Sunday, September 18, 2011
THOMAS J. R. FAULKNER: PATRIOT OR TRAITOR?
Thomas Jefferson Richlieu Faulkner was born in North Carolina in 1869 and immigrated to Liberia in 1881. Though little is known of his life back in North Carolina, his forty plus years in his adopted country make for one of the most fascinating and controversial life stories of all Liberian historical figures. Considered a great patriot by some, a traitor to his country by others, it was Faulkner who exposed the shame and scandal of Fernando Po to the world in 1929.
Faulkner was a professional engineer who installed and operated an ice factory, ice cream plant and telephone system, ran the popular TJR Faulkner Ice Cream and Confectionery, and attempted to bring electricity to Monrovia. He was the only one able to cut the sandbar that rendered harbor traffic so treacherous, and the one the government called on to install and repair all major machinery. Described by Charles S. Johnson as "the most useful man in the republic and at the same time the most hated and lonely," Faulkner overcame his status as a relative newcomer and outsider to become Monrovia's Mayor, serving during the German bombardment of the city in World War I. Johnson further described him as being "of powerful physique despite his sixty years, eternally active and fearless."
Faulkner fell out of favor with the Monrovia political establishment after he challenged President CDB King's increasingly dictatorial administration in the 1927 elections, on the ticket of the Peoples Party. The PP's platform was one of radical reform, calling for a decrease in presidential powers, removal of the Capital from Monrovia to the interior, increased rights for the unassimilated indigenous population, abolition of the hut tax, reform of the militia, Judiciary and finances, establishment of a civil service, entry of foreign capital into the country without special concessions (he was an opponent of the Firestone agreement) scientific and technical efforts to aid agriculture, principally coffee growing, unhindered selection of legislative candidates by the people, freedom of speech and the press, and hinterland administration reform.
Several factors led to the defeat of the Peoples Party at the polls. Their membership lacked experience at the higher levels of government, and it was difficult to attract those with the requisite experience, since their jobs depended on membership in the True Whig Party which controlled all appointments. Voters were also reluctant to openly support the PP for the same fear of losing their jobs, even if they agreed with their platform. The electorate was hesitant as well to throw out the entire political administration in favor of an untried and untested new cadre of leaders. Another factor was King's superior political skills. He countered the PP's indigenous rights proposals with an inclusion plan of his own.
But the greatest factor was election fraud. The election results were challenged in court, alleging inflated poll results, illegal voter registration practices, ballot tampering, etc. The Legislature investigated, subpoenaing the ballots from the State Department, which revealed that ballots had been uncounted or destroyed, and that sheriffs, judges and voters had been intimidated. King prevailed however, the Legislature and the Judiciary participating in a massive coverup that allowed King to enter into his third term without explanation of the obvious discrepancies in the numbers of registered voters and election results.
Faulkner had been a maverick before the election, his crusade for indigenous rights a constant thorn in the side of the Administration. After the election, this crusade took on added fury, relentlessness, and determination to expose the corruption of the King dictatorship. His focus became the practice of forced labor employed by the government in road building and subject to widespread abuse, and the lucrative exportation of some of that labor to the Spanish Islands. The latter had been going on since 1924 when Sinoe County Superintendent Samuel A. Ross and Vice President Allen N. Yancy formed their Sinoe and Maryland County Recruiting Companies, entering into agreements with the Spanish Consul to supply labor to Santa Isabel, Fernando Po, Gabon and what is now Equatorial Guinea.The business being extremely lucrative, many government officials were involved, from senators, representatives and lawyers to district commissioners, chiefs, Headmen and Frontier Force officers.
Faulkner personally intercepted a group of people being taken from the Gola Country for forced labor at Firestone and sent them home, addressed a group of surprised villagers at Kakata about their rights, and constantly warned about a coming mandate on Liberia and "a native revolution" if these practices were not curtailed. He traveled to America on a campaign to raise awareness of what was taking place in Liberia and at the same time to raise funds and solicit support for a country he painted as entirely corrupt. From the US, he went on to Geneva where he presented evidence of the forced labor rackets to League of Nations Secretary General Sir Eric Drummond in June, 1929.
The Monrovia establishment reacted with outrage and vicious retaliation. Faulkner was threatened with arrest and trial for treason, his businesses were boycotted and destroyed, attempts were made on his life, and he was almost thoroughly ostracized, government officials lapsing into blind rage at the mere mention of his name. In Kakata, the body of a young female ritual murder victim was dug up and the names Faulkner and Twe found inscribed on her forehead. Didhwo Twe (see hpsol: Didhwo Twe) was the ousted Member of the House of Representatives who had collected the evidence presented to Drummond in Geneva. Newspapers attacked and villified them both as traitors to their country.
But not everyone viewed them as traitors. The Citizens Non-Partisan League was formed in their support and defense, by Justice and former Secretary of State F. E. R. Johnson, Gabriel Johnson, J. J. Dossen, Gabriel Farngalo, and others, holding huge demonstrations in the streets calling for an end to forced labor and the resignation of the entire government.
Charles S. Johnson met and interviewed Faulkner several times in Monrovia while Johnson was serving on the League of Nations Commission of Inquiry. He wrote that he couldn't always determine whether Faulkner was driven by pure humanitarian sentiment or personal grievance against CDB King and his entrenched political machine. Former President Arthur Barclay told Johnson in a private conversation that Faulkner's crusade was "nigger doings," petty resentment against King. Johnson also felt Faulkner "could have been justly accused of intemperance in his charges against the government, of stirring up unrest," but that not even his political enemies could ever accuse him of dishonesty or injustice in his forty years of public life. Faulkner was "an undeniable pillar of strength and dependability to the country, he paid his workers and his debts, unusual for Liberia, his word was his bond, and he loved Liberia."
Faulkner's presidential aspirations were ended by the political storm of Fernando Po, unfortunately for he could have made a great president and changed the course of Liberian history. As it was, his name was virtually erased from the nation's history, his many indispensable contributions forgotten, his legacy of service to his country swallowed up under the cloud of one word:traitor. Thomas Faulkner sought the presidential chair again in 1931 on the Peoples Party ticket, but was defeated by the incumbent president, Edwin Barclay. TJR Faulkner died shortly thereafter, crossing the hazardous bar at Marshall.
Charles S. Johnson, SEASONS IN HELL, and BITTER CANAAN: STORY OF THE NEGRO REPUBLIC
Dunn, Beyan, Burrowes, HISTORICAL DICTIONARY OF LIBERIA, 2ND EDITION