Cape Mesurado) and Cabo das Palmas (Cape Palmas).

The coast between Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast was called ‘Malagueta Coast’ or ‘Pepper Coast’ after one of its main products, the Malagueta pepper. The English and the Dutch preferred the name ‘Grains of Paradise’, referring to the same product. Later they abbreviated this name and it became the ‘Grain Coast’. The names of the coastal regions to the east of Cape Palmas were also based on their main commercial products: the Ivory Coast, the Gold Coast and (later) the Slave Coast.

The spices, gold and ivory, sought by the Europeans were exchanged for textiles, alcoholic beverages, general merchandise and, later, when this trade degenerated into the barbarous slave trade, horses and weapons. The trade in slaves soon ousted the more common trade and by the end of the sixteenth century all European powers (of that period) were engaged in this historical and inhumane commerce, an activity that resulted in the diaspora of the Black race and the loss for Africa of an estimated 20 million people. The damage for Africa was even greater than the mere loss of a large number of its population because the captured sons and daughters of its soil were its most able and most productive workers. When the slave trade was over Africa was left with hostilities between tribes, with a disrupted social and family life and with famines. The resulting weakness and dissensions greatly facilitated the imposition of foreign rule.

Historical documents leave no doubt that the people of the coastal area had reached an admirable standard of living. They made many products which were of a higher quality than those produced in pre-industrial Western European countries – as cited by Sir Harry Johnston in his famous two volume work on Liberia (1906):

"The traditions of the Norman traders who visited Liberia in the fourteenth century and the authentic records of the Portuguese commerce with that country before 1460 and 1560, reveal a condition of civilisation and well-being amongst the untutored natives which is somewhat in contrast to what one finds in the same coast at the present day; still more in contrast with the condition of the Liberian coast lines in the early part of the nineteenth century, suggesting that the rapacity of the Europeans, combined with the slave trade, did much to brutalize and impoverish the coastal tribes of Liberia during the two hundred years between 1670 and 1870. They seem to have been well furnished with cattle, (in Northern, perhaps not in Southern Liberia), with sheep, goats and fowl, to have carried on a good deal of agriculture, and not to have been such complete savages as were the natives of the still little-known parts of Portuguese Guinea, or the people of the Ivory Coast, who were wild cannibals. (...) Having cast a glance at the principal commercial products of these countries when they were first discovered by Europeans, it may be interesting to note the trade goods which Europe was able to offer to the Blacks from the fourteenth to the seventeenth century. To begin with a negative statement, there were no cotton goods, no calicoes in the holds of these vessels such as there would be nowadays. Strange to say, it was the natives of the Gambia and other rivers of Northern Guinea, and Cape Mount in Liberia that impressed the Europeans with the excellence of their cotton fabrics, and actually sent some cotton goods to Portugal. (…) It is possible that no cotton goods were exported from Europe to West Africa till the end of the seventeenth and the beginning of the eighteenth centuries. Since that time the cotton goods of Lancashire, of Germany, and of Barcelona have almost killed the local industries of weaving and dyeing. (…) As early as the time of Ca'da Mosto (middle of the fifteenth century) cannon were taken on the ship and gunpowder was fired to astonish and frighten the Negroes; but there seems to have been no sale of gunpowder till the close of the fifteenth century."

The Europeans were not only responsible for the naming of places, the exchange of products, the introduction of fire-arms and the carrying off of millions of Africans, but also for the introduction and spreading of hitherto unknown diseases, such as dysentery, syphilis and certain parasites.

In the region which is now called Liberia the (slave) trade thus contributed to the impoverishment of and the hostilities between tribes. Up till the present day the inter-tribal relations are affected by the events of this period. The Golas, Krus, Kpelles and Kissis were notorious slave traders conniving with unscrupulous Europeans who looted the coastal areas. Besides this, the northern tribes of the Mano and the Gio were feared because of their cannibalism, a practice which was also not uncommon among the Greboes and the Krus.

It was in this environment of slave trade, suspicion, fear and open discord and hostilities that the first colonists arrived, aboard an American ship, in 1820. They came from the U.S.A. where their African ancestors had been sold to white masters. With the arrival of these black and coloured people an experiment in ‘black colonialism’ started.

Also see:

A Dutch account of the Pepper Coast of the 17th century


Fred van der Kraaij, ‘The Open Door Policy of Liberia – An Economic History of Modern Liberia’ (Bremen, 1983, 2 volumes) pp.1 – 5.

Further reading / references:

Cassell, C. Abayomi, ‘Liberia: History of the First African Republic’ (New York, 1970). 

Guanna, Jospeh Saye, ‘Liberian History Before 1857’ (New York, 1977).

Johnston, Sir Harry, 'Liberia', 2 vols. (New York, 1906).

Jones, Adam, ‘ From Slaves to Palm Kernels: A History of the Gallinas Country, West Africa’ (Wiesbaden, 1983).

Jones, Adam, and Johnson, Marion, ‘Slaves from the Windward Coast’ (Journal of African History, 21 (1980), I, p. 17 – 34).

Karnga, Abayomi, ‘History of Liberia’ (Liverpool, 1926). 

Kraaij, van der, Fred, ‘The Open Door Policy of Liberia - An Economic History of Modern Liberia’, 2 volumes, 703 pp. (Bremen, 1983). 

Moore, Bai T., ‘Liberian culture at a glance – a review of the culture and customs of the different ethnic groups in the Republic of Liberia’ (Monrovia, 1979).

Niane, Djibril Tamsir, and Suret-Canale, J., ‘Histoire de l’Afrique Occidentale’ (Conakry-|Paris, 1961).

Roberts, Thomas D., Kaplan, Irving, Lent, Barbara, Morrissey, Dennis M., Townsend, Charles M., Walpole, Neda Franges, ‘Area Handbook of Liberia’ (Washington D.C., 1972).

Siegmann, William C., ‘Rock of the Ancestors: namôa koni’, Liberian Art and Culture from the Collections of the Africana Museum, Cuttington University College (Suakoko, Liberia, 1977).

Rodney, Walter, ‘How Europe Underdeveloped Africa’ (Dar-es-Salaam, 1972; London, 1973).

Wulah, Teah, ‘The Forgotten Liberia – History of Indigenous Tribes’ (Bloomington, 2005).



It is generally believed that before 1822 there were 16 different tribes living in what was called the ‘Pepper Coast’, ‘Grain Coast’ or ‘Malaguetta Coast’. One of them was exclusively living in what is nowadays Liberia: the Bassa, the other 15 tribes were dispersed in the region.

Presently they can also be found in neighbouring countries: Guinea, Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone, sometimes even as far as the Sahel country of Mali. E.g., in Guinea we also find: the Loma, Kpelle, Mandingo, Mano, Gio, Ge, and the Kissi. In Sierra Leone: Mende, Gola, Kissi, and Vai. Ivory Coast: Kru, Grebo, Bassa, Dei, and Krahn or Sapo (Teah Wulah, ‘The Forgotten Liberia – History of Indigenous Tribes’, pp. 21 – 22).

Teah Wulah argues that there may be more tribes living in Liberia. However, he notes, each tribe has more than ten sub-tribes or clans, and their languages or dialects may vary to a small degree. He distinguishes two language groups: Mande and Kru.

The Kru consist of Kru (Klao), Bassa, De, Grebo, Krahn, Sapo and Niffu peoples. The Mande group comprises of Mandingo, Vai, Kissi, Buzzi, Mende, Gbandi, Kpondo, and Kpwessi (Teah Wulah, pp. 12 -13 and pp. 264 – 265).

Little is known about the number of people living in the coastal region and the Hinterland in the 15th – 18th c. Estimates vary and historians seem to disagree on the population density. Jones and Johnson write that it seems unlikely that the coastal regions of what are now Liberia and the Ivory Coast were ever densely populated, although the evidence on this subject is slender (Adam Jones and Marion Johnson, 'Slaves from the Windward Coast, 1980)  

Different spelling

Karnga (1926) uses the denominations Kpese for Kpelle, Mendi in stead of Mende; Gbopoes, Gedeboes and Gruvos refer to the Grebos and Maa to the Manos.

Roberts et al. mention (1972) the following alternatives: Malinke (Mandingo), Gbande or Bandi (Gbandi), Kpessi or Kpwesi
(Kpelle], Dan (Gio), Ma or Mah (Mano), Kissi or Gissi (Kisi), De or Dey (Dei) and Krou or Kruman (Kru).

Wulah (2005) elaborates on the following 16 Liberian tribes : Bassa, Belle, Gbande, Gio, Gola, Grebo, Kissi, Kpelle, Krahn, Kru, Loma, Mandingo, Mano, Mende, Sapo, Vai.




© fpm van der kraaij