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The New International, February 1943

Sara Klein

Books in Review

The Black ’Republic’


From New International, Vol. IX No. 2, February 1943, pp. 61–62.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Lighting Up Liberia
by Arthur I. Hayman and Harold E. Preece
Creative Age Press; $2.50

Lighting Up Liberia, by Arthur I. Hayman and Harold E. Preece, is a study which has just made a timely début in the book world. Timely, because the headlines have just finished announcing President Roosevelt’s visit with the President of Liberia, Edwin J. Barclay. And Mr. Hayman has just returned from Liberia, where he worked as an engineer for the Firestone Rubber Co.

The book is a passionate plea that the United States mend its ways and install democracy in Liberia, or at least help the Liberians attain democracy. The authors are afraid that “progressive” United States will be swayed by Tories like Churchill, who has already proclaimed that Asia and Africa stand outside the provisions of the Atlantic Charter, and that the war will end with the Africans being even worse off than they are now.

The visit of President Roosevelt with President Barclay is therefore an eye-opener, or it should be, to all those wishful thinkers who fondly hope that democracy will somehow emerge out of the sacrifices on the battlefield. It should be an eye-opener, because Liberia happens to be the one state in the world which calls itself a republic and whose ruling clique rests almost exclusively on the spoils of a slave system. Furthermore, President Barclay is personally involved in the system of abducting human slaves from their native tribes and sending them to death and privation in the large plantations, the largest being the Firestone rubber plantation.

President Roosevelt’s visit was, of course, intended to soothe the pride of American Negroes who are discriminated against in their own native land. It is intended to soothe the pride of Negroes who were recently rebuffed when the poll-tax repeal bill was thrown out of Congress even before being put to a vote.

His visit cannot possibly have a soothing effect on the Liberian Negroes, however, because no amount of gilding can cover up the brutal exploitation of the natives by the Barclay government.

Since the League of Nations in 1931 published its sensational report exposing the slave system in Liberia, President Barclay has introduced a few reforms! Now a tribute or a fine for some imaginary wrong-doing is imposed on a tribe, or a chief is arrested for being an oppositionist. Since the tribe usually cannot meet the fine, the state accepts payment in human lives. Gangs of men, numbering up to 500, are then sent to the plantations to be worked, or starved to death, and the plantation pays its fee to the state. Or else, natives mortgage their children to pay taxes. Anyone who attempts to run away from the gang is flogged and thrown into jail.

Reforms of Slavery

The authors of Lighting Up Liberia quote the League of Nations report, lest the authorities deny the veracity of their statements. But they affirm that Hayman has talked with the native chief and that the same evils exist today as existed when the League commissioners made their tour of Liberia.

A native testified:

“We are building roads without pay or feeding. We pay taxes. We are bearing this condition because here is our country, and yet the President says we must go to Fernando Po (a plantation). How can this be done? We cannot send people to Fernando Po and to the road. Where we get such an amount of people?”

This testimony and the testimony given by other chiefs resulted in their being arrested and fined $10,000 in American money, besides cattle, rice and other property stolen from the natives. Shortly after the League administrators visited Liberia,

“President Barclay drew $1,500 from Liberia’s always half-empty treasury and headed south with fifty soldiers and eighty porters ... to lay down the law to his disobedient vassals. He told them: ‘I am directing this country, not the League of Nations. If any of you talk any more, I will wipe out the villages.’”

The authors go on to state:

“Then to teach truly lasting lessons, the soldiers began entering the huts, beating and abusing their occupants, picking up their few miserable possessions ... By the time the trip was concluded, the President’s expedition required 150 conscripted bearers to carry all the gold, cloth, ivory, goats, chickens ...”

Because its headmen had talked with League representatives, “Fishtown had to forfeit all its land, and twenty-eight men were shot.”

As for trying to change conditions by means of the ballot, Liberia’s elections, like that in many another republic, are a farce.

President Barclay, running for his first elective term, faced the stiffest opposition ever encountered by any candidate. Since one must be a property owner to vote, the Secretary of the Treasury worked frantically for days, issuing bogus titles ...

As a final precaution, Monrovia’s one printer (Monrovia is the capital of Liberia) had been instructed to print only a limited number of red ballots (People’s Party) and an unlimited supply of the blue slips handed out by the True Whigs (President Barclay’s party).

Never in its history had Liberia seen such a drunken orgy ... The supporters of President Barclay erected sheds with long tables groaning under the weight of food and cane juice. Natives were rounded up and brought in ... crammed with heavy food and strong liquor, party workers carried them from one precinct to another. They were handed blue ballots already marked with the names of the True Whig candidates. They deposited these in boxes, shouting and shrieking as they went from one polling place to the other, calling for more cane juice.

The representative of the People’s Party went from one precinct to the other challenging votes. The election judges laughed in his face; the court judges refused to accept his warrants. Three hundred Liberian soldiers massed in front of the polling places with their guns cocked, threatening to massacre the members of the People’s Party if through some accident it happened to win the election. People’s Party workers were shoved around by the soldiers and the police, who placed several of them under arrest of “disorderly conduct.”

For us, the most interesting section of the book is the one that deals with the Firestone rubber empire in Liberia. The authors do not delve deeply enough into the story of the Firestone interests, their tie-up with the Liberian government and the United States government. But the few facts given reveal how American dollar imperialism works.

The Role of Firestone

During the First World War, Under Secretary of State Robert Lansing promised Liberia a loan of five million dollars to secure Liberia’s passive support and to prevent the little “republic” from falling under the sway of German imperialism. After the war, however, the United States Senate refused to grant the loan because Liberia had never been known to pay its debts.

But that little drama had not been lost upon the shrewd, rotund figure who became America’s Secretary of Commerce. As an engineer, Herbert Hoover had bossed jobs performed by underpaid colored workers over a wide section of the world. Like many other American promoters. he may have wondered how the British and Dutch monopoly of rubber might be broken. When he learned that his friend, Harvey Firestone, was seeking a rubber concession in Africa, the machinery of the Department of Commerce began to move in the interests of Harvey Firestone.

There were also other considerations in the mind of Herbert Hoover. Agents were sending alarming reports to Washington – reports of native unrest, of African independent movements being tapped out by the drums across the breadth of that volcanic subject continent. The news from Liberia, always regarded as a docile semi-protectorate of the United States, was particularly disconcerting [1] to those whose main conception of liberty was to choke it with yards of stocks and bonds.

Firestone would make no agreement unless Liberia agreed to accept a loan which would prevent Britain or France from ever obtaining control of the country ... Liberia, if she wished to continue as a sovereign nation, must accept whatever bounty America offered her – and on America’s own terms.

Thus one million acres of Liberia’s richest land, or any smaller area that Firestone might designate from time to time, fell into the hands of the rubber company for an annual rental of six cents per acre. In addition, Firestone was given rights to develop any industry in the country.

The Firestone Company agreed to use its influence to secure the loan of five million dollars for its new step-child. Eventually, the Finance Corporation of America agreed to advance this sum with the provision that American advisers supervise the collection of all Liberia’s revenues.

Meanwhile Firestone agents had come to the country to claim their pound of flesh-or rather acres of ground. Soldiers drove the tribes off the land without any compensation whatever. Hungry natives came to the plantations looking for work and this situation threatened to upset the slave traffic. Who would be left for the slave traders to kidnap if everybody went to work for Firestone?

The book goes on to explain how a labor hiring (actually the same slave system) agency was set up, compelling Firestone to rent his labor from the state. Eventually, after the League expose, Firestone had to do his own hiring – this is done and the wage paid is eighteen cents a day!

Another interesting section of the book talks about Liberia’s untapped natural resources. According to the authors, there is enough gold in Liberia to start a “boom which would eclipse California’s gold rush of ’49, but there is not one single gold mine.” The natives wear ornaments of diamonds which they have found lying on the ground. There are huge quantities of mica, the coffee bean, sugar cane and cocoa which go to seed in Liberia for want of development.

... The Monrovia oligarchy for its own very good reasons has discouraged any attempt toward the building of factories. It permitted the Firestone Rubber Co. to come in simply because the government was penniless after years of graft and extravagance which did not put one pair of shoes on one pair of native feet ... The ruling clique fears the coming of industry as the Southern slave owners feared Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation ... It would bring together native workers in large numbers who might show far less patience with bullying employers than they do with Firestone.

The solution to all this, as proposed by the authors, is for Marxism which has so long been the official Marxism of the the United States to develop Liberia altruistically, and it is with this romantic, childish dreaming that one is bound to lose patience.

Needless to say, I do not advocate the plundering of Liberia by greedy nations. I only hope that the post-war world will give us a new concept both of nationality and world citizenship so that exploitation will end. The old way would lead inevitably to a Third World War, complicated this time by a continent-wide revolt of the native peoples which would shake the very pillars of the earth as we know it.

What a vain hope! We hope that the natives don’t wait for a Third World War to disillusion them with the “liberating” qualities of American dollar imperialism!

Note by ETOL

1. In the printed version this word is “disconcerning”.

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