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A State of Underdevelopment: Sovereignty, Nation-Building and Labor in Liberia 1898–1961*

  • Christine Whyte (a1)

Abstract

In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, Liberia was in the unusual position of being a colony with no metropole. Without military or financial support, the settlers’ control over their territory remained weak. Surrounding European empires preyed on this weakness, and Americo-Liberian rule was often at risk from coalitions of European forces and indigenous African resistance. From the early twentieth century, the political elite took on the concept of “development” as a central part of government policy in an attempt to gain political and economic control of the hinterland areas and stave off European incursions. This policy involved the extension and reinforcement of labor policies and practices that had developed through the nineteenth century as means to incorporate settlers and indigenous people into Liberian society. When these plans failed, huge swathes of territory were turned over to foreign commercial interests in an attempt to bolster Liberian claims to sovereignty. And after the Second World War, new policies of “community development” introduced by international agencies again tried to solve Liberia's “land and labor” problem through resettlement. At each stage developmentalist rationales were deployed in order to facilitate greater government control over the Liberian interior territory.

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The author would like to thank the anonymous ILWCH reviewers for their insightful comments and constructive feedback on this text and Benedetta Rossi for being the inspiration and driving force behind this special issue. The research for this article was funded by the Leverhulme Trust and supported by the Centre for the History of Colonialisms at the University of Kent.

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NOTES

1. Christy, Cuthbert, “Liberia in 1930,” The Geographical Journal 77 (1931): 515–40.

2. Cooper, Frederick, Colonialism in Question: Theory, Knowledge, History (Berkley, 2005), 7 .

3. Dalton, George, “History, Politics, and Economic Development in Liberia,” The Journal of Economic History 25 (1965): 569–91, 571.

4. Histories of the ACS settlers have primarily focused on movements from particular US American states.

5. Allen, William E., “Liberia and the Atlantic World in the Nineteenth Century: Convergence and Effects,” History in Africa 37 (2010): 749, 11–12; Brown, Robert T., “Simon Greenleaf and the Liberian Constitution of 1847,” Liberian Studies Journal 9 (1980): 5166 .

6. Van Sickle, Eugene S., “Reluctant Imperialists: The U.S. Navy and Liberia, 1819–1845,” Journal of the Early Republic 31 (2011): 107–34, 109.

7. Akingbade, Harrison, “The Liberian Settlers and the Campaign against the Slave Trade 1825–1865,” Africa: Rivista Trimestrale Di Studi E Documentazione dell Istituto Italiano Per l'Africa E l'Oriente 38 (1983): 339–68.

8. Liebnow, J. Gus, Liberia: Evolution of Privilege (Ithaca, NY, 1969), 5359 .

9. Burin, Eric, Slavery and the Peculiar Solution: A History of the American Colonization Society (Gainesville, FL, 2008), 1516 .

10. Antonio McDaniel discusses the high death rate and its causes in Swing Low, Sweet Chariot: The Mortality Cost of Colonizing Liberia in the Nineteenth Century (Chicago, 1995).

11. This was funded by the US federal government after 1819. Between the abolition of the slave trade to the US and 1819, southern states retained the right to auction the recaptives. See Burin, Eric, “The Slave Trade Act of 1819: A New Look at Colonization and the Politics of Slavery,” American Nineteenth Century History 13 (2012): 114 .

12. Peyton Skipwith to John Hopewell Coake, Monrovia, June 25, 1846. National Humanities Center Resource Toolbox, The Making of African American Identity: Vol. I, 1500–1865. First published in Miller, Randall M., ed., “ Dear Master ”: Letters of a Slave Family (Cornell, 1978). Seven hundred fifty-six survivors of the slave ship Pons were left at Monrovia in 1845 by the U.S. Africa Squadron.

13. The settler press and officials often reacted with alarm at the arrival of hundreds of recaptives. Shick, Tom W., Behold the Promised Land: A History of Afro-American Settler Society in Nineteenth-Century Liberia (Baltimore, 1980), 68 .

14. David Brown provides the most complete description of “civilization” in the Liberian context in On the Category ‘Civilised’ in Liberia and Elsewhere,” The Journal of Modern African Studies 20 (2008): 287303 . In particular he compares it to Gellner's concept of “bobility”—that is, a status claim that established a boundary between the settlers and the native inhabitants.

15. Huberich, Charles Henry, Political and Legislative History of Liberia, vol. II (New York, 1947), 886 .

16. Taken from the text of the constitution reprinted in Cassell, C. Abayomi, Liberia: History of the First African Republic (New York, 1970), 425–30.

17. Anderson, Benjamin, Narrative of the Expedition Despatched to Musahdu by the Liberian Government Under Benjamin J. K. Anderson, Sr., Esquire in 1874 (Monrovia, 1912), 40 .

18. As emancipated slave and educator Booker T. Washington explained, “It has been necessary for the Negro to learn the difference between being worked and working.” Industrial Education for the Negro,” in The Negro Problem (New York, 1903), 729, 9.

19. McBride, David, Missions for Science: U.S. Technology and Medicine in America's African World (New Brunswick, 2002), 106 .

20. Akpan, M. B., “Black Imperialism: Americo-Liberian Rule Over the African Peoples of Liberia, 1841–1964,” Canadian Journal of African Studies/La Revue Canadienne Des Études Africaines 7 (1973): 217–36.

21. Johnston, Harry, Liberia (New York, 1906), 262 .

22. Statement of President A. W. Gardner to the Legislature, December 12, 1878, Foreign Relations of the United States, (FRUS) 1875 vol. II.

23. “Ordinance Related to Poll Tax, 1860,” and “Ordinance Related to Poll Tax, 1879,” (Louis B. Grimes Papers. Microfilm. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York).

24. As William E. Allen notes, previous scholarship on Liberian agriculture, which placed the blame for the failure of agricultural production in Liberia on the “laziness” and “antipathy” of the settlers to manual labor failed to acknowledge the more significant role of lack of capital, labor, and expertise of the early settlers. William E. Allen, “Sugar and Coffee: A History of Settler Agriculture in Nineteenth-Century Liberia” (Ph.D. diss., Florida International University, 2002).

25. Allen, William E., “Liberia and the Atlantic World in the Nineteenth Century: Convergence and Effects,” History in Africa 37 (2010): 749, 34.

26. M. B. Akan describes Americo-Liberians’ fondness for American fashions and foods and similar expensive imported goods in Black Imperialism: Americo-Liberian Rule Over the African Peoples of Liberia, 1841–1964,” Canadian Journal of African Studies/La Revue Canadienne Des Études Africaines 7 (1973): 217–36, 219.

27. A full description of the impact of the Scramble for Africa on Liberia is given in Hargreaves, John D., West Africa Partitioned: Volume II, The Elephants and the Grass (London, 1985), 83100 .

28. Ellis, George W., “Liberia in the New Partition of West Africa,” The Journal of Race Development 9 (1919): 247–67.

29. Quoted in Gershoni, Yekutiel, “The Drawing of Liberian Boundaries in the Nineteenth Century: Treaties with African Chiefs Versus Effective Occupation,” The International Journal of African Historical Studies 20 (1987): 293307, 297.

30. This test required government to have sufficient power to “protect existing rights, and, as the case may be, freedom of trade and of transit.” Carl Schmitt argues that this article is aimed to provide “a guarantee of progress, civilisation, and freedom.” Schmitt quoted in Craven, Matthew, “Between Law and History: The Berlin Conference of 1884–1885 and the Logic of Free Trade,” London Review of International Law 3 (2015): 3159, 44, fn. 70.

31. Liebenow, J. Gus, Liberia: the Quest for Democracy (Bloomington, IN, 1987), 34–37 and map on 26.

32. Fyfe, Christopher, A History of Sierra Leone (Oxford, 1962), 384–85.

33. Gershoni, “The Drawing of Liberian Boundaries in the Nineteenth Century,” 306.

34. Boahen, A. Adu, Africa Under Colonial Domination, 1880–1935 (Berkley, 1990), 127 .

35. Sundiata, Ibrahim, “The Rise and Decline of Kru Power: Fernando Po in the Nineteenth Century,” Liberian Studies Journal 6 (1975): 2542, 23.

36. Swiss zoologist Johann Büttikofer noted in the late nineteenth century that for at least twenty years, trade in Liberia had been carried out by three foreign companies: one German, one Dutch, and one American. Dop, Henk and Robinson, Phillip (trans.), Travel Sketches From Liberia (Leiden, 2012), 494 .

37. James Coleman, “Inaugural Address,” Liberia Bulletin, November 13, 1898, 35.

38. Hilary Richard Wright Johnson – XI President of LIberia: 1884–1892, Annual Message to the Legislature December 30, 1889,” in The Annual Messages of the Presidents of Liberia 1848–2010: State of the Nation Addresses to the National Legislature, ed. Elwood, D. Dunn (Berlin, 2011), 369 .

39. Smith, Robert A., The Emancipation of the Hinterland (Monrovia, 1964), 18 .

40. Munive, Jairo, “A Political Economic History of the Liberian State, Forced Labour and Armed Mobilization,” Journal of Agrarian Change 11 (2011): 357–76, 359.

41. Ford, Martin, “‘Pacification’ under Pressure: A Political Economy of Liberian Intervention in Nimba 1912–1918,” Liberian Studies Journal 14 (1989): 4463, 45.

42. Numerous sources cite the violence of the LFF in the early twentieth century “pacification.” For one detailed account, see Levitt, J., The Evolution of Deadly Conflict in Liberia. From “Paternaltarianism” to State Collapse (Durham, NC, 2005). Also Ellis, Stephen, “The Mutual Assimilation of Elites: The Development of Secret Societies in Twentieth Century Liberian Politics,” in The Powerful Presence of the Past: Integration and Conflict Along the Upper Guinea Coast, ed. Knörr, Jacqueline and Filho, Wilson Trajano (Leiden, 2010), 185203 .

43. Ellis, George W., “Political Institutions in Liberia,” The American Political Science Review 5 (1911): 213–23, 218.

44. Akpan, M. B., “Black Imperialism: Americo-Liberian Rule Over the African Peoples of Liberia, 1841–1964,” Canadian Journal of African Studies/La Revue Canadienne Des Études Africaines 7 (1973): 217–36, 230.

45. Munive, “A Political Economic History of the Liberian State,” 361.

46. Christy, Cuthbert, “Liberia in 1930,” The Geographical Journal 77 (1931): 515–40, 537.

47. Sawyer, Amos, The Emergence of Autocracy in Liberia (San Francisco, 1992), 223 .

48. Report to the Financial Adviser R. L., copy to H. E. the President, “Conditions in the Liberian Hinterland since the effective date of the New Interior Regulations which were Approved May 1st 1931,” November 28, 1931. Treasury Department, Monrovia in Dunn (ed.), Annual Messages of the Presidents of Liberia, 813.

49. Letter dated from W.B. Fletcher, Commander, U.S. Navy, Cape Palmas, Liberia, April 17, 1910 to the Secretary of the Navy, Washington DC. NYPL.

50. Davis, Ronald W., “The Liberian Struggle for Authority on the Kru Coast,” The International Journal of African Historical Studies 8 (1975): 222–65.

51. Ford, Martin J., “‘Pacification’ Under Pressure: a Political Economy of Liberian Intervention in Nimba 1912–1918,” Liberian Studies Journal XIV (2012): 44–44.

52. Quoted in Ellis, George W., “Political Importance of the International Loan in Liberia,” The Journal of Race Development 3 (1912): 109–16, 116.

53. New York Pubic Library, United States. Department of State, 1965. T. C. Mitchell, Commissioner General, Hinterland of Liberia, ‘Report on Work in the Hinterland During 1916–17 and 18. 30 May, 1918, Monrovia, Liberia.

54. Davis, Ronald W., “The Liberian Struggle for Authority on the Kru Coast,” The International Journal of African Historical Studies 8 (1975): 222–65.

55. Sawyer, The Emergence of Autocracy in Liberia, 133.

56. Davis, “The Liberian Struggle for Authority on the Kru Coast,” 248–50.

57. “Great Britain and Liberia: Commercial and Industrial Opportunities,” by a correspondent in Liberia. West Africa, July 21, 1917.

58. New York Public Library, United States. Department of State, 1965. Request by Natives of Gola Country, Liberia that their Country be Taken Over by the British, Enclosed in letter to Mr Phillips, April 7, 1919, from Worley. His statement was taken by J. Craven, a district commissioner in Kenema, the protectorate of Sierra Leone on January 13, 1919.

59. Akingbade, Harrison, “The Pacification of the Liberian Hinterland,” The Journal of Negro History 79 (1994): 277–96, 293.

60. Akingbade, Harrison, “The Liberian Problem of Forced Labour,” Africa: Rivista Trimestrale Di Studi e Documentazione dell'Istituto Italiano Per l'Africa e l'Oriente 52 (1997): 261–73, 265.

61. Garvey, Marcus and Hill, Robert Abraham, The Marcus Garvey and Universal Negro Improvement Association Papers, Vol. IX: Africa for the Africans June 1921–December 1922, (Berkeley, 1995), 69 .

62. Taylor, Harold Robert, Jungle Trader (London, 1939), 79 .

63. Richard Pearson Strong diary: June 29, 1926, to November 21, 1926, 120. Available online at http://liberianhistory.org/items/browse/?type=18 (accessed October 12, 2016).

64. Johnson, Charles S., Bitter Canaan: The Story of the Black Republic (New Brunswick, 1987), 9 .

65. New York Pubic Library, United States. Department of State, 1965, Report by Ex-President D. E. Howard, forwarded by Walter C. Walker. July 10, 1924.

66. The Firestone Non-Skid, December 8, 1925.

67. Chalk, Frank, “The Anatomy of an Investment: Firestone's 1927 Loan to Liberia,” Canadian Journal of African Studies 1 (1967): 1232 .

68. NYPL, United States. Department of State, Letter from T. E. Beysolow to Harvey S. Firestone Jr., January 1, 1925.

69. Richard Pearson Strong diary: June 29, 1926 to November 21, 1926, 77. Available online at http://liberianhistory.org/items/browse/?type=18, accessed October 12, 2016.

70. Munive, “A Political Economic History of the Liberian State,” 361–62.

71. NYPL, United States. Department of State, Letter to Mr. Castle from Clifton R. Wharton, Legation of the United States of America. Monrovia, Liberia, March 3, 1927.

72. Ibid.

73. Buell, Raymond Leslie, The Native Problem in Africa, vol. II (London, [1928] 1965), 833 .

74. UKNA, FO 458/117 Liberia Political Situation Part II (Folder 1).

75. NYPL, Records of the Department of State Relating to Internal Affairs of Liberia, 1910–29. United States. Department of State, 1965. Letter from Thomas J. R. Faulkner to Sir Eric Drummond, secretary general of the League of Nations, June 20, 1929.

76. Article II of the Act Establishing the Firestone Plantation lays out the government's responsibility to “encourage, support and assist the efforts of Firestone to secure and maintain an adequate labor supply.” See Clower, R. W., Dalton, G., Harwitz, M., and Walters, A. A., eds., Growth without Development: an Economic Survey of Liberia (Evanston, IL, 1966).

77. NYPL, Records of the Department of State Relating to Internal Affairs of Liberia, 1910–1929. United States. Department of State, 1965. Letter from Thomas J. R. Faulkner to Sir Eric Drummond, secretary general of the League of Nations, June 20, 1929.

78. UKNA, FO 458/115 Liberia: Firestone Plantations Concession, 1931, extract from the Tribune de Geneve of September 5, 1931: “The Firestone Plantations and Their Significance for the Liberian Natives.”

79. UKNA, FO 458/82 Liberia: Firestone Rubber Company (Confidential) from Francis O'Meara May 21, 1925, British Legation at Monrovia.

80. UKNA, FO 458/109 Liberia: Firestone Plantation Concessions, 1930. Letters from Hugh Alex Ford to Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, September 2 and September 8, 1930.

81. Enclosure 2, statement made by Niminyo, PC of Grebo Tribe, in Mr. Graham to Sir John Simon, Monrovia, April 21, 1932. Papers Concerning Affairs in Liberia: December 1930–May 1934, vol. 4614 (London), 33 .

82. In 1936, Graham Greene claimed that he planned to take a letter to P.C. Nimley, who had led the revolt, and that everywhere he traveled in Liberia, people welcomed him as a white, hoping that the white men would be taking control of government. Greene, Graham, Journey without Maps (London, 2006 [1936]).

83. Report of the Committee of the Council of the League of Nations appointed to study the problem arising out of the request for assistance submitted by the Liberian government, January 1932. Papers Concerning Affairs in Liberia: December 1930–May 1934, vol. 4614 (London).

84. Papers concerning Affairs in Liberia: December 1930–May 1934 (vol. 4614). London: His Majesty's Stationery Office. 68.

85. Quoted in Sundiata, Brothers and Strangers, 223.

86. De La Rue, Sidney, Land of the Pepper Bird: Liberia (New York, 1930), 233 .

87. Newland, H. Osman, “Chapter V—Life on a Rubber Plantation,” in Sierra Leone: Its People, Products, and Secret Societies (London, 1916), 3644 ; “Rubber Production in Liberia: An Exploratory Assessment of Living and Working Conditions, with Special Attention to Forced Labor,” 2012. Comparison of these two accounts of rubber plantations suggests that little has changed about the production and processing in West Africa. This publication is a report by the Verité, a labor rights organization, and was sponsored by the United States Department of Labor.

88. The Harvard Expedition reported that they nearly lost their lives to the “bush fires” set to clear land for plantations.

89. Hayman, A.I. and Preece, Harold, Lighting Up Liberia (New York, 1943), 98 .

90. John Payne Mitchell, “Firestone in Liberia” (MA thesis, Boston University, 1953), 51–55.

91. “Rubber Production in Liberia: An Exploratory Assessment of Living and Working Conditions, with Special Attention to Forced Labor,” 2012.

92. Sundiata, Brothers and Strangers, 331.

93. Abraham, George, Belles of Shangri La (New York, 2000), 7 . Abraham's book and accompanying photographs document the officially sanctioned provision of Liberian “comfort women” to the soldiers.

94. McBride, David, Missions for Science: U.S. Technology and Medicine in America's African World (New Brunswick, 2002), 169 .

95. Wendt, Paul, “The Control of Rubber in World War II,” Southern Economic Journal 3 (1947): 203–27.

96. McBride, Missions for Science.

97. Department of State Policy Statement, Washington D.C., January 10, 1951. “Liberia”. 611.76/1–1051.

98. Duignan, Peter and Gann, L. H., The United States and Africa: A History (Cambridge, 1987), 305 .

99. Carlisle, Rodney, “The ‘American Century’ Implemented: Stettinius and the Liberian Flag of Convenience,” Business History Review 2 (1980): 175–91.

100. Duignan and Gann, The United States and Africa, 305.

101. Clower, R. W., Dalton, George, Harwitz, M., and Walters, A. A., Growth without Development. An Economic Survey of Liberia (Evanston, IL, 1966), 359 .

102. Smith, The Emancipation of the Hinterland, 50–51.

103. Report of the Commission Appointed Under Article 26 of the Constitution of the International Labour Organisation to Examine the Complaint Filed by the Government of Portugal Concerning the Observance by the Government of Liberia of the Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No. 29), Official Bulletin (Geneva, April 1963)

104. Swindell, Kenneth, “Iron-Ore Mining in Liberia,” Geography 50 (1965): 7578, 77.

105. Swindell, Kenneth, “Iron Ore Mining in West Africa: Some Recent Developments in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia,” Economic Geography 43 (1967): 333–46.

106. Carlisle, Rodney, “The ‘American Century’ Implemented: Stettinius and the Liberian Flag of Convenience,” Business History Review 54 (1980): 175–91, 189.

107. Report of the Commission Appointed Under Article 26 of the Constitution of the International Labour Organisation to Examine the Complaint Filed by the Government of Portugal Concerning the Observance by the Government of Liberia of the Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No. 29), Official Bulletin (Geneva, April 1963) Summary of the Labor Situation in Liberia (November 1959, US Department of Labor), 8.

108. World Bank, Liberia—The Economy, Africa series no. AF 10 (Washington, DC, 1963), available at http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/241881468056643818/Liberia-The-economy.

109. Clower, Dalton, Harwitz, and Walters, Growth without Development, 64.

110. Swindell, “Iron-Ore Mining in Liberia,” 77–78.

111. Harold H. Martin, Saturday Evening Post, November 26, 1960.

112. Swindell, “Iron-Ore Mining in Liberia,” 77.

113. Foreign Relations of the United States 1957, vol. 18 (1989), 401 .

114. Dalton, George, “History, Politics, and Economic Development in Liberia,” The Journal of Economic History 25 (1965): 569–9, 570.

115. For more on the implantation of “community development” in Sierra Leone, see my earlier article, Whyte, Christine, “Freedom But Nothing Else”: The Legacies of Slavery and Abolition in Post-Slavery Sierra Leone, 1928–1956,” International Journal of African Historical Studies 48 (2015): 2 .

116. United Nations Archive: S-0175-1335-03 Community organization and development—Liberia—LIBE (250), W.M. Harding, Community Development Advisor, Annex I, 8 June 1961 enclosed in Community Development in Liberia: report No. 1, W. M. Harding, June 17, 1961.

117. United Nations Archive: S-0175-1335-03 Community organization and development—Liberia—LIBE (250), W.M. Harding, Community Development Advisor, “Community Development in Liberia: report No. 2,” July 31, 1961.

118. United Nations Archive: S-0175-1325-02 Technical Assistance—Missions: Community Development—Liberia—LIB (3) PART A, William A. Miner, Notes on Activities, Monday, June 15–Saturday, June 20, 1959.

119. United Nations Archive: S-0175-1335-03 Community organization and development–Liberia–LIBE (250), W.M. Harding, Community Development Advisor, Annex I, 8 June 1961 enclosed in “Community Development in Liberia: report No. 1,” June 17, 1961.

120. United Nations Archive. S-0175-1325-02 Technical Assistance–Missions: Community Development–Liberia—LIB (3) PART A “ILO HUman Resources Development Mission to Liberia,” 66.

121. ILO, Total Involvement: a Strategy for Development in Liberia (Geneva, 1974), 1 .

* The author would like to thank the anonymous ILWCH reviewers for their insightful comments and constructive feedback on this text and Benedetta Rossi for being the inspiration and driving force behind this special issue. The research for this article was funded by the Leverhulme Trust and supported by the Centre for the History of Colonialisms at the University of Kent.

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A State of Underdevelopment: Sovereignty, Nation-Building and Labor in Liberia 1898–1961*

  • Christine Whyte (a1)

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