Liberia Before 1944
Liberia's Atlantic coastline runs to 350 miles, behind which lies a geographically varied interior characterized by low plateaus, rolling plains, mountain ranges, steep hills and tropical rain forests. Located to the west of Liberia is the republic of Sierra Leone; to the north, the republic of Guinea and to the east, the republic of Cote d'Ivoire. Its tropical climate is determined by its location near the equator and at right angles to the southwest monsoon. The two distinguishable seasons are the dry (November-April) and the wet (May-October). Over 200 inches of rain can fall during the year in coastal areas and less in the interior.
As the terminus of four major West African language groups, Liberia embraces 20 indigenous languages, a few such as Vai, Bassa, Kpelle and Loma with local scripts, and, at least one, Vai, with a developed literature. English is the official language, with a Creole form, "Liberian English," as an informal lingua franca. Some important towns include Monrovia (the capital and location of the free port), Yekepa, Sanniquellie, Voinjama, Ganta, Gbarnga, Cocopa, Zwedru, Harper, Greenville, Buchanan, Robertsport and Harbel.
Agricultural products include such food crops as rice (the main staple of most Liberians), cassava, yams, palm products, coffee and cocoa; rubber (Liberia being the sixth largest world producer and largest in Africa); timber resources, and fishing. Mineral resources include iron ore (the major foreign exchange earner), gold, diamonds, and smaller quantities of bauxite, kynite and columbite.
For most of the 19th century, the authority of the Liberian government was confined to a few scattered coastal towns that were inhabited mainly by the repatriates and their descendants, with the rest of what is now Liberian territory occupied by separate polities inhabited by indigenes and governed by traditional rulers. The noncontinuous nature of the early Liberian polity, although an anomaly by Western standards, was relatively common in the West Africa forest belt where the dense tropical vegetation made communication difficult even between relatively proximal settlements. Commercial, political and military reasons prompted expansion, which proceeded along the coast until 1857 when the formation of coastal Liberia was virtually complete with four of the five coastal counties, namely Montserrado, Grand Bassa, Sinoe and Maryland.
The impetus for significant expansion into the hinterland was provided by the 1884-85 Berlin African Congress when European imperialists mandated countries at the conference to demonstrate effective territorial ccupation of lands claimed. Trade imperatives also spurred movement into the interior. Inland expansion helped to erase an earlier distinction between the first counties, which had a width not exceeding 40 miles from the coast, and the adjoining territory, which in 1869 became known as the hinterland.
It is only in the 20th century, therefore, that the state solidified into its current form, encompassing an area of about 37,743 square miles. This geographic expansion of the polity produced a population increase, from 45,000 around 1900 to about one million in 1930. It also engendered conflicts, such as the Grebo resistance (1857, 1875 and 1910), the Kru resistance (1915-1916 and 1930s) and the Gola resistance of 1917, to name a few. To enforce the de jure limits of the state, Liberia in 1908 for the first time created a national army, the Liberian Frontier Force.
By the first quarter of the twentieth century the hinterland was administratively divided into western, central and eastern provinces. Liberia thus consisted of five coastal counties (Grand Cape Mount was created from Montserrado), four territories?Marshall, Rivercess, Sasstown and Kru Coast?incorporated within four counties, and three provinces. The "county jurisdiction," inhabited by a smaller percentage of the population (largely of repatriate descent), came under the authority of the statute law system based on the 1847 constitution, but the "hinterland [later provincial] jurisdiction," where the vast majority of the population lived, did not. Not only did this allow for the establishment by the government of informal control over these provinces, but the character of that arrangement was such as to leave interior Liberia in a politically subordinate relationship to the coastal areas until recent times.
Early Liberia faced chronic financial problems which further complicated its national life. In response to the "industrial capitalism" that began to replace the plantation system worldwide, enterprising Liberians resorted to commercial trading. An admirable Liberian shipping fleet developed, but, overtaken by international competitors at the end of the 1860s, the main Liberian economic enterprise shifted to government employment. And, in the absence of productive industry to generate funds for sustenance of the bureaucracy, an era of foreign loans was initiated. The first loan of 1871 led to others in 1906, 1912 and 1926. As collateral for these loans, many at high interest rates, state revenues (largely from customs tariffs) were conceded and land and product rights were granted. It was this economic policy that led to the era of concession agreements, the most notable being with Firestone in 1926.
However, Liberia had hardly overcome international intrigue, including American high-handedness during the negotiations of the Firestone agreement when, in 1929, accusations of internal "forced labor" had to be met. The state was censured internationally for complicity in a system, which League of Nations commissioners alleged was "hardly distinguishable from slave-raiding and slave trading." The political fallout from that crisis led to the downfall of the administration of President Charles D. B. King (1920-1930). To Edwin J. Barclay (1930-1944), his successor, fell the task of unraveling the complications, internal and external, of that episode. Those European powers in the League of Nations that sought to abrogate Liberia's independence by advocating mandate status for the republic were thwarted both because of the contradictions in international relations of the time as well as by the determination of the Barclay government to forestall that possibility. Concerning the issue of governance of Liberia's indigenous population, and the complications caused by the League crisis, Barclay was not so fortunate, as some aggrieved indigenous leaders opted to make common cause with external foes of the state. As a consequence, Barclay adopted a more repressive attitude toward all forms of internal dissent.
Reprinted from Historical Dictionary of Liberia: 2nd Edition By D. Elwood Dunn, Amos J. Beyan & Carl Patrick Burrowes. Scarecrow Press, 2001.Used by Permission