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Problems with Britain

Once Liberia had been recognized by Britain as a sovereign republic, the government's first order of business was to enforce the trade policies whose legitimacy the British had questioned before independence. Soon after his inauguration as president in 11348, Roberts journeyed to Britain to negotiate a treaty in which tile British government agreed to accept Liberia's right to levy cluties on trade in and out of its ports and accredited a consul to represent British interests in Monrovia.

Returning to Liberia with the treaty in hand and his prestige enhanced, Roberts introduced legislation restating the controversial trade policies the commonwealth government had earlier attempted to impose. All coastal trade with the tribes in the interior between the Sewa and San Pedro rivers was required to be conducted through Liberian intermediaries. Furthermore, foreign traders were liter restricted in conducting their business to the six ports of entry where Liberian customs officials were stationed.

British trading companies made representations to London to protest the restrictions placed on them by the Liberians in areas where they lead commercial ties of long standing with the native African people, and in Sierra Leone sympathetic British colonial officials turned a blind eye to activities by traders who continued to flout Liberian claims to jurisdiction east of the Sewa River. One of these traders, John Harris, had built up a substantial commercial empire in the region, where he had entered into alliances with local chiefs and incited them to attack Liberian settlements. Harris' own excesses, however, triggered an uprising among the Vai clans that spilled over into Sierra Leone. In the course of trying to calm the disturbance, the British governor declared a protectorate over the disputed territory between the Sewa and Mano rivers, justifying his action on the grounds that Liberia could not maintain order there. Tension increased over the British action and Harris' continued activities, leading to the seizure by Liberian authorities of two of the trader's schooners that tried to evade paying customs on the cargoes. A gunboat, sent from Freetown, forcibly retrieved the impounded vessels, and Harris demanded an indemnity from Liberia for the seizure and compensation for his losses as a result of the Vai uprising. Liberian president Stephen Allen Benson was unable to resolve the small republic's differences with the colonial power during a subsequent trip to London for talks. British warships once again demonstrated off Monrovia in 1869, and an ultimatum was delivered demanding payment of a large indemnity by Liberia for damage to the property and interests of British subjects.

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