Mr. Tubman of Liberia
The country of Liberia was founded by the American Colonization Society, mostly Southerners and ably led by President James Monroe of Virginia. The intent was to settle freed slaves in their homeland and to plant responsible, republican government on that continent.
Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com
Mr. Tubman of Liberia
“The president of Liberia is a plausible and enterprising man in his middle fifties named William Vacanarat Shadrach Tubman, sometimes called by the nickname “Shad.” The Honorable Mr. Tubman has been Chief Executive of Liberia since 1944, and will probably remain president for a considerable time to come. He is a character of the utmost originality and interest, who gives forth a certain waggish note.
Liberia is sui generis — unique. I could use any of several adjectives about it — odd, wacky, phenomenal, or even weird. It is, as is well known, one of the five independent countries in Africa, and for a great many years (until Egypt became a republic in 1953) it was the only republic on the continent. Haiti in the West Indies aside, it is the only Negro republic in the world.
Monrovia, the capital, was named for President Monroe, and is practically the only city I have seen without either taxis or buses. The people are too poor, too mercilessly exploited. A village in Uganda or in the wastes of northern Nigeria will have bicycles in profusion, but not the capital of Liberia. There was no successful telephone service in Monrovia until last year , and the system does not extend beyond the city.
Liberia is roughly the size of Ohio or Tennessee, but the entire country has only ten miles of paved road, five of which are in the capital. Liberia never had a road until 1916 when an enterprising American diplomat built one in Monrovia itself so that he could use an automobile that had arrived there by mistake, the first ever to be seen in the country.
Consider health and education. Only two native Liberians have ever become doctors. There are also two naturalized Haitian MD’s, but in the whole country there are probably not more than a half-dozen reputable physicians outside of Firestone and the [Christian] missions. Infant mortality runs as high as 75% in some areas . . . [and] no public health service at all existed until 1931—and Liberia had been an independent republic since 1847!
More than 90 percent of the population is illiterate . . . in 1946 the total sum allotted to education in the national budget was only around $50,000 (80% of education was taken care of by missionaries); it is substantially higher now, roughly $1.5 million out of a budget of $10,088,810.
Liberia College, the chief institution of “higher” learning in the country where several of its leading contemporary citizens were educated, had for years no library, laboratories or scientific equipment; a former head of this school calmly appropriated all its funds on one occasion, and with his loot sent his daughters to be educated in Italy.
Thievery — the cities swarm with thieves — is most conspicuous during the rains. First, rice is short then and people are hungry. Second, the noise of the rain makes it easy for thieves to get around. Stealing is, however, by no means confined to professional criminals or to the poor, who are so miserable that petty theft may easily be forgiven — it is almost a national sport. Newspapers talk openly of “wholesale stealing” in government departments . . . [and] recently the Italian delegation lost, of all things, its safe.
In the field of political corruption Liberia has some wonderful distinctions. One president of the republic (not Mr. Tubman) got 243,000 votes in a certain election, though only 15,000 persons were privileged to vote.
Most educated Africans in neighboring countries pay lip service to Liberia because it is an independent republic created by freed Negro slaves, but they despise it inwardly because it constitutes a betrayal of what modern Africans stand for. Even Ethiopia has higher standards. Liberia might almost be called a kind of perverse advertisement for imperialism since although the country is free, the people are so badly off compared to those in most French and British colonies.
One brief word on Liberian history. Liberia was created by the American Colonization Society, a private organization (its first president was a nephew of George Washington) formed in 1816 to transport freed American slaves to Africa, where they might settle and start a new life on their own.
The motive was only humanitarian in part. A good many American slaveowners wanted to get freed slaves out of the country; it was dangerous to have them around. Also in 1819, the American navy was empowered to seize slave ships on the high seas, free any slaves found and return them to Africa, as part of an attempt to suppress what remained of the organized slave trade.
Out of Slavery — Slavery
One of the most horrifying official documents I have ever read has to do with Liberia, the report made in 1931 by an international commission inquiring into the slave traffic.
For years rumors had been heard, which the Monrovia government persistently denied, that Liberia tolerated organized slavery. At last in 1929 pressure, largely from the United States forced an investigation. Henry Stimson, secretary of state at the time, wrote to the Liberian authorities: “It would be tragically ironic if Liberia, whose existence was dedicated to the principle of liberty should succumb to practices so closely akin to those its founders sought forever to escape.”
Facts uncovered by the commission were — and are — appalling. It found that “slavery as defined by the 1926 anti-slavery convention” existed in the country, that contract laborers “were recruited under conditions of criminal compulsion scarcely distinguishable from slave-raiding and slave trading,” and that high officials of the Liberian government not only connived at this traffic but made money out of it.
Mr. Tubman, current president of Liberia, was a Senator during this period and is mentioned twice in the commission report, each time in connection with the receipt of fees from native chiefs.”
(Inside Africa, John Gunther, Harper & Collins, 1955, excerpts, pp. 843-849; 860-861)