In Liberia

H.L. Mencken

Baltimore Evening Sun/December 29, 1910

At last a white man with a good word for Liberia! His name is Edgar Allen Forbes and he devotes half a dozen chapters of his new book, “The Land of the White Helmet,” to a spirited defense of the black republic.

Give Them A Fair Chance

Mr. Forbes, let it be said at once, is no maudlin negromaniac. As an American born and bred, he is well aware that the negro has failings and limitations, and he admits that these failings and limitations are visible in Liberia, but he insists that, once they are allowed for, it must be granted that the black statesmen over there have done well by their country, and that if they are permitted to go their own way in the future, without outside interference, they will one day make it a fairly respectable nation—as respectable, perhaps, as Greece or Montenegro, and certainly a good deal more respectable than Haiti, San Domingo, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Venezuela or San Salvador.

The bane of Liberia, says Mr. Forbes, is the bumptious Britisher. He is constantly taking a hand in the affairs of the country and he is as constantly making trouble. All of the pother about the Liberian national debt is made by Britishers, and yet upon them lies the blame for the existence of the debt. They have forced loans upon the poor blacks, they have helped to spend the money, and in at least one instance they have made away with it in a fashion not unsuggestive of downright fraud, and yet they set up a woeful wailing and try to convince the world that the Liberians are deadbeats.

As a matter of fact, Liberia owes but $1,290,000, and is fully able to pay both principal and interest if given a fair chance. But the Britishers refuse to give her a fair chance. They are for an immediate seizure of her customhouses and the saddling upon her of a vast and costly outfit of white collectors and administrators.

The British Administrator

The Liberians are naturally suspicious of white administrators, for they have had a bitter experience with such animals. Several years ago, for example, the British Government forced them to establish a frontier force—a sort of combination of military and police—and to give the command of it to British officers. With what result? In the first place the new organization, which was supposed to be made up of native Liberians, was packed with so-called British negroes from Sierra Leone; in the second place, it was so badly officered that it finally ran amuck and threatened to sack Monrovia; and in the third place, Major Cadell, the British commandant, failed to account for $60,000 of Liberian public money and had to go back to London in disgrace and there change his name.

Mr. Forbes has many harsh words for Capt. C. B. Wallis, who until recently was British Consul General at Liberia and the boss of all discord. Wallis, he says, systematically misrepresented the condition of affairs in the black republic. He sent home complaints about smuggling, about rebellions in the hinterland and about the waste of public money. He sought to make it appear that Liberia was in the hands of anarchists and that all civilized government was at an end. And he constantly pestered the Liberian Government with his orders and advice.

Once, for example, President Barclay sent the Liberian navy—a single gunboat—to a little coast town called Grand Cess to put down certain natives who practiced smuggling as a regular trade. Wallis had often complained about these smugglers, alleging that their doings materially lessened the Liberian customs receipts and so imperiled the public debt, but when he heard of the punitive expedition, he at once entered a solemn protest against “so inhuman an atrocity” as the slaughter of defenseless smugglers.

Captain Wallis’ Little Jokes

In this protest there were two jokes. In the first place, Wallis himself, in his earlier days, was in the British service in Sierra Leone, and there commanded a punitive expedition against natives who refused to pay the hut tax, killing enough of them to populate several towns as large as Grand Cess; and in the second place, it was a notorious fact that the goods which the Grand Cess outlaws smuggled into the country were all bought offshore from the captains of British steamships.

Mr. Forbes says that the Liberians have made very good progress in civilizing the savages of the interior, and that despite the alarming reports of Captain Wallis and other British officials, it is now possible to make long inland journeys without the slightest danger. He himself “went unarmed and without a guard” and was never molested. As for Monrovia, the capital, which is commonly pictured as one grand slum, he says that it is the prettiest town on the west coast of Africa, that its residence section is full of neat cottages, and that most of them are owned by the blackamoors who live in them.

For the Rev. Ernest Lyon, the Baltimore negro who was United States Minister at Monrovia until a few months ago, Mr. Forbes has many compliments. He found Lyon to be “a man of ripe experience and wide culture and an official of strict rectitude.” The leaders of the Liberian Government “long leaned upon him as a friend in hours of perplexity and he shared their confidence to a greater degree than any other foreigner in the republic. He knew everybody of prominence in the entire country and traveled through the interior more widely than the President himself. Everybody knew him and nearly everybody liked him.”

The American Commission

But the American Commission which descended upon Liberia a year or so ago for the purpose of investigating and reforming the country, did not impress Mr. Forbes very favorably. The Liberians had been led to believe that the commission would be composed of eminent men and that it would travel aboard a first-class battleship with bands playing and 12-inch guns booming. Instead, it was made up of men they had never heard of, and its barge was the insignificant cruiser Chester, whose guns were so small that when they fired a salute in the roads, the reports could not be heard in Monrovia.

Mr. Forbes says that the commissioners’ visit was of little, if any value. They took a lot of formal testimony, but they saw nothing of the country, and when they finally departed the Liberians were glad to see them go.

(Source: University of North Texas, Microfilm Collection)

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