Saturday, November 12, 2011



President Tubman hosted annual Executive Councils all over the country and the larger "Unification Council" every five years, beginning in 1954 in Harper.

 "The Liberian nation is to be made up of the Negro civilized to some extent in the United States and repatriated, and of the aboriginal tribes. At present it is composed of a small number of civilized and a large number of aboriginal communities in varying degrees of dependence. The problem is how to blend these into a national organism, an organic unity." -ARTHUR BARCLAY, 1904 

The problem of how to integrate the disparate elements that made up Liberia into a national organic whole, had faced the first African republic from its inception. Numerous factors were responsible for the state of separation that obtained at the time Barclay made the above statement, between the "civilized," mostly coastal population and the unassimilated interior people. Among these were the obvious cultural differences, some pockets of hostility on both sides, financial constraints, competition for trade, strong prejudice on the part of some settlers, lack of will to engage the other side, etc. But the biggest obstacle to any form of national cohesion was ignorance, of the country's topography, people, and their cultures. The interior beyond the forty mile coastal strip ceded to the American Colonization Society was a vast, impenetrable unknown. The Liberians simply didn't know who or what was in the dense rainforests beyond their coastal settlements.

And some had no interest in ever going beyond that forty mile territorial limit, content to remain insulated from the indigenous cultures around them, limiting contact with the upcountry people to trade and perhaps labor needs. Circumstances, however demanded that the Liberians assert authority over the surrounding territory, in order to protect their sovereignty from their powerful colonial neighbors, France and Britain, and to put an end to internecine warfare between indigenous nations that disrupted Liberian trade and endangered its security. As their jurisdiction thus expanded through treaties with indigenous nations, contact increased with the interior people, along with rumors of vast reserves of mineral and natural wealth hidden in the forests and mountains. Then of course there was the "civilizing mission" element of the whole Liberian venture in the first place. If these riches were to be developed and exploited for the benefit of Liberians, and if Liberia's "civilizing" and Christianizing mission was to be fulfilled, closer alliances would have to be forged with the peoples of the interior. There was also the element of Pan-Africanism, the vision of Liberia given voice by Edward Wilmot Blyden and others, that necessitated a union and a merger of the "civilized" and unassimilated peoples.

Assimilation had in fact begun right from the earliest days of the colony, with indigenous people living in and around the American settlements, attending church, going to school, living with settler families, and inter-marrying with them. A description of the colony in the 1830s gave a demographic breakdown of the "civilized" population as 50-50 indigenous and immigrant.

Moreover, there were already "civilized" people living in the area long before any settlers arrived, mostly around the Maryland settlements. Many of the Grebo and Kru were educated, affluent, and lived in separate communities, virtually a distinct tribe from the unwesternized Grebo and Kru. The Kru, Grebo and to a lesser extent the Vai, had all had long exposure to European or Mediterranean trade, and were no strangers to western civilization. These people naturally assimilated easily and rapidly into the settler population, together with elements of the Bassa and other coastal groups, and the recaptives off the interdicted slave ships. This assimilated population was referred to collectively as "civilized," "Kwee," `"Congo," or "Americo-Liberian," whether or not they had any ancestral ties to America.

Of the vast unassimilated and unwesternized interior populations, University of Chicago Anthropologist Frederick Starr had this to say in his 1913 unpublished work, LIBERIA: DESCRIPTION, HISTORY, PROBLEMS:

"Then there are the pagan tribes of the interior. They are a more serious proposition for the Liberian than the Mohammedans and Kru. They live in little towns under the control of petty chiefs ; most of them speak only a native language; there is no unity among them; not only are there jealousies between the tribes, but there are suspicions between the villages of one tribe and speech; they live in native houses, wear little clothing, have simple needs; they are ununited and know nothing of the outside world; they know little of France or England, scarcely know what the Liberian Government means or wants ; they are satisfied and only wish to be left alone."

Contact with these lesser known peoples of the interior did not always involve war or land and trade disputes. Hidden in the history are accounts of purely human interactions that would characterize relations between any groups of people anywhere, but that are especially illuminating in regards to a rich history usually reduced to the oversimplified Americo-Liberian vs. Native narrative. Among these is the story of seven young settler children taken captive by the Dey people after the 1822 battle of Crown Hill. Jehudi Ashmun gave this account of that episode:

". . . redeeming trait . . . in their treatment of these helpless and tender captives. It was the first object of the captors to place them under the maternal care of several aged women, who, in Africa, as in most countries, are proverbially tender and indulgent. These protectresses had them clad in their usual habits and at an early period of the truce, sent to the colony to inquire the proper kinds of food, and modes of preparing it, to which the youngest had been accustomed. The affections of their little charges were so perfectly won in the four months of their captivity as to oblige their own parents, at the end of that time, literally to tear away from their keepers several of the youngest amidst the most affectionate demonstrations of mutual attachment. This event did not occur until the 12th of March, when their gratuitous redemption was voted almost unanimously in a large council of native chiefs."

Another young settler captive was future President Stephen Allen Benson, who also developed bonds of close friendship with his Dey and Gola captors. As president in 1858, he dispatched the two man team of George L. Seymour and Samuel J. Ash on an expeditionary trip into the interior. They explored the Kpelle country north and east of the St. Paul River and reached far into the Lorma country in the northwest, providing for the first time detailed information about the interior and the Lorma, Mandingo and other northwestern peoples, establishing the Lorma country as the source of much of the produce that reached the coast, including palm oil, pottery, tobacco, salt and country cloths, but also as a major slave trading center. The explorers were forced to return to Monrovia after they were attacked by hostile warriors and almost killed.

Each succeeding administration stressed the necessity of incorporating the "aboriginal population" into the body politic, as did James Skivring Smith in 1871:

"We have been too exclusively employed of late in regarding the immigrant portion of our population, and not taking a more general and comprehensive view of the incorporation of our aboriginal population as a principal source of our national permanance. Our fathers laid the foundations of our national fabric, and we have to gather the materials to erect the superstructure from Musardu and the regions far beyond as well as across the Atlantic...We could penetrate into and open free communication with the far interior...We must, by well concerted action, convince our aboriginal brethren that we have the disposition and ability to make of them a great nation...We must assist them, win their confidence, and provide ways and means for their assimilation and incorporation among us."

But exactly how to accomplish this remained a subject of debate, trial and error, as ideas were thrown back and forth about trade depots on the interior highways, guaranteeing protection to trading companies and interior settlements, employing commissioners, subsidizing chiefs, even an interesting experiment in Murraysville, Sinoe County where Kru people were induced to adopt "civilized" ways, build a frame house, wear western clothing, plant coffee, pay poll tax and enlist in the militia. The project attracted very few of the proud and independent Kru.
James Spriggs Payne addressed the question in his annnual message of 1876:

"You have often had before you the subject of our aboriginal Liberians-the vastly preponderating portion of the population of this republic...anxious for their elevation into complete citizenship apparent as it is that this indigenous population is destined for no insignificant part in the maintenance of this government...this indigenous population with its many sterling qualities, will be an acquisition of great utility and power, and the problem has long occupied the minds of our best citizens, how to bring them in and assimilate them to our customs and institutions...I do not flatter myself that this problem can be solved at this date. There is a great deal to learn of aboriginal character, a great deal of unreasonable prejudice to conquer..."

In 1868, the surveyor Benjamin J. K. Anderson made a successful exploration of the interior, mapping the entire northwest area under Liberian territorial jurisdiction. Commissioned by President Daniel B. Warner and funded by American philantropists Caleb Swan and Henry Schieffelin, Anderson and his party left Monrovia in February 1868, traveled by boat six miles up the St. Paul River, and trekked through Dey, Gola, Kpelle, Lorma and Mandingo country to reach Musardu, capital of the Mandingo kingdom, now Musadugu in the Republic of Guinea, where he signed a treaty of mutual protection with the Mandingo King Ibrahima Sissi. Anderson made a second expedition between May and December 1874, entered into treaties of commerce and friendship with local leaders, settled ethnic disputes, and produced a comprehensive, published report on the interior in which he urged the government to establish an immediate and permanent presence.

The rumors and wild stories that had formed the bulk of knowledge of the interior were replaced with verified fact, documentation, maps, and actual demographic and ethnographic reports. The Anderson survey was a watershed, paving the way for a government with the will and the ability, to open up the interior. His recommendations, which included a chain of military posts and the education of sons of the leading chiefs, were implemented by President Hilary R. W. Johnson in the 1880s. Sons of chiefs were placed with leading families to be educated, Johnson personally hosting, rearing and educating many of them, including the father of Liberia's current president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. HRW Johnson's granddaughter, Rachel Johnson married the Vai King, Arthur Momolu Massaquoi in 1915.

President Arthur Barclay also acted on the findings of BJK Anderson, instituting his policy of "Direct Cooperation" with the Chiefs of the Interior, partly built on the unimplemented plan of his predecessor William D. Coleman, 'Interior Development and the Incorporation and Absorption of the Native Tribes into the Body Politic.'

Barclay called the first Council of Chiefs in Kakata in 1904, consulted them regularly, and increased government's role in the selection of paramount and clan chiefs. He began to break down the strict policy of separation between the coastal and interior peoples, but like William D. Coleman before him, he faced strong opposition from his constituents to his efforts at integration, especially in his attempts to address grievances among the Kru. He designated the Native districts "Townships," with the Chief in charge, commissioned by the President, and divided the interior into three provinces, the Western, Central and Eastern. He toured the country meeting with chiefs, and was visited regularly by them. He also maintained close relationships with officials "of aboriginal extraction," as he put it, who believed in and worked for the gradual amalgamation of the Americo-Liberian and Aboriginal elements, like Judge S. W. Seton of Maryland County, a "civilized Grebo" of the Nabo/Bigtown clan.

Succeeding presidents Daniel E. Howard, Charles D. B. King and Edwin J. Barclay all continued the policy of Direct Cooperation, Barclay maintaining the closest and most productive relationships with the chiefs, so much that his power base was mostly upcountry, giving him a buffer against more conservative political forces in the coastal cities. But all had only limited success at realizing the vision of integration, until the administration of William V. S. Tubman, who was elected in 1943.

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