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Liberia and the League of Nations

Liberia's constitution prohibited slavery, and Liberians had cooperated in bringing an end to slave trading along the Grain Coast. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, the export of native labor, procured by dubious means and contracted out under appalling conditions, became a lucrative business for the Americo?Liberians who were engaged in it. Cacao plantations on the small Spanish island?colony of Fernando Po needed a dependable flow of workers that was not available legally or as cheaply from the British and French colonies that were closer at hand. In 1905 Liberia agreed to supply workers on contract, and German ships were chartered to carry them to Fernando Po. The agreement was formalized in a treaty between Liberia and Spain signed in 1914. Under its terms Liberian contractors were paid a fee for each worker sent to Fernando Po, and wages accumulated over the two?year period of the worker's contract were deposited in gold in Monrovia to be paid in local currency when he returned to Liberia. Most of the workers were Kru, supplied to contractors by their chiefs or headmen in consideration of a fee per head.

Demand for plantation workers increased sharply in the early 1920s at a time when Liberia was virtually bankrupt and welcomed the opportunity to earn revenue through the sale of labor. To exploit the potential of an expanding market in contract labor, a syndicate was formed that included a number of highly placed government figures. During the 1927 presidential election campaign, Thomas J. Faulkner, the American?born former mayor of Monrovia who was the nominee of the reformist People's Party, made the abuse of contract labor an issue, For the first time since the True Whigs had returned to power in 1877, the People's Party offered a credible alternative to voters that was based on real differences in policy rather than on a factional dispute within the ruling party. Faulkner polled 9,000 votes, losing to King, who received 24,000, but his perfin?mance was far better than that of any previous opposition candidate. After his defeat, Fa alkner made puhlac charges of exploitation of contract labor and implicated members of the syndicate in illegal activities.

The matter was brought to the attention of the League of Nations, which appointed a commission of inquiry under the British jurist, Cuthbert Christy, to investigate the allegations made against Liberia. The commission, which included former Liberian president Arthur Barclay and Charles S. Johnson of Fisk University in Tennessee, spent several months in Liberia observing conditions and conducting interviews. In its report, published in 1930, the Christy Commission accused high?ranking Liberian government officials of complicity in procuring involuntary labor by impressment and of other practices illegal under international law. It also defined pawnage as a form of slavery and condemned the LFF for brutality in suppressing resistance to forced labor. When the United States government added its voice to the chorus of complaint, King assured Washington that his government would abide by the recommendations of the League of Nations to regulate the export of labor, but he characterized the commission's accusation that slavery existed in Liberia as "malicious propaganda" used by the colonial powers to discredit the republic.

The United States was not satisfied with King's response, and Secretary of State Henry L, Stimson wrote a sharply worded note repeating charges made against government officials and calling for punishment of the guilty parties. Under pressure from the United States, King named a Liberian commission to look into the charges against governeinnt officials. When evidence was presented that linked Liberian vice president Allen B. Yancey to the syndicate, both he and King resigned from office, and Edwin James Barclay, the secretary of state, was sworn in as president.

Barclay was concerned about the implications for Liberian sovereignty if the League of' Nations chose to act upon the Christy Commission's recommendation that the league involve itself further in the country's internal affairs. Despite the purge of the administration, the new president still had reason to fear action taken by the colonial powers. Britain, for example, had suggested consideration of appointing an Anglo?American commission to oversee reform, and imposition of a League of Nations trusteeship was also mentioned. Early in 1931 Britain and Germany, 1n conjunction with the United States, delivered an ultimatum to Liberia, calling on it to accept an international commission to carry out reforms that, the document declared in patronizing terms, the government in Monrovia neither desired nor had the capability to carry out.

Although Barclay categorically rejected the joint ultimatum, he said that his government would accept the findings of a panel of experts appointed by the League of Nations and requested advisers to help in preparing financial and judicial reforms. In response to this initiative, the League of Nations named an eight?nation panel, including Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Poland, and Venezuela, as well as a representative of Liberia. Liberia, the report stated, "represents the paradox of being a Republic of 12,000 citizens with 1,000,000 subjects." It deplored the lack of modern health care (except on the Firestone plantation), the high incidence of preventable disease, and the primitive sanitation conditions. The government had failed, it continued, to take even the most basic steps toward improving conditions among tribal Africans. The.country's financial situation was called "tragic" and its monetary system "confusing." Included in its recommendations were the establishment of a public health service, renegotiation of the FCA loan to make more funds available for development, and a radical reform of native African affairs policies allowing elected chiefs to exercise real power in the Hinterland. It called for the abolition of forced labor and the end of pawnage. Many of the solutions proposed by the commission were unrealistic, however. For instance, at a time when the country's revenues had been reduced to only about $450,000 a year as a result of the impact of the Great Depression, the commission expected theLiberian government to expend $400,000 to improve public ser vices. The Liberian president chose not to respond directly to the commission's recommendations, although improvements in so cial services were instituted as funds became available later in the decade. Forced labor was banned, and pawnage was phased out. Barclay stonewalled on other recommendations, however, and let time work in his favor.

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