AGNES P. MAHONY IN APPLETON'S MAGAZINESeptember11906
Liberia, the Negro Republic
AGNES P. MAHONY IN APPLETON'S MAGAZINE
It is interesting to note, even if it is not very encouraging, that the negro republic of Liberia is degenerating. This republic, started so auspiciously in 1839, has been gradually declining. The reason given for this is that, away from the influence of white men, the negro seems to lose the desire and the ability to better himself.
MOTHER Nature deals out the vegetation of tropical Africa with a lavish hand, and no one need starve in Liberia who is willing to work, but the civilized negro in Africa, at least in Liberia, as I have observed after nearly five years’ residence in the republic, seems to need the encouraging example of and contact with the right kind of white men. The success and flourishing condition of Sierra Leone, the colony established by the English for its freed slaves—many of them brought there from Newfoundland after the Revolutionary War, the West Indies, and also released from captured slave ships—shows that success can attend the efforts of the race to raise themselves, but this success seems to be largely due to the fact that a white man’s hand is at the helm, although most of the principal Government officials are negroes. This colony is only one generation older than Liberia, having been settled in 1787, but at the present time it is several generations ahead in the development of the country. In Sierra Leone are rail-
roads running several hundred miles into the interior and in this way the native in the hinterland is able to send his produce down to the coast for transmission to European ports. The Government is doing many things to encourage the natives to produce for the foreign markets different things which grow with very little care or trouble in that part of the world. Take, for instance, cotton. The natives in Sierra Leone can secure free seeds and free transportation of their crops to the English markets for two years.
Poor Liberia seems to stand alone in her inability to make the most of her naturally rich country. I have seen cotton growing wild in Liberia in three different stages at the one time on the one bush. I have seen the coffee trees bearing three crops in the one year. With very little care — practically none after the “daughters,” as the young banana shoots are called, are separated from the mother plant and stuck into the ground—bananas can be raised in great abundance. The natives live principally on rice, which they raise
themselves, but the descendants of the Liberian colonists seem to do nothing on this line, and here is what, in the opinion of many with whom 1 have talked on the matter, a great deal of Liberia's condition to-day rests upon : the disinclination of the average Liberian to work with his hands. Palm oil, palm nuts, or kernels, and piassava are exported in large quantities from Liberia, but the work of preparing them for the market and carrying them long distances (often on their heads, for there are no vehicles of any kind in Liberia and horses and mules are not able to live there) is entirely done by the native Africans, who came under the domination and rule of the Liberians when the colony was established.
An export duty is charged by the Liberian Government on all produce sent from the country, and an import duty of twelve and a half per cent ad valorem on all goods on which a specific duty is not imposed. These are the main sources of income for the country. This income at the present time is not as great as one would suppose it to be, for the reason that many of the employees of the Government are paid with notes issued by the Government, and these seem to depreciate in value very rapidly. The traders, taking advantage of the needs of the people and the small amount of ready money in circulation in the country, are always ready to buy the Government notes, in some instances being able to obtain for eight shillings in English money (or the equivalent in American or German money) a note which has been issued for $5. These notes are then tendered to the Government as payment for customs duty. The Government, recognizing finally the low financial
condition this kind of business was bringing on the country, then made a law whereby only part of the duties may be paid with Liberian money, the rest being paid in either English. German, French, or American money. The drafts of the American Missionary Society are also accepted by the Government at their full value, though many of the traders charge the missionaries from two to four per cent, for cashing the drafts.
There are no industries in Liberia to-day. All traces of the trade school established at the time the country was under the protection of the American navy and Colonization Society have entirely disappeared. Much money is made by a few through trading. That the natives have learned to like spirituous drinks is clearly evident when one goes into a native village and finds grave after grave outlined by an inverted row, or fence, of gin bottles. These gin bottles are used sometimes by the natives for other purposes, as I found out when two persons came to me for surgical help. They had been operated upon by a native doctor or medicine man—one had a swollen knee, and the other a swollen ankle—and in both instances each “medicine man" had lanced the swelling with a piece of broken gin bottle.
The Liberian Government has established schools in many of the towns, but the native Africans in most instances refuse to send their children to these schools, but will gladly send them to the schools established by the missionaries. Another phase of the situation which stands in the way of the further development of the colony under present conditions is the attitude of the descendants of the first colonists,
who are the Liberians of to-day, and the native Africans toward each other. Many of the latter have conceived a dislike and a distrust for the former, as a whole, which is unfortunate, considering that a few of the leaders in the community realize that Liberia is at the parting of the ways and are doing all they can to save the situation. What Liberia needs to-day is money and men to show them how to use that money to the best advantage in developing the country. Above all things a stimulus is needed to make the rank and file of the people willing to work, for in this will lie the success of the nation. Every facility is given at present by the Government to missionaries and teachers from other countries who go to Liberia to help better the conditions of the people there, and she also offers a home to people of her own race and color. But the Government in a recent message distinctly said that the poor negro emigrant need not come there, as under present conditions they would find it hard to make a living.
According to the opinion of many experts who have investigated the resources of the country there is plenty of natural wealth locked up in the land, because the Liberians seem not to have the money or ability to open it up, and the great danger is that some concession will be granted to syndicates of other countries whereby a few will be benefited at the expense of the nation at large. It is the opinion of many persons who have lived in Liberia, both white people and Liberians themselves, that sooner or later some other nation must assume a protectorate over the country. Some of their leaders think it far better to choose their own protectorate rather than have a protectorate forced upon
them by existing conditions, such as inability to pay their foreign loans or to secure more credit. As those who think in this way are in the minority, Liberia must struggle along until she can go no farther — and after that, what ?
The native Africans far outnumber the Liberians, and Mohammedanism is rapidly spreading in the country despite the efforts made by the Christian missionaries to stem the tide. Their proselytizing agents are going around continually advancing their lines in all directions, until to-day in many sections of Liberia whole tribes will be found who are all practically Mohammedans. The history of all Mohammedan nations is not one of progress along civilized lines, so that little help is to be expected from the Mohammedan natives, and the Liberians must work alone in their efforts to better their own conditions.
Slavery and polygamy are two important features of the native life, and the Government seems to be unable to control either one or the other. It is true that no slaves are exported from the country, but they are continually passing from master to master to satisfy debts and other conditions. That the Government officially recognized one of these two institutions was evidenced when one of the prominent Liberian officials decided that two little girls who had been born during the time their parents were slaves must be given up to the former owner of the parents to he sold by him as slaves. These parents had by industry been able to purchase their own freedom, and naturally thought their children were free also, until their old master claimed them. The father appealed to the Liberian Government, which decided that the children must be
taken from their father and given up to the man who formerly owned him. The master had a purchaser ready for one of them, a Mohammedan native, who already had many wives, but wanted for another wife the elder child, about seven years of age and an attractive, winsome little creature. It is a common thing for natives to purchase girls when they are babies in their mothers’ arms, in some instances leaving them with their mothers until they are old enough to be given up to the Zoba, or “country devil,” who presides over the gree-gree bush, and who trains all girls before they are considered eligible—I will not say for marriage, for they are never married, only purchased by some man, who although he may have many wives seems always anxious to add more to his family. The father of the two little girls had not the money with which to buy his children’s freedom and appealed to me, who was able by paying $30 to save the children from being torn away from everyone belonging to them and carried into the interior, never perhaps to see their parents or each other again. In this instance the price or value was placed upon the children by the representative of the Liberian Government.
That Liberia to-day is in a more dead than alive condition, and is certainly retrograding on economic and industrial lines, is apparent not only to people outside of the race, but to many prominent Liberians, who recognize conditions, but are so few in number that they can only sink or swim with the multitude. During a conversation not long ago a prominent Liberian Government official has perhaps given the reason for that country’s condition to-day when he said : “Twenty-five or thirty
years ago I could take a hundred Liberians, men who had come over from the United States (these men had been developed under white influences), and go into the interior against a thousand rebellious natives without the slightest fear.” When I asked him, “Would you do it to-day ?” he answered quickly, “No indeed, I would not.” A prominent official said at one time to me : “Thirty years ago if I wanted a boat I could have one made in Monrovia (the capital of Liberia), but to-day I must send to England or Germany for it.”
When I first started for work in Liberia I was filled with the idea of helping the people to stand alone, but I have reached the stage others who are anxious to help the race have reached before me. I recognize that very few of those who have not at some time been under the stimm lating influence and example of the Caucasian will ever become leaders. I have learned to look upon the race as children, who must be guided and led by the right kind of progressive men. Not many take the initiative, and of those who do the majority have been born outside of Liberia, or have a strain of white blood in them. I have wondered many times if Booker T. Washington would have developed into the leader he is had he not known the standards of the white men around him, and realized that to uplift his people he must train them to copy the better class of Caucasians. He has recognized that only a few can be developed into teachers and leaders, and is doing much to develop industrial training at Tuskegee, and Liberia needs this sort of training more than anything else.
Perhaps by the time this article reaches the public some country will
be collecting Liberia’s customs and endeavoring to relieve the financial conditions, but this will be only temporary relief. The law forbidding the white man to hold property in the republic should be abolished or amended, and he should be encouraged to come in with his money and help the Liberians to develop out their own country. But the Liberians must be taught to realize that this can only be done by hard work and not by holding Government positions, as so many of the people do
to-day. Better than anything else would be the emigration to Liberia from progressive countries of large numbers of the race who have learned how to make the most of the talents with which they have been endowed, and are willing to work hard to uplift their own people. It must be in large numbers, for a few at a time would under the enervating surroundings and climate soon reach the condition of many who preceded them, and would content themselves with merely living, no matter how.
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