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Lost Territories

Despite claims made by Liberia to territory in the interior, effective control was apparent only between Cape Mount and the Grand Cess River for a distance of about 50 miles inland. The area that stretched beyond was still the least known part of Africa -- un explored, unmapped, and unorganized by the Liberians well into the twentieth century. What the government in Monrovia could not control, it nonetheless tried to keep isolated from foreigners.

In 1869 government agent Benjamin Anderson had set out on an expedition that in six years took him deeper into the interior than any Liberian had ever gone -- or would go for another 30 years after him. Anderson made treaties with local chiefs that reinforced tenuous Liberian claims in the region, and his published account of the journey aroused interest in its potential for development.

The neighboring colonial powers, Britain and France, took advantage of Liberia's weakness to detach large sections of the territory claimed but not controlled by Monrovia, and by 1911 the West African republic had been forced to surrender title to over 40 percent of the area regarded as being part of it at the time of in dependence. In 1883 Britain formally annexed the disputed Sewa-Mano protectorate to Sierra Leone. Liberian president Gardiner resigned from office in protest over the action, but two years later President Hilary Richard Wright Johnson reluctantly agreed to a treaty conceding the loss of the territory, which Britain claimed on the grounds that it had exercised effective control there over a period of time. Johnson, the first president horn in Liberia, was the son of Elijah Johnson, who in 1822 had rejected a British offer to protect the young colony. His signing of the treaty with Britain coincided with the convening of the Berlin Conference at which the European powers established the principle that effective control must precede a legitimate claim to colonial possessions in Africa. The wording of the 1885 treaty was so vague, however, that it was variously interpreted by the parties to it, and the definition of the border between Liberia and Sierra Leone remained an unresolved problem. In 1903, therefore, an Anglo-Liberian boundary commission was authorized to define the border in the disputed territory, but, when a tribal war broke out involving groups on both sides of the new line, British troops intervened, occupying territory assigned to Liberia. In 1911 the border was redrawn again and, after a United States complaint on Liberia's behalf, forestland between the Morro and Magowi rivers held by the British was exchanged in return for recognition of Sierra Leone's title to land north of the Magowi.

After 1885 France had moved to establish effective control over territories in its sphere of influence in Ivory Coast and Guinea. When these claims clashed with earlier ones put forward by Liberia, the French initially made a proposal for establishing a protectorate over the republic, which was withdrawn after a diplomatic protest by the United States. Subsequently, however, France laid claim to territory in Liberia as far west as Cape Palmas. When Britain refused to sanction what it referred to as "greedy" aggrandizement, the French reduced their claims against Liberia and in 1891 occupied only the territory up to the Cavalla River.

Until that time, it had been generally accepted that Liberian territory extended 80 miles east of Cape Palmas to the San Pedro River, including territory claimed on the basis of treaties made in the 1840s by the Maryland colony with Grcbo chiefs. France pointed out, however, that Liberia did not administer the territory in question and that on several occasions French troops had been compelled to enter the disputed region to quiet unrest among the Grebo that had spilled over into Ivory Coast. Because their case did not receive diplomatic hacking from either the United States or Britain, the Liberians were forced to accept French annexation of the territory to Ivory Coast in a treaty in 1892 recognizing the Cavalla River as their eastern border. Like his predecessor, Johnson resigned the presidency in protest and was replaced in office by his vice president, Joseph James Cheeseman.

The 1892 treaty with France also defined the boundary in the north between Liberia and Guinea, but the demarcation based on inadequate information about the largely unexplored territory proved unworkable. The boundary was redrawn in 1907 by a special commission, but French troops soon made deep intrusions across the new line in pursuit of belligerent border clans resisting their advance in Guinea. Because the Liberian claim to the militarily sensitive region could not be upheld to the satisfaction of Paris, the disputed territory was annexed to Guinea in 1911.

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