Liberia and Negro Rule


The recent arrangement with the Negro Republic of Liberia, whereby America will undertake certain administrative duties and will grant a loan for the development of that rich and backward portion of the coast of Guinea, has introduced a new and startling feature into the administration of Tropical Africa—new in the sense that America is strengthening the somewhat nebulous relations she has long maintained with that portion of Western Africa, and startling because, for the first time, she is seriously undertaking administrative responsibilities in a continent from which, except for the previous agreement with Liberia in 1911, she has studiously held aloof.

When I wrote my book, The Germans and Africa, at the beginning of the war, I was much criticized, on both sides of the Atlantic, because I suggested that the time was not far distant when the United States would be compelled by economic necessity to accept responsibilities in a portion of the world which, hitherto, had been regarded as peculiarly the domain of European enterprise. What I then wrote was as follows:—

There remains one great and powerful nation that as yet has taken no part either in the regeneration or exploitation of Africa—a nation that sooner or later will be compelled to obtain new sources of tropical supplies, and to extend her influence over other portions of the globe than those now under her sway. The future of the United States as a plantation power has so far scarcely been considered. The entry of America upon the African continent would involve a reversal of traditional American policy, though not so great an upheaval as would have been the case before the Philippines, some of the Samoan Islands, Porto Rico, and Cuba had come under the American flag or had fallen under American influence. Yet even were America desirous—and there is no present evidence of such a desire—of undertaking fresh responsibilities (in Africa), and even were Great Britain anxious to assist, it is hardly probable that such assistance would be forthcoming without some substantial compensation in the form of a reorganization or exchange of territory. But such a possibility may well occur within the present or next generation. America, if she is to continue triumphantly in the future along the paths of progress she has trodden in the past, can hardly afford to deny herself the opportunity of acquiring tropical possessions, from which she might gather the products that will be needed for her own enterprises. The vast stores of rubber, cotton and other fibres, vegetable oils, copra, tea, coffee, and other tropical products that are consumed by her population or utilized in her factories will doubtless, if her progress is to be assured, be obtained from American territory outside the boundaries of the United States.

While it is by no means suggested that what is essentially an economic arrangement between the most powerful Republic in the world and probably the weakest independent state outside Europe necessarily involves the territorial absorption of the latter, it is evident to those who are conversant with the processes of economic expansion that, by obtaining a commercial foothold in Africa, the American people has entered upon the first step that leads to direct economic, if not political, control.

It is neither desirable nor necessary to discuss the action of America in all its bearings, either as to whether the people of the United States will eventually realize the factor and ultimately undertake all the work that such an arrangement involves, or whether the European tropical powers will welcome the presence of a newcomer on their African preserves; but it is certainly pertinent to consider two important aspects of the question immediately brought to the front by the Liberian agreement—the first purely economic, and the second political and sociological.

The development of tropical Africa, and more particularly those portions of the continent that lie within Upper and Lower Guinea, has been extraordinarily rapid during recent years. Railways have been, and are being, built, which are draining toward the coastal outlets the vast agricultural wealth of the interior plateaus, and will eventually form the main economic avenues whereby the latent wealth of Western Africa will be fully developed. Enormous agricultural developments are taking place in all the African colonies bordering on the Atlantic; native industries, such as the cocoa industry of the Gold Coast, have been established and developed entirely by native labor and under native peasant-proprietorship, on a scale undreamed of even a few years ago. The natives of Western Africa are becoming educated in the best means of developing their own territories to a degree unknown at any period of their history. They are undergoing a process of agricultural regeneration, which undoubtedly will turn their lands into a vast tropical storehouse for the supply of European markets and manufacturers, and will bring them into closer and closer touch with the economic life of Europe and with the political and social systems of the Western nations. The time cannot be far distant when the profound and disturbing changes of the present will produce in West Africa a race—or rather a number of races—who will have attained a degree of civilization that will fit them for political advances for which, even now, a small, but as yet unrepresentative, minority is clamoring. That process must necessarily be slow, but so long as Western civilization itself endures, it will be sure.

The economic development of Western Africa is at present practically in the hands of two, or, if the immense basin of the Congo be included, three European nations—Great Britain, France, and Belgium. The first administers four widely separated territories: the Gambia Colony, a small enclave on both sides of the lower reaches of the vast Gambia River, which in the future will form a great highway of commerce from the interior of Western Africa and the three colonies and protectorates of Sierra Leone, the Gold Coast, and Nigeria. The last is in itself a vast tropical empire, peopled by nearly eighteen million inhabitants of diverse races and civilizations, some of whom, long previous to the advent of Europeans, had reached a high stage of development and had evolved civilizations peculiarly their own.

Surrounding these British colonies are the really immense territories of the French Colonial Empire, stretching from the Mediterranean in the north to the Gulf of Guinea and the Congo in the south, and from the Atlantic in the west to the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan in the east—an enormous block of territory, embracing the temperate northern lands of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, where some millions of Frenchmen are already settled, and the purely tropical countries south of the Sahara which forms at present a natural barrier between the two great sections of French Africa.

In the far south Belgium administers a country embracing the enormous and fertile region of the Congo Basin, with thousands of miles of navigable waterways, and agricultural and mineral possibilities that even yet are only partly realized. Here then, not only within easy reach of Europe, but also facing the American continent, is a region which offers unrivaled possibilities of development and practically every tropical product used in modern industry.

The position of Western Africa, vis-à-vis America, is the economic factor to which I have alluded above. A glance at the map will reveal two important facts which have a direct bearing upon the economic expansion of Western Africa. The first is that not only does the coast of Guinea lie within easy distance of Brazil and thus in direct communication by land with the Argentine and South America generally, but it also represents that portion of the African continent which is nearest to the eastern littoral of the United States. Direct steamship communication between the West African ports and New York is certain to be developed largely in the near future, when the agricultural wealth of Guinea is more fully realized. The second fact is that the economic development of West Africa is proceeding upon lines that will bring to its western coasts, where are to be found the best harbors, the products of the interior.

I have already alluded to the Gambia River, which at present is practically unused as a great economic highway into the heart of Guinea, because of the unnatural diversion of traffic due to political factors that would be involved in the development of the great natural routes of commerce. But there are other harbors,—though none of them served by so valuable a waterway,—equally effective for the development of this portion of West Africa: the great ports of Dakar and Konakry, in the French colonies of Senegal and Guinea respectively, and the extremely valuable natural harbor at Freetown in Sierra Leone. The value of the last port, however, is largely discounted by the fact that it can serve only the comparatively restricted area of the protectorate, so long as France and Great Britain are trade and political rivals in West Africa. But it is mainly from the point of view of French policy that the position of West Africa must be regarded; as the French, by their system of railway expansion, are seeking to develop their territories from west to east along the vast grasslands which form the interior plateau toward which all West African colonies rise from the coast. By joining Dakar and Konakry with the headwaters of the Niger and Senegal, as they have already done, and by continuing their railways from west to east toward Lake Chad, the French are developing a great railway system that will drain toward these two ports and toward the coasts of the Gulf of Guinea, by means of their branch railways, the as yet entirely undeveloped produce of the interior.

There is, however, one other factor in this connection that must be taken into account. The French are in possession of the key to rapid railway communication between South Africa and Europe—the Sahara. It is an essential feature of French policy that sooner or later a great trunk line shall be constructed from Algeria across the Sahara to the Niger River, and thence to the port of Dakar, the nearest point to South America; or alternatively, and perhaps additionally, a railway along the coast from Dakar to the international port of Tangiers. It is too much to claim, as some authorities have done, that a Saharan railway would be likely to pay its way by the conveyance of produce between Western Africa and Europe; but undoubtedly it would form the quickest route for mails and passengers, and may thus be regarded as a world-route of the future.

South of the areas drained by these railways, and within easy reach of the American coasts, lies the great territory of Liberia—a practically undeveloped country, possessing enormous latent wealth in tropical products, and economically one of the richest regions of Western Africa.


Having considered the economic factors connected with the European development of Western Africa, we come to the second important aspect of European control—the policy involved in native administration, and the right attitude to adopt toward the backward races, in view of the changes that have occurred in our conception of the duties of a protecting power. It is now fully realized, especially since the adoption of Article 22 of the Treaty of Versailles, that the economic development of Tropical Africa involves the recognition, and not only the recognition but the actual fulfillment, of the doctrine of trusteeship. It is no longer possible to adopt the old German view, as stated by Hassert, that 'colonization consists in the utilization of the soil, its products and its men, for the economic profit of the colonizing nation'; or, in Fischer's phrase, 'colonizing Africa is making the negroes work,' even though there are still many who regard economic considerations as the primal motive in civilizing Africa. The economic imperialism which recognizes only the duty of paying dividends to shareholders is almost a thing of the past; and it is generally felt by most colonizing nations—certainly by Great Britain, France, and America—that the doctrine of trusteeship on behalf of the backward races of mankind is the essential, and indeed vital, moral stimulus without which no European power is justified in enforcing its will upon weaker peoples.

Although the recognition and practice of this doctrine do not preclude the economic development of a country in the interest of the protecting power, they do involve the assumption that that development must not be contrary to the interests of the natives. Forced plantation labor, with its attendant evils, as taught by Karl Peters and practised by the Germans, has given place to a wiser and more humane statesmanship; so that it is no longer possible to regard as serious such a statement as the following: 'To me the most advantageous system seems to be one in which the negro is forced, following the example laid down by Prussian military law, to devote twelve years of his life to working for the Government. During this time he should receive food and shelter, and a small wage, say about two shillings a month, like a Prussian soldier.'

Lord Milner has officially laid down the policy of the British Government on the subject of native labor, 'in order that there may be no room for doubt in the matter.' The 'traditional policy,' he says, 'is absolutely opposed to compulsory labor for private employment... It is a point of fundamental importance that there is no question of force or compulsion, but only of encouragement and advice through the native chiefs and headmen.' The claims and demands that arise out of our dual responsibilities as controlling powers in the Tropics—as trustees to civilization for the adequate development of their resources for the benefit of the whole of mankind and as trustees for the welfare of the native races—are frequently mutually antagonistic and extremely difficult to adjust. How far this 'encouragement and advice' should go is a difficult matter to decide; but there can be no doubt whatever that it occasionally proceeds too far, even in those colonies where the doctrine of trusteeship is now fully recognized. It is my intention to inquire briefly how this doctrine is being applied in Tropical Africa: and the question is equally interesting to British and Americans, in view of the fact that both are trustee powers.

It may, of course, be assumed that no country is sufficiently altruistic to undertake the painful, and often thankless, task of administrative work in Africa purely from moral motives, and with the sole idea of benefiting mankind. We are still far from the millennium, and it is certain that the prime motives that move mankind in the mass are those concerned with self-interest. Thus, American administrative work in Liberia, British administrative control in Nigeria, and French administration in Senegal have, as their primal factor, the economic development of those countries. But such economic development is assuredly not unconnected with, or divorced from, the high moral obligations officially recognized by the Treaty of Versailles.

The subject of native administration in Africa is one of enormous importance, for upon the application of correct principles depend in a large measure not only the stability of the economic machine, but the happiness and future prosperity of vast numbers of peoples who hitherto have been regarded as among the most backward of the races of mankind. It is precisely here that the forces that are moulding anew the destinies of Africa—modifying, and occasionally destroying, the established customs and habits of the native races; changing the age-long political dependence upon native chieftains into dependence upon European administrators; sometimes forging the bonds of economic servitude upon races who hitherto have been more or less free within their own peculiar spheres; or erecting a new and bastard civilization on the ruins of an effete but venerated system—have to be judged.

Administration, to be effective, must seek to preserve instead of to destroy. In its modifying and civilizing mission it must keep all that is good in native life and customs; it must support the independence of the chieftains and aid them in the work of governing their own peoples; it must preserve the economic freedom of the races under its charge, and not allow them to be exploited for the sole benefit of European traders, settlers, or planters; and, above all, it must safeguard the rights of the natives in their own lands; train them in agricultural work, so that they can develop their own farms and plantations; and, by realizing that the true prosperity of a tropical country is founded upon agricultural development, foster by every means the latent ability of the natives to sow and reap their own crops. In other words, one of the main functions of administration must be to prevent native races from becoming mere wage-earners working for others, instead of being primary producers on their own behalf. It is entirely because the Germans failed to recognize that the possession of land was essential to native races, that their policy had such disastrous results in Southwest Africa, where a whole race was practically exterminated because of its devotion to the pastoral lands of its forefathers; or in the Cameroons, where villages were depopulated because of the constant demands for plantation labor.

The problem differs largely in the various African colonies. In some, such as East Africa, where the presence of a large and intrusive European element has immensely complicated the task of administration, although enormously adding to the economic value of the country, the native peoples had hitherto been largely of a nomadic or pastoral character, roaming over or occupying large tracts of country without effectively developing them. Here it is obvious that the natives as such can have no exclusive rights over the land; and although this may not justify the policy that has been pursued, it goes far toward explaining it.

In others, such as the contiguous country of Uganda, where the natives have been largely agriculturists who, by their numbers and influence, have formed powerful native kingdoms, it has obviously been the correct policy to safeguard jealously native rights over the land. This has especially been the case in West Africa, where the British Government has not only deliberately followed the policy of ruling, so far as possible, through and by means of the native chieftains, but has also, during recent years, encouraged by every possible means the formation of a class of peasant proprietors working for themselves, under expert European advice wherever possible.

With respect to the actual work of administration and its main purposes, so high an authority as Sir Frederick Lugard, one of the outstanding figures of modern Africa, has stated that 'We must continue to guide and control; the keynote of our endeavor being to create a class of rulers fit to assume by gradual processes a limited responsibility, while devoting our energies to raising the ignorant millions to a higher plane, by a system of education suited to their needs.' On the other question—native agricultural development—Sir Hugh Clifford, the Governor-General of Nigeria, a country which may be termed the African India, has stated that agricultural industries in those tropical countries which are mainly, or exclusively, in the hands of the native peasantry have a firmer root than similar enterprises when owned and managed by Europeans, are the cheapest instruments for agricultural production, and are capable of a rapidity of expansion and a progressive increase of output that beggar every record of the past. There can be no doubt, with the examples of the Gold Coast, Nigeria, and Uganda before us, that the policy of peasant proprietorship, wherever there is a natural agricultural bent on the part of the native races, has been triumphantly vindicated.

It may not be considered out of place, therefore, if I attempt to apply the lessons already learned during a long period of experimental administration in West Africa to the question of Liberia. There the problem is essentially different from what it is in any other portion of the continent, because Liberia is a large and practically undeveloped country in which, in the past, a small educated native community, settled along the coast, largely the descendants of freed slaves and not necessarily of the same races as the remainder of the natives, has been struggling to educate and administer upon European lines the large and unresponsive masses of the interior.

It is a singular fact that African natives, as a whole, feel little respect for those Africans who, not being of their own particular race, attempt to administer their territories, unless such natives are acting under European direction. With their own hereditary chieftains and headmen it is a different matter. In the case of Liberia, therefore, the task of the educated coastal native has been exceedingly difficult. With inadequate financial resources, and with the inertia, if not the active hostility or contempt, of the interior natives to overcome, it is no matter for wonder that the development of Liberia has been retarded instead of advanced by that very political freedom which is the most cherished possession of European races.

For this reason, therefore, American administrators have an almost unique opportunity in Liberia; and if they are able to train the Liberians to govern themselves they will have rendered a real service to the cause of West Africa.

They will, moreover, have provided an object-lesson as effective in its way as that offered by the British administrations in Nigeria and the Gold Coast.

In Liberia it is entirely a matter of educating the natives of the interior in agricultural work, and convincing them that their economic independence is intimately connected with the development of their own lands and resources. If they are once convinced that there is no danger of their becoming merely the hewers of wood and drawers of water for a dominant caste, be it European or native, and that their lands will be respected and their customs, so far as they do not actively conflict with the higher ethical teachings, will not be interfered with, the task of administration will be comparatively easy.