What do you know about Liberia? Or do you even care?
Americans pay little attention to Liberia, and most Europeans think of the country as a joke. […] In case of apparently friendly relations between that country and European powers there has usually come to the surface some design to deprive Liberia of its territory or to secure some economic advantage. The American’s endorsement of the Firestone invasion of that African area shows that on this side of the Atlantic the same attitude has developed.
The above quote best exemplifies what happened in Liberia in the 1920s in regards to the selling out of elite Liberians to US capitalist interests. Exploring the past is key to understanding how and why the exploitation of Liberians continues to happen today. Beginning as a colony for African-American settlement on the continent of Africa, Liberia grew from a small community of hopefuls into a nation rife with exploitation and a class system that denies the existence of, as Marcus Garvey might say, a “United Negro State.” With much help from the U.S. the new nation of Liberia was established and it started its long journey into the world of nations. (Pham 12) As it embarked on this journey it was not without the typical bumps and bruises. As Liberia encountered financial troubles it turned its back on the country’s founding principles. Thus the economic interests of the U.S. and the black Liberian elites superceded the facades of black-nationalism and Garveyism in the ‘black nation’ of Liberia.
Located along the western bulge of Africa, facing the Atlantic Ocean, the Republic of Liberia is a country of tropical rain forests and broken plateau. Liberia is a country about the size of the state of Ohio with a population estimated at a range from 1,000,000 to 1,500,000. Lying on the west coast of Africa, just north of the equator, Liberia is bound by Sierra Leone, French Guinea and Cote d’Ivoire. The only Negro republic in the world with the exception of Haiti, Liberia celebrated independence in 1947. (Browne 113) It was founded as a modern state with the creation of Monrovia in 1822. The motto of the new republic, “ The Love of Liberty Brought Us Here,” proclaimed that the state was established for Americo-Liberian settlers. The settlers with the help of the America Colonization Society (ACS) established the first colony for “free men of color.” This African nation that was established to improve the ‘black’ man’s position ended up giving in to corporate interests and ended up doing more harm than good. How could Liberia turn its back on the black-nationalist ideals and close its doors to the UNIA and Garvey’s movement that strengthened the new nation? Or did it? There was an ever-present conflict between the settlers arriving on the coast and the “natives” living in the interior of the nation. Garvey’s UNIA ‘back-to-Africa’ movement actually helped in creating tension and conflict in the new nation.
The key conflict created was the rift in class, with the government ruling class being Americo-Liberians. There has been a deep-seated belief among experts of the moribund League of Nations and among some students of colonial policy that the Liberian Government itself is one of the causes of the Republic’s retardation. (Browne 231) The Americo-Liberians and their descendents have controlled the government, and the result has been the development of a split between a small governing class and a large governed class, which has taken less interest through the years in the Liberian administration. This large class of the governed constituted the aboriginal element in Liberia. The inefficient acts of the Liberian government, selfishness of the ruling class, and activities of interlopers [US] who would exploit the Republic’s resources for their own gains led to the economic troubles of Liberia today. The country’s economy today is resultant of the self-sufficient economy of Africa, the capitalism of the ruling Liberians, and the financial exploitation of the American industrialists. (Brown 232)
The Garveyite movement had a key role to play in the settlement of Liberia. The movement was founded in New York in 1917 and Marcus Garvey became a self appointed Moses for the Negro people. (Aron 338) In brief, Garveyism is a Negro racist philosophy that frowns on what is known as the US social democracy or ethnic integration, namely the free social and cultural intercourse between white and colored people. (Aron 337) It advocates for the creation of Negro business as a step towards national redemption in Africa. The most active organization in promoting Garveyism was the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), which was dedicated to heightening a sense of black dignity and culture. (Pham 38) Led by the Jamacian born Pan-Africanist, Marcus Garvey, the UNIA built a steamship line (the Black Star Line, which transported Negro’s back to Africa), sponsored colonial expeditions to Liberia, staged annual international conventions, inspired businesses, endorsed political candidates, fostered black history and culture, and organized thousands. (Stein 1) The Association pursued bold and broad general goals:
To establish a universal confraternity among the race; to promote the spirit of pride and love; to reclaim the fallen, to administer to and assist the needy; to assist in civilizing the backward tribes of Africa; to assist in the development of independent Negro nations and communities or agencies in the principal countries and cities of the world for the representation of all Negroes; to promote a conscientious spiritual worship among the native tribes of Africa; to establish universities, colleges, academies and schools for the racial education and culture of the people; to work for better conditions among Negroes everywhere.
The association’s goals were somewhat similar to those of the Zionists for the Jews: a national home for the Negro race and the revival of a Negro culture. (Aron 337)
The advent of Marcus Garvey coincided with the Great Migration of African-Americans from the American South. The Southern African-Americans were seeking better conditions and thousands left between 1910 and 1920. The first wave of 300,000 settled in Northern Liberia and a decade later 1,300,000 arrived. However, in 1921 and 1922 a number of UNIA officials left the association and a number of prominent African-Americans distanced themselves from the organization. Garvey’s power was brief and when he was deported to Jamaica the UNIA in the US all but died out. Garvey was tried for mail fraud in 1923 and later fined, but it was too late and the organization was already too battered. In 1925 Garvey was remanded to a federal penitentiary in Atlanta and in 1927 the final blow was delivered and Garvey was deported to Jamacia. This final step led to the execution of the UNIA’s importance on the continent of Africa. “The UNIA experienced such great success because Garvey was able to appeal to the under-privileged people, yet Garvey’s movement represented the yearnings of the would-be black bourgieouse.” (Sundiata 16)
The economic interest of the U.S. in Liberia began with the Firestone Rubber Company in 1924. Liberia was in a precarious financial situation and was in desperate need of investors. Delegations had been sent to Liberia from the UNIA to negotiate for a loan to the country in return for certain territories, which were to be used for pioneer settlements. Fifty thousand dollars worth of materials were shipped to Liberia. In 1920 Charles King became president and was immediately confronted with the country’s dangerous financial position. The UNIA in 1920 proposed to the Liberian leader that the group would raise nearly $2 million to relieve Liberia of its debt in exchange for an agricultural and commercial land grant. With options thin the Liberian leader, King, agreed to deal. That same year Garvey proposed to move the UNIA headquarters from the U.S. to Liberia. Liberia had been chosen to be a ‘black’ Zion and between 1920 and 1924, millions of African Americans were caught up in the thrill of having a ‘black nation’ of their own. (Sundiata, 1) In January 1924, Marcus Garvey unexpectedly announced that he would be moving the UNIA headquarters to Liberia. He boasted of the plans in the Negro New World and launched his $2 million dollar campaign. However, during the 1924 Negro Convention the Liberian government publicly issued a statement repudiating all agreements with UNIA and protesting to the American government on the UNIA’s activities in Liberia. Garvey raged, but soon after the Firestone Company was awarded the territories for some of its rubber plantations instead of Garvey’s UNIA plans. In an article written in 1955 Liberia is said to been ranked for many years as one of the important rubber producers of the world. The exploitation of this resource began in a significant way when the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company was granted a concession by the Liberian government in 1926. Under the terms of the provision in the financial agreement, Firestone actually acquired control of the Liberian finances.
Although Americans made a major contribution to the founding of the Liberian nation in 1822, it was over one hundred years later before the US acquired a tangible economic stake in the West African republic. The change took place when the Liberian government granted the major rubber concession to the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company and accepted a large loan from one of Firestone’s subsidies. The Liberian government had teetered on the verge of bankruptcy several times since the 1860s. But the Liberian government’s turn towards Firestone in 1926 was more than another desperate effort to save the nation from bankruptcy. The loan was an integral part of the arrangement by which Liberia granted the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company the right to grow rubber on a maximum of one million acres of land. (Chalk 12) By Granting Firestone a huge rubber concession and accepting stringent loan terms from an off-shoot of the same company, the Liberians seriously risked the loss of their sovereignty. The 1927 Loan from the Firestone Company opened a new phase in Liberian history, where national prosperity would increasingly depend on the success of foreign-owned private investments. (Chalk 12) The consequences of Liberia’s dependence on foreign capital for development has led it down a path of exploitation. The Firestone Agreement had not only economic and development consequences, but also political. At the same time that Firestone was looking towards Liberia, the British were looking to cut in on American rubber production. Therefore the Firestone Company went to the US Secretary of State and explained the agreement in order to get the US government on board with loans and support.
The Firestone Company was able to obtain a ninety-nine year lease “on a million acres of land suitable for the production of rubber or other agricultural products, or any lesser area that may be selected by the leasee.” At the same time Firestone made a loan of $2,500,000 to the Liberian government. Some supporters of the Firestone Company say that the company assisted the government and the economy of Liberia immensely by bringing investment capital to the country at a time when the conditions of the public finance were at their worse. In 1947 Raymond Leslie Buell described the impact of Firestone on Liberia as follows:
The Firestone Plantations Company represents the one concrete evidence of economic progress in Liberia since 1926. Its operations to date have proved more modest than at first contemplated. Instead of actually leasing a million acres of land, the company has taken up less than 200,000 acres, 80,000 are under cultivation. Instead of employing 350,000 native workers, as a Firestone pubication first predicted, it employs about 30,000, the actual force at work every day being about 26,000…. Even so, this is the largest rubber operation in the world.
However, the influence of Firestone in Liberian affairs represented a new brand of colonial exploitation
The two key reasons for the loss of support for Garvey’s movement in the 1920s were the interference of the colonial powers and the opposition of the Liberian oligarchy. (Sundiata, 16) “The Garvey Plan failed in Liberia not because it was illogical or unfeasible, but because key members of the Liberian political class opposed it from the outset.” (Sundiata 36) They opposed it from the outset because of the economic consequences that would follow. Garvey’s growing list of opponents (1922) launched a “Garvey must go” drive led by the NAACP. In addition, his efforts to negotiate a second colonization plan with Liberia were unsuccessful, in part due to being outbid for land by Harvey Firestone of Firestone Tire and Rubber Corp. There are significant documents that hold accounts of Garvey’s trial for mail fraud where he acted as his own attorney in pleading his case before the jury. (Grant 166) The causes are cited as being both economic and psychological. In a world dominated by white supremacy, a little bit of status goes a very long way. “In a world that subjected the majority of black imperialism and/or racial segregation, the oligarchy was deeply conscious of its relatively privileged position within the world schema.” (Sundiata, 36) Yet with that power and position the oligarchy failed to help the people once in their situation. The Liberian elites allowed economic interest of colonial powers or the US to take precedence over the principles of Black Nationalism, which are embodied in the Garveyite movement, on which the nation was founded. The firestone venture however is both a case of US economic nationalism and an unavoidable expedient altruism. The US was forced to seek an outlet in order to counter the rubber monopoly of Great Britain. And despite the unilateral agreement, Firestone himself noted that his interest in Liberia is to aid it, he said “there is some small satisfaction in just giving away money, but the greatest satisfaction is in giving others the chance to be independent” (Azikiwe, Ben 31) The greatest threat that the UNIA and Garvey Movement ran into in Liberia, the proposed experiment site, was that of class. As noted above the Liberian elites that ran the government were not at all connected to the people that they were ruling. This combined with the interference of the US led to the end of the Garvey’s movement and the current exploitation of Liberia.
The firestone agreement is chiefly responsible for the economic problems of Liberia today. The agreement granted Harvey S. Firestone not only a veto power on refinancing the country, but also elevates him to a dictatorship where he controls the economic destiny of the government. Like an octopus he has a stranglehold on Liberia, which will ultimately threaten if not completely decimate the political existence of the lone African Republic. It is thus believed that this agreement paved the way for US imperialism in Africa and economic exploitation. (Azikiwe, Ben 30)
The way was paved for the Firestone Tire Company and it gladly snatched the opportunity to drive away with Liberia’s resources. The African country founded by freed slaves from the US in the 1820s, is suffering from serious poverty and unemployment due to the Liberian Civil War that ended in 2003. The war destroyed the infrastructure and economy. Firestone, the multinational rubber manufacturing giant known for its automobile tires, has come under fire from human rights and environmental groups for its alleged use of child labor and slave-like working conditions at its plantation in Liberia. Recently in 2005, the International Labor Rights Fund (ILRF) filed a lawsuit charging that thousands of workers, including minors, toil in virtual slavery at (Bridgestone’s) Firestone rubber plantation in Liberia. Operating in Liberia since the 1920s, Firestone continues to depend on the poor and illiterate workers to tap tons of raw latex from rubber trees using primitive tools exposing the workers to hazardous pesticides and fertilizers. (Rizvi) Firestone denies the use of child labor and claims that its jobs are among the highest paying in the country. But, rights activists who have visited the plantation in question attest to the desperation and fear conveyed by Firestone’s workers. “I have seen six people living in one room, without any toilet, electricity, or running water,” said an environmental lawyer from Liberia, “The company has no justification whatsoever to keep on exploiting those people.” The lawyer and many others say thousands of workers at the plantation cannot meet daily quota without unpaid aid, requiring them to put their own children to work or face starvation. The workers are assigned a quota, which takes 21 hours a day at least to complete, and if they cannot complete, their wages are halved, and they cannot earn a livable wage. Therefore, the workers have to make their families perform hard labor from early morning in order to meet the quota. The children work 12-14 hours a day and most do not have proper nutrition in their diets given the low wages. Most plantation workers, according to the lawsuit, remain “at the mercy of Firestone for everything from food to health care to education. They risk expulsion and starvation if they raise even minor complaints, and the company makes willful use of this situation to exploit these workers as they have since 1926.” (Rizvi)
This current situation brings up a very important and interesting question. What if Marcus Garvey had been successful in Liberia with his UNIA movement? What if the Firestone Company never had been granted a concession and established in the country? What if the Liberian elites held to the country’s founding principles? Would there be no exploitation today if they had given Garvey the land instead of the Firestone Company? The evidence is not concrete enough to say one way or the other if exploitation would or would not have happened in Liberia if actions had been different. It can be inferred that exploitation would have been delayed if the Firestone Company had not been given a concession. However, one cannot say that the Garvey Movement in Liberia would have been the best option for the country either. In the Garveyite’s view, both they and the native people had been betrayed by white American capital, represented by the newly introduced Firestone Rubber Company in 1927. (Sundiata 80) Garvey had tried to warn the Liberian government. Needless to say, Garvey’s warning failed to impress the Liberian politicians who, in pulling off the “big deal” with Firestone, were further enslaved by US capital. From his Atlanta prison Garvey warned that the Firestone investment was only the beginning of the United States monopoly control of African resources. (Sundiata 75) The slavery begun in 1926 continues today and one can see evidently that the failure of Garvey in Liberia dealt the deathblow to the organization. However, it not only dealt the deathblow for Garvey’s organization but it also locked the shackle of US exploitation on the arm of the Liberian people.
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Note: Written in 2006 for a 2nd semester college writing course.