In the 14th century when European explorative missions made contact with the peoples of Africa, the former, perhaps in imperial fashion, tried to put a name to some of these places at which they settled.
Unsurprisingly, some of the names Europeans called African territories they colonized still stand after all these centuries. Today, we speak of Lagos in Nigeria, Elmina in Ghana and Porto Novo in Benin, all very important cities historically and in current affairs.
But some of the names did not refer to just towns or cities but to a country and/or national polities. Take, for instance, the Ivory Coast and the Gold Coast (now Ghana), two neighboring countries named after commercial interests the Europeans took in them.
A less famous example of a polity that was named after European commercial interest was the Grain Coast, also known as the Pepper Coast. This nearly-400-mile stretch from Cape Mesurado to Cape Palmas in now within the country of Liberia.
Liberia is unique as one of two countries in Africa that was never colonized. Indeed, although the area was owned by a group known as the American Colonization Society (ACS), it was technically bought as a safe haven for freed African peoples from the United States.
How could the ACS have bought land in Africa and whose was it to sell? Many ethnic peoples lived in that area of West Africa and the ACS purchase of the land from some of these peoples took three decades to complete in 1817.
Some of the natives are known to have been autochthonous to the region for centuries. Among them were the Kru, Dei, Grebo as well as the Mandingo.
But from the 15th century when the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, English and French sailors and traders frequented the West African coast, the Africans were beaten into submission. From African lands, the Europeans extracted whatever they found valuable, including the curiously named “grain of paradise” peppers.
The Portuguese called this kind of peppers melegueta and they named the area the Melegueta Coast or the Grain (of Paradise) Coast. Melegueta peppers grew around the promontories from Cape Mesurado to Cape Palmas.
The “Grain Coast” stayed on as the name by which Europeans referred to that territory until about the 19th century, decades after “Liberia” had been founded.