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The Liberian Paradox


ISSUE:  Spring 1931

I

It is one of the ironies of history that Liberia, which was established nearly a hundred years ago as a haven for the Negro race, should now be found guilty of the most distressing traffic in human beings that has been revealed in recent years. The indictment against Liberia has been drawn by an international commission, which contained two Negro members, Dr. Charles Johnson of the United States and ex-President Barclay of Liberia, together with an Englishman, Dr. Cuthbert Christy. The members of this Commission were unanimous, and, since the Negroes constituted a majority, this report cannot have been inspired by racial prejudice. Generally, speaking, the Commission finds that the American-Liberians in control of the government at Monrovia have shamefully exploited the illiterate natives of the hinterland, and for private gain. This exploitation takes a number of forms, the first of which is the custom of “pawning.” In return for a loan of money, a parent or guardian in Liberia frequently “pawns” his child to a money lender for an indefinite period. As a rule the “pawn” cannot be redeemed except by repaying the loan. In some cases persons under pawn have been held in servitude for as much as forty years. In other cases, women pawns have been placed upon farms to entice young men “into intimate relations with them,” and if the young men yield they “are immediately seized, fined and made to work out the amount of the fine. . . .” A second and even greater evil exposed by the Commission is the compulsory recruiting of native labor for the nearby island of Fernando Po. The Spanish cocoa planters of this island, unable to find an adequate local supply, have recruited labor in Liberia. Ostensibly this labor has been voluntary. But the Commission asserts that for a number of years Liberian officials, including Vice-President Yancy, have sent native soldiers out into the country to V boys who have then been shipped off to Fenian-’ o. In return the Liberian officials received from the Spanish planters the sum of forty-five dollars for each boy exported, plus a bonus of one thousand dollars for each fifteen hundred boys. The extent to which the native countryside has been devastated by this search for men can be no better illustrated than by the following quaint lament:

The Sad Song op the Wedabo Women

We were here when trouble come to our people; For this reason Jeh was imprisoned and fined. For this reason Yancy came to our country:— He caught our husbands and our brothers, Sail them to ‘Nana Poo And there they die! And there they die!

Tell us Yancy, why? Yancy, why?

Wedabo women have no husbands, Yancy, why?

Wedabo women have no brothers, Yancy, why?

Mothers, fathers, sons have died, Waiting for the return. Yancy, why?

When chiefs have failed to supply the number of men demanded, they have been fined excessive sums, and in some cases actually flogged by native soldiers or by officials before their own people.

In one instance one hundred and forty-five laborers went on board a steamer in the belief that they were going to the Gold Coast to work. But the ship, instead of stopping there, continued until it arrived at Libreville in the French Congo, where the Liberian natives were assigned to European concessionaires engaged in cutting tropical lumber. There are countless cases wIip ^ves, shipped to Fernando Po or elsewhere, have l.to return home; and there are still other cases where lasers caught in this traffic have received little or no compensation. When the European employer of such labor has actually paid a wage, most of it has gone to some Liberian official or other intermediary in a position to blackmail the native.

In the third place, the Liberian government has compelled natives to labor upon a program of road construction which the government inadvisedly adopted without the aid of adequate surveyors or engineers. The native chiefs have been required to provide labor for such construction, and in addition have been obliged to furnish such laborers with food and tools. Invariably, the men have been forced to work without pay—in some cases the period has been four months. Frequently both men and women laborers have been subjected to cruel treatment. Thus one chief testifies: “Ever since they started the road from Monrovia to here we have not got one cent. The whole country of native people, all slaves now. . . .” Many natives exhibited to the Coma parent or guardian in Liberia frequently “pawns” his child to a money lender for an indefinite period. As a rule the “pawn” cannot be redeemed except by repaying the loan. In some cases persons under pawn have been held in servitude for as much as forty years. In other cases, women pawns have been placed upon farms to entice young men “into intimate relations with them,” and if the young men yield they “are immediately seized, fined and made to work out the amount of the fine. . . .” A second and even greater evil exposed by the Commission is the compulsory recruiting of native labor for the nearby, island of Fernando Po. The Spanish cocoa planters of this island, unable to find an adequate local supply, have recruited labor in Liberia. Ostensibly this labor has been voluntary. But the Commission asserts that for a number of years Liberian officials, including Vice-President Yancy, have sent native soldiers out into the country to “catch” boys who have then been shipped off to Fernando Po. In return the Liberian officials received from the Spanish planters the sum of forty-five dollars for each boy exported, plus a bonus of one thousand dollars for each fifteen hundred boys. The extent to which the native countryside has been devastated by this search for men can be no better illustrated than by the following quaint lament:

The Sad Song of the Wedabo Women

We were here when trouble come to our people; Fpr this reason Jeh was imprisoned and fined. For this reason Yancy came to our country— He caught our husbands and our brothers, Sail them to ‘Nana Poo And there they die! And there they die!

Tell us Yancy, why? Yancy, why?

Wedabo women have no husbands, Yancy, why ?

Wedabo women have no brothers, Yancy, why?

Mothers, fathers, sons have died, Waiting for the return. Yancy, why?

When chiefs have failed to supply the number of men demanded, they have been fined excessive sums, and in some cases actually flogged by native soldiers or by officials before their own people.

In one instance one hundred and forty-five laborers went on board a steamer in the belief that they were going to the Gold Coast to work. But the ship, instead of stopping there, continued until it arrived at Libreville in the French Congo, where the Liberian natives were assigned to European concessionaires engaged in cutting tropical lumber. There are countless cases where natives, shipped to Fernando Po or elsewhere, have failed to return home; and there are still other cases where laborers caught in this traffic have received little or no compensation. When the European employer of such labor has actually paid a wage, most of it has gone to some Liberian official or other intermediary in a position to blackmail the native.

In the third place, the Liberian government has compelled natives to labor upon a program of road construction which the government inadvisedly adopted without the aid of adequate surveyors or engineers. The native chiefs have been required to provide labor for such construction, and in addition have been obliged to furnish such laborers with food and tools. Invariably, the men have been forced to work without pay—in some cases the period has been four months. Frequently both men and women laborers have been subjected to cruel treatment. Thus one chief testifies: “Ever since they started the road from Monrovia to here we have not got one cent. The whole country of native people, all slaves now. . . .” Many natives exhibited to the Commission “the whips and sticks and scars” they had received from government overseers; in addition to flogging, some natives were tortured by being strung up to the rafters of a hut and literally smoked over a fire. Others were subject to “basket punishment.” An immense basket filled with earth and heavy stones would be lifted by four soldiers and placed upon the head of a prisoner who was then required to walk if he could. Usually the basket was so heavy that it immediately broke the neck of the native, or caused such injury that he later died.

The final question investigated by the Commission was whether the labor employed by, the Firestone rubber plantation, the only large foreign enterprise in the country, was recruited by force. The Commission finds that the Firestone project “represents a vast and somewhat bold experiment in rubber growing . . . The precipitous character of the company’s pioneering operations in Liberia, the unfamiliarity of its employees with African conditions, the unsuitableness of its equipment and outfit, and the inexperience in the control of primitive labor all created difficulties which it took many months to get in front of . . .”

In the Firestone agreement of 1926 the Liberian government agreed to “encourage, support and assist the efforts of the Lessee to secure and maintain an adequate labor supply.” To carry out this provision, the government established a labor bureau which began to supply the Firestone company with its workers. The fear was expressed at the time that the government would use the same methods in supplying labor for Firestone that it used in recruiting labor for Fernando Po and for the road program. This fear was increased by the fact that Mr. Firestone announced that to develop his million-acre concession three hundred thousand laborers would be necessary—which is probably more than the entire able-bodied male population of the country. Moreover, Mr. Firestone also agreed to pay the government and the chiefs a recruiting fee for each man—which gave these officials an incentive to use compulsion. The International Commission points out, however, that in 1926 Mr. Firestone asked permission to recruit some of his labor directly; nevertheless, down until the end of the following year the Firestone company continued to obtain about ten per cent of its workers from government sources; and the Commission gives ample evidence to show that this labor was recruited by compulsory means. As to the present system of recruiting, the report is confusing and vague (the one defect of the Commission’s report is that it is poorly written and badly, organized). Nevertheless, the Commission declares that there is no evidence that the Firestone company “consciously” employs any but voluntary labor. It is not clear whether the Commission wishes to imply that Mr. Firestone “unconsciously” employs such labor. In fairness to Mr. Firestone, it should be pointed out that his workers are free to leave the plantations at any time, and that moreover, instead of employing three hundred thousand men as he originally announced, he is today employing only ten thousand. In contrast to the government, Mr. Firestone pays his laborers regularly (the customary, wage of about twenty-five cents a day) and treats them comparatively well. Many laborers may prefer, therefore, as the lesser of two evils, to work for Mr. Firestone rather than for the government.

II

Such are the conditions exposed by the International Commission. It concludes that “intimidation has apparently been and is the key word of the Government’s native policy. Not only have the native villagers been intimidated and terrorized by a display of force, cruelty and suppression, but the chiefs themselves, men whom the people not so many years ago looked up to, were glad to serve, and relied upon for protection, harsh though it sometimes was; men who never moved without a retinue and barbaric display of pomp have been so systematically humiliated, degraded, and robbed of their power that now they are mere go-betweens, paid by the Government to coerce and rob the people. The words ‘development,’ ‘social progress,’ are unknown; servitude and slavedom have taken their place.” As a result of this policy, thousands of natives have left Liberia and migrated into adjoining French and British territory.

This revelation of conditions in Liberia has come as a shock to the humanitarian sentiment of the world which had believed that slavery was a thing of the past. The case of Liberia—a country having for its motto “The Love of Liberty brought us here”—shows that the black man can abuse the black as cruelly as, if not more cruelly than, the white man has abused the black man in the past. Many people, upon the basis of the Liberia report, will quickly conclude that the Negro has once more demonstrated his incapacity for self-government. But before drawing any sweeping conclusions, it is well to examine the causes of the present state of affairs in Liberia and to assess the degree of responsibility of the outside world.

As Americans well know, Liberia was founded by philanthropic societies in 1821 as a home for freed slaves. The task of establishing a settlement upon the tropical, disease-tortured coast of West Africa was much more difficult than the task that confronted the Pilgrim fathers in America. Nevertheless, it was accomplished, and a government set up. In 1847 the American philanthropists surrendered their administrative powers, leaving the entire government in the hands of freed slaves from the United States. Altogether it is estimated that before the American Civil War about nineteen thousand American Negroes went to Liberia. It is their descendants, now numbering only about ten thousand, who live along the coast and hold the reins of authority. If one considers the obstacles which had to be overcome, it is indeed remarkable that the Negro government of Liberia has been able to survive.

Although the constitution of the country is modelled after that of the United States, the government has been in the hands of a presidential dictatorship. Since the beginning, save for an interregnum between 1871 and 1877, this dictatorship has centered around the Whig party. Except for the elected officials—the members of the Legislature, the President and the Vice-President, all government positions are appointive. Since there is no civil service, all such officials, even including the jury members, have been Whig. This party has been able to continue in power, largely because of its control over the election machinery and because of popular apathy. In the last election President King was chosen for a third term with an “unprecedented” majority of one hundred and twenty-five thousand votes, although the number eligible to vote in the country was only about six thousand! Since 1920 Liberia has been under the dictatorship of one Charles Dunbar Burgess King—a gentleman who, like the late lamented Leguia of Peru, has been extremely amenable to American “influence,” but whose administration has now been condemned by, an international commission for having shamefully mistreated the native population. The King policy did not have, however, the unanimous support of the educated Liberians, many of whom disapprove of slavery as thoroughly as does the outside world. It was Mr. Thomas J. Faulkner of Monrovia who, at the risk of his life, came to the United States in 1928 and urged an investigation. It is probable that if a fair election is held next May, the People’s party, which has vigorously condemned forced labor, will win against the Whigs.

As far as President King’s slave-drivers are concerned, they have been animated by the same motive that has ani-mated slave-drivers of every age—the desire for profit and the belief that slave labor is cheaper than voluntary labor. The American Negro who went to Liberia before the Civil War carried with him the tradition of the American South. That was the tradition that manual toil was menial and should not be performed by the ruling class. There are few American-Liberians who engage in farming today; and with the exception of Mr. Faulkner, there does not seem to be anyone who understands the principles of engineering. Whenever possible the American-Liberian gets a position with the government; otherwise the American-Liberian becomes a “lawyer.” The great majority, of the “civilized” population live in the coastal towns, chief of which is Monrovia; and when affluent enough, the American-Liberian dwells in a double-story, high-column house, modeled after our Southern manor houses of pre-Civil War days. It is the fashion, on Sundays at least, to turn out for church in high-hats, canes, and long-tailed coats; generally the civilized Liberian attempts to imitate what he imagines America to be. But although the United States has outgrown the slave tradition, it lingers in Monrovia. The Liberian has not undergone the social metamorphosis which the American Negro has experienced. Despite the efforts of missionaries and colonization societies, neither the American-Liberian population nor the natives of the interior have received the kind of education that will help them to develop a self-supporting and progressive society. Despite the emphasis upon “classical” education, Liberia has not produced the intellectual elite in Liberia which one finds in Haiti—a Negro country which is considerably more advanced in every respect than its sister republic. And Liberia has no middle class of prosperous farmers and traders. Cut off from stimulating contact with more advanced peoples, the American-Liberians, with a few outstanding exceptions, impress the visitor as a sleepy, ineffectual, even decadent race—a people without ambition. The only hope of the country is that the amalgamation now going on between the “civilized” American-Liberians of the coast and the illiterate but stalwart tribes of the interior, will produce a new race.

The difficulties of Liberia have been increased by the fact that the American-Liberian has been obliged not only to rule himself, but to govern about a million and a half hinterland natives. These natives are “uncivilized” in the sense that they know no English, wear few clothes, and live in the traditional tribal organization. Unfortunately, the history, of Liberia has been a history of wars between the tribes of the hinterland and the American-Liberian government on the coast. Since the end of the World War, the rulers of Liberia have become indoctrinated with the American gospel of “prosperity.” They have wished to develop the country; this development requires workmen—from the hinterland, not from the “civilized” circles on the coast—and the result has been forced labor on a large scale.

If nineteen thousand white men attempted to establish a republic upon the Liberian coast, unquestionably they would have failed even more than the Liberians. But it is as unfair to judge the Negro race by this failure as it would be to judge the white race by such a failure. It is hard to imagine more difficult handicaps confronting any people in proving their right to self-government than the handicaps which have confronted the Liberians. The Negro has fallen down in Liberia, not so much because of any inherent racial defects as because of the lack of an economic and social foundation upon which to build. If Liberia is to survive, this foundation must be established—and in view of the lack of internal vitality, this can only be done with foreign aid.

III

This brings us to our second consideration, namely, the responsibility of foreign powers for conditions in Liberia today. Let us preface the remarks which follow by, pointing out that the recent revelations concerning conditions in Liberia show that white men in the French Congo and in Fernando Po have profited as much from forced labor as the Liberian recruiters. If we condemn the Liberian, let us condemn the Frenchmen and the Spaniards at the other end. It must also be pointed out that slavery and forced labor exist in many other parts of the colonial world, and that no other government has offered, as did Liberia, to have conditions in its territories investigated by an international commission. It is well to reform conditions in Liberia—to start where opposition can be broken down most easily and thus establish a precedent which may be applied to more difficult areas later—but we must not forget that equally serious conditions exist in various territories under white man’s rule.

Far from assisting Liberia in the past in overcoming obstacles, the attitude of many governments has been one of frank hostility. From time to time France and Great Britain have annexed thousands of square miles of territory originally recognized as belonging to Liberia. In 1871, 1906, and 1912, overzealous foreign bankers and diplomats induced Liberia to borrow funds the proceeds of which invariably went to such unproductive purpose as the payment of old loans or foreign “claims.” In connection with the 1912 loan an American receiver-general of customs, assisted by a French, a British, and a German receiver, was given authority to collect Liberia’s customs in order to satisfy Liberia’s foreign creditors.

Having a special responsibility, for the creation of this Negro country, the United States has exercised a guardianship over Liberia from the very beginning. It was the United States which took the initiative in establishing the 1912 receivership. And it was the United States which again came to the aid of Liberia in 1915. Confronted by a revolt of the Krus at this time, the Monrovia government implored the United States to provide it with munitions and to send a cruiser to assist in the suppression of the revolt and to forestall foreign intervention. The United States agreed to do so; and the War Department sent over five hundred Krag carbines and two hundred and fifty thousand rounds of ammunition upon an American cruiser, the Chester. These munitions were sold to Liberia at half-price, payable upon delivery! Thus supplied, the American-organized Frontier Force almost decimated the Kru rebels.

Nevertheless, the Liberian government failed to carry out the promised reforms.

Again in 1926 the State Department attempted to “help” Liberia by inducing it to grant Mr. Firestone a million-acre rubber concession and to accept a new loan agreement whereby the 1912 five per cent loan, which would have expired in 1942 and upon which interest charges were regularly being met, would be retired in favor of a seven per cent loan from Mr. Firestone that will not expire until 1966. The agreement also gave Mr. Firestone a veto for twenty years over any new Liberian loans, even for refunding purposes at a lower rate of interest. The Firestone loan is divided into two tranches of $2,500,000. So far only the first tranche has been issued and it is improbable that the second will ever see the light of day. The first $2,500,000 has gone almost entirely to the refunding of the 1912 loan and to the payment of the internal debt. About all that Liberia has got from the Firestone loan is an increase in interest charges. The only, justification of the transaction was to increase Mr. Firestone’s position in Liberia and to abolish the international customs receivership in favor of exclusive financial control by the United States. Moreover, with the withdrawal of the Bank of British West Africa from Monrovia last year, Mr. Firestone has established a bank which is the only such institution in the country.

In the 1926 loan agreement the State Department undertook to assist in the selection of seven American officials who would manage Liberian finance and assist in the training of the Frontier Force. Likewise, the State Department agreed to arbitrate disputes between Mr. Firestone and the Liberian government.

It is important to point out that the loan agreement under which the State Department accepted such heavy responsibilities was not a treaty between Liberia and the United States approved by the United States Senate, but simply a private loan contract between the Liberian government and Mr. Firestone. The text of this loan contract was kept secret from the time of its signature in 1926 until a few weeks ago, when the recent revelations forced its publication. Moreover, the American officials “designated” by the State Department under this agreement are not responsible to the State Department; they are Liberian officials, and thus technically responsible to the Liberian government, although they are supposed to control this government! From the administrative standpoint, the selection of these officials is done in hit-and-miss fashion—for the United States has no colonial service. The whole method of procedure is haphazard, irresponsible, and unconstitutional. If the government of the United States wants to establish control over a foreign country, it has no business accomplishing this control through the medium of Wall Street banks or rubber manufacturers; it should do it openly, and with the authorization of Congress.

Washington supported the Firestone agreements on the ground that the development of rubber production in Liberia would free us from Mr. Hoover’s much feared British rubber “monopoly,” and that it would incidentally bring “prosperity,” to Liberia. As a result of the application of this theory, Mr. Firestone has secured a concession larger than he could have possibly secured in the Philippines or in any European colony in Africa. In view of the fact that this million-acre concession is accompanied by a high degree of financial control, Mr. Firestone has a potential monopoly of the country’s resources. In return for granting these privileges and for assuming a heavy interest burden in connection with the 1926 loan, Liberia expected to share in American “prosperity.” Nevertheless Mr. Firestone has not constructed a harbor at Monrovia, as he had agreed to do in one of the 1926 agreements, and he has drastically curtailed his planting operations, apparently because of the fall in the price of rubber. Instead of becoming wealthy, Liberia has steadily grown poorer. According to the last available figures, customs revenue declined from $768,000 in 1927-28 to $585,000 in 1928-29. In his annual message of 1929, President King complained that when the Firestone Company “without notice suddenly curtailed its development program, the disastrous consequences were reflected upon the commercial and economic life of the country. . . .” Having carried out their side of the bargain by. submitting to a high degree of outside control, some Liberians feel that Mr. Firestone has not fulfilled his side of the agreement.

IV

Thus the 1926 “reconstruction” plan, which the State Department so strenuously supported, has failed to bring “prosperity” to the country. It has also failed to check abuse. Despite the presence of the American officials appointed by the State Department under the 1912 and 1926 loan agreements, despite the presence of American diplomatic officers and the Firestone managers, slavery and forced labor have flourished throughout the country. The report of the International Commission states that some of the worst abuses have been committed by the Frontier Force—a body supposedly under American control. The present state of affairs in Liberia is thus a reflection upon the Liberian policy of the United States. Some new method of reconstruction must be found if Liberia is to be saved.

Possibly such a method may be found in the League of Nations. At the last meeting of the Council a committee was appointed to study, how the Liberian government could carry out the reforms proposed by the International Commission. The United States also has appointed a member on this committee. In its report the International Commission recommended that the shipment of natives to Fernando Po be prohibited, that the road program be curtailed, that strict control be imposed over the Frontier Force, and that European or American commissioners of native affairs be appointed. Already the Liberian government has adopted some of these reforms, and the League committee doubtless will see to it that the whole program is adopted. But these proposals do not go deeply enough to remove the underlying causes of forced labor. Those causes can be removed only if Liberia adopts a thorough-going program for the development of education, native agriculture, and public health. To develop such a program, Liberia is sorely in need of outside aid. The best means of providing this aid is through the technique applied by the League of Nations to the financial reconstruction of Austria and Hungary. Confronted by bankruptcy, these two countries appealed to the League of Nations in 1922-1923. Acting upon the advice of the League economic and finance committee, composed of some of the leading experts of the world, the League Council drew up a reconstruction plan. In return for a loan guaranteed by the League, both Austria and Hungary agreed to make sweeping internal reforms under the supervision of League commissioners. So successful did this plan prove to be in restoring these countries that League control was withdrawn in 1926. Under this scheme, Austria and Hungary could appeal to the League Council in case either country felt that the League officials had abused their power. Every step in the process of reconstruction was submitted to responsible supervision. The contrast between this system of reconstructing a country and that followed by the American State Department, working through the dark media of Wall Street banks and private business firms, is striking.

Conditions in Liberia today are much different from those in Austria and Hungary, but it should not be difficult to adjust the League machinery to meet these conditions. The League of Nations and the United States have cooperated in investigating conditions. They should now cooperate in the fundamental reconstruction of this country. This cannot be done, of course, except with the consent of Liberia. But there is no doubt that the Liberians, once convinced that the proffer of outside aid is disinterested and that the independence of their country will not be impaired, will gladly accept this form of outside assistance.

A real reconstruction program cannot be carried out unless the United States is willing to surrender its present receivership in favor of international control, and unless Mr. Firestone is willing to waive his financial veto, so as to enable Liberia to secure a League loan that will reduce its present onerous interest charges. There is little doubt but that Mr. Firestone will consent to such revision in his concession, provided his present investments are unimpaired. There is no reason why the United States should be unwilling to relinquish its present receivership—which is a foundling, the paternity of which the State Department will not own—in favor of responsible international financial control. Once such a program is instituted, the world will have guarantees that slavery in Liberia has been abolished; and, what is equally important, Liberia will be given its first real opportunity to demonstrate its right to live.

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