African American Officers in Liberia: A Pestiferous Rotation, 1910-1942

African American Officers in Liberia: A Pestiferous Rotation, 1910-1942

by Brian G. Shellum
African American Officers in Liberia: A Pestiferous Rotation, 1910-1942

African American Officers in Liberia: A Pestiferous Rotation, 1910-1942

by Brian G. Shellum

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Overview

African American Officers in Liberia tells the story of seventeen African American officers who trained, reorganized, and commanded the Liberian Frontier Force from 1910 to 1942. In this West African country founded by freed black American slaves, African American officers performed their duties as instruments of imperialism for a country that was, at best, ambivalent about having them serve under arms at home and abroad. 

The United States extended its newfound imperial reach and policy of “Dollar Diplomacy” to Liberia, a country it considered a U.S. protectorate. Brian G. Shellum explores U.S. foreign policy toward Liberia and the African American diaspora, while detailing the African American military experience in the first half of the twentieth century. Shellum brings to life the story of the African American officers who carried out a dangerous mission in Liberia for an American government that did not treat them as equal citizens in their homeland, and he provides recognition for their critical role in preserving the independence of Liberia.
 


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781640120631
Publisher: Potomac Books
Publication date: 08/01/2018
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 304
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

Brian G. Shellum is a retired army officer and former historian and intelligence officer with the Department of Defense. He is the author of Black Cadet in a White Bastion: Charles Young at West Point (Nebraska, 2006) and Black Officer in a Buffalo Soldier Regiment: The Military Career of Charles Young (Nebraska, 2010).

 
Brian G. Shellum is a retired army officer and former historian and intelligence officer with the Department of Defense. He is the author of Black Cadet in a White Bastion: Charles Young at West Point (Nebraska, 2006) and Black Officer in a Buffalo Soldier Regiment: The Military Career of Charles Young (Nebraska, 2010).

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

Liberia

Black Colony

My first impulse would be to free all the slaves and send them to Liberia, to their own native land.

— Abraham Lincoln, 1854

Liberia is unique in Africa. While the rest of the continent shares a history of conquest and occupation by white European powers, Liberia's colonizing minority was wholly black. Paradoxically, the majority population of indigenous Liberians was also black, differing from their masters only in the genealogy of their birth and darkness of their skin.

Liberia occupied a little bend on the west coast of Africa, wedged between the French colonies of the Ivory Coast to the east and Guinea to the north, and the British colony of Sierra Leone to the west. Bounded by 350 miles of coastline and a jagged interior frontier, the republic enclosed an area of about forty-one thousand square miles, a territory roughly the size of the U.S. state of Ohio. The country was abutted in the south by the Atlantic Ocean and a uniform band of coastal plain, remarkably free of the fever-laden mangrove swamps and marshy lagoons that characterize the regions to the east and west of Liberia. This littoral plain adjoined an increasingly hilly belt, backed by a grassy savannah, leading to the highest mountains in West Africa.

Before the arrival of colonists from the United States, Liberian territory was home to about 750,000 inhabitants comprising sixteen indigenous ethnic groups of the Niger-Congo family. These groups further subdivided into four ethnic clusters based on cultural and linguistic similarities: the Kwa (Bassa, Belle, Dey, Grebo, Krahn, and Kru); Mende-Fu (Gbandi, Gio/Dan, Kpelle, Loma, Mano/Ma, and Mende); Mende-Tan (Mandingo and Vai); and Mel (Gola and Kissi). In the early part of the eighteenth century, these ethnic groups lived surrounded in an area yet unclaimed by the European powers of Great Britain and France.

Liberia's colonial era began in 1822 with the arrival of former American slaves and free blacks sent by the American Colonial Society (ACS). The ACS formed in 1817 to send free African Americans to Africa as an alternative to emancipation in the United States. The ACS was an unlikely coalition of evangelicals who supported abolition and slaveholders who did not want free blacks living in the South. The society sent more than thirteen thousand emigrants to Liberia between 1820 and 1867. Blacks from the Caribbean and Africans captured by the U.S. Navy from American-bound slave ships later joined the initial American settlers. The colonists called themselves Americo-Liberians.

The U.S. Navy played a significant role in establishing Liberia in its formative years and later provided military muscle to support the Americo-Liberians against the indigenous inhabitants. USS Cyane, commanded by Capt. Edward Trenchard with Lt. Matthew Perry second in command, escorted the brig Elizabeth with the first thirty families to the west coast of Africa in 1820. The colonists put ashore temporarily on fever-ridden Sherbro Island off the British colony of Sierra Leone, where many died of disease.

Lt. Robert Stockton, commander of USS Alligator, rescued the surviving original colonists in 1822. He negotiated with the local Dey communities to purchase land on Cape Mesurado to establish a settlement, which later became the Liberian capital, Monrovia. Stockton negotiated a purchase price of about $300 worth of goods, backed by the threat of a pistol to the head of the local Dey king, Peter. The settlers named the new capital in honor of U.S. President James Monroe, an early supporter of colonization.

Soon after the departure of the navy, the colonists made enemies of the Deys by trying to evangelize them and suppress the local slave trade. The final straw came when the Americo-Liberians prevented the Deys from plundering a British schooner that ran aground near Cape Mesurado, a prerogative customarily enjoyed by the locals. The settlers protected the crew and helped refloat the ship, and the grateful captain rewarded them with a bronze cannon complete with ammunition. In October 1822 several hundred Dey fighters responded to this affront by attacking the colonists, who desperately repulsed the attack with the help of the bronze cannon.

This was merely the opening salvo of a long and bloody conflict between the local inhabitants and the colonizing Americo-Liberians, who were often assisted in their struggle by the U.S. Navy. From 1820 to 1861, the U.S. Navy Africa Squadron patrolled the coast of West Africa, freeing more than six thousand Africans from slave ships and transporting them to Liberia. The squadron was a prominent presence on the Liberian coast in these early years, teaching the indigenous people tangible lessons with gunpowder. The U.S. Navy insured the survival of the Liberian republic during its most vulnerable time in the second half of the nineteenth century. Realizing a strong Liberia was the best defense against the British-allied Krus and other groups, the American Blue-jackets always sided with the Americo-Liberians in settling disputes.

In one early example of U.S. Navy intervention, Commodore Matthew Perry arrived in 1843 on the southeastern Liberian coast to punish the Greboes for attacks on American shipping and assist the colonists in conflict with the local indigenous groups. He settled the matter between the settlers and the Greboes, and after investigating the murder of a crewmember from an American schooner, arrested the responsible chief, tried him, and had him killed when he tried to escape. Perry then helped the Americo-Liberians burn the offending village to the ground. In 1854 USS John Adams sailed into Cape Palmas to help the Liberian colonists drive two thousand Grebo people from land the settlers claimed. This was gunboat diplomacy in its most direct and effective form.

Missionaries played a major role in the settlement of Liberia, working hand in glove with both the Americo-Liberians and the U.S. Navy. Hundreds of black and white missionaries sailed to West Africa over the years. In 1873, after the steamer USS Plymouth fired a salute to the French flag on the Gaboon River, an American missionary exclaimed, "Fire again captain; every gun converts a heathen." From the beginning, the missionaries and Americo-Liberian settlers considered it their Christian duty to replace the "barbaric" religions and customs of the indigenous people with their "superior" Western values and Christianity. Moreover, conversion to Christianity and cultural assimilation was the only way the local ethnic people could move up the ladder to Americo-Liberian society and citizenship.

With the coastal ethnic groups cowed by the U.S. Navy, the chief threat to the Americo-Liberians came from the European colonial powers that hemmed the country on three sides. From the founding of the republic in 1847 to the first decade of the twentieth century, Monrovia lost 44 percent of its land area and 150 miles of coastline to England and France. During the European "Scramble for Africa" in the 1880s, the Americo-Liberians came under increasing pressure to safeguard their territory but lacked the resources or troops to adequately protect their borders. The Berlin Conference of 1885 introduced the principle of "effective occupation," which obligated colonial powers in Africa to establish administration and maintain order in their colonies to retain lands they claimed. When Monrovia failed to do this, it ceded substantial coastal areas to the neighboring British colony of Sierra Leone, and large littoral and vast interior areas to the French Ivory Coast and French Guinea (see Fig. 1).

While Great Britain and France carved away at Liberia's borders, Germany dominated its economy by establishing trading centers on the coastline and investing heavily in the colony, aggressively defending these interests, often to the detriment of Monrovia. Germany, a latecomer to the scramble for African colonies, controlled about two-thirds of Liberia's exports. The German cruiser SMS Panther visited the Liberian coast frequently — whenever a German ship was threatened or a German citizen mistreated by the locals. Liberia found itself defenseless against this gunboat diplomacy after its two small armed cutters sank by accident in 1900, and it possessed no real navy.

The presence of vital cable stations in Liberia also complicated relations with the European powers. Germany and France situated strategically important wireless and cable relay stations in Monrovia, enabling communications in Africa and across the Atlantic to South America. Germany laid a transatlantic cable from Liberia across the ocean to Brazil between 1896 and 1911, which connected to a cable that ran north through the Canary Islands, the Azores, and Spain to Germany. This military and commercial communication node proved vital to Germany and provided direct contact with its far-flung colonies in Africa and economic interests in the southern hemisphere. Great Britain made plans to block or cut this secure German communication line in time of crisis and did so during World War I.

Further confounding relations with Britain, France, and Germany was Monrovia's inability to control many of the ethnic groups in the interior of Liberia. The border ethnic communities crossed from Liberian territory into French and British colonies to raid for slaves and booty. Monrovia never possessed the soldiers necessary to subdue the major indigenous groups, so the colonists reluctantly adopted indirect rule, treaties, and incentives to extend a tenuous authority over most parts of Liberia, a practice used by colonial powers throughout Africa. Some of the more powerful ethnic groups resisted; Greboes rebelled in the late 1800s, and Krus revolted in the early 1900s. The French and British used some of these upheavals as excuses to occupy and annex territory. Other disturbances served as the pretext for a German warship's shakedown of the defenseless government in Monrovia for reparations.

In the first decade of the nineteenth century, Liberian territory embraced scattered coastal colonies of Americo-Liberians and sixteen major ethnic groups, including the Bassa, Belle, Dey, Grebo, Krahn, Kru, Gbandi, Gio/Dan, Kpelle, Loma, Mano/Ma, Mende, Mandingo, Vai, Gola, and Kissi. The Americo-Liberians exploited the historical animosities and feuds between groups to gain political and military advantage. The settlers also took advantage of the geographic divide between the coastal ethnic communities that came into earlier and more frequent contact with Americo-Liberians and Europeans and the interior groups, which they considered less developed and more warlike.

The powerful Kwa-speaking ethnic communities in southeastern Liberia, often collectively referred to as the Krus, were skilled mariners and traders in demand for service on British merchant and fighting ships. The Greboes comprised the other major Kwa-speaking group in the south, centered on Grand Cess and Cape Palmas, and were also renowned seamen, merchants, and migrant workers. The coastal Krus, Greboes, Bassas, and Deys had an easier time assimilating than the interior groups because of their historical contacts and sustained interactions with the Americo-Liberians. But they also came into more frequent conflict with Monrovia, often with the support of British or French colonial officials.

Americo-Liberians, numbering roughly 15,000 of the total population of approximately 750,000 in the early 1900s, struggled from the beginning to control an indigenous population scattered across 41,000 square miles of virtually uncharted territory. Unlike the colonial white powers in Africa, Monrovia had no resources to draw on from the colonizing country, and it had no developed economy or professional military. Though the U.S. Navy patrolled Liberian shores and private American support fueled Monrovia's feeble economy, the United States did not consider it a colony.

Complicating the conflicts between the Americo-Liberians and the indigenous inhabitants was the fact that the territory of most of the ethnic groups in Liberia extended into the neighboring French and British colonies. Refugees of revolts in Liberia could seek sanctuary with their cousins in neighboring colonies. Further muddling matters was the reality that ethnic groups were neither cohesive nor united. When one ethnic community rebelled against Americo-Liberian rule, another from the same group might not participate in the resistance. Frequently, a community fought alongside government troops to gain some advantage over its neighbor from the same ethnic group.

Unlike their Monrovian overlords, the indigenous groups spoke their own languages, lived in village communities ruled by a chief or village elder, held land communally, and practiced animism or Islam. Apart from the color of their skin, the Americo-Liberian settlers differed little from the white British colonists in Africa, particularly in the way they governed the ethnic communities. The settlers considered themselves superior to the indigenous peoples in religion, culture, and technology. Many of the local groups, for their part, considered the Americo-Liberian colonists as little more than liberated slaves and disdained their permissive attitude toward sexual behavior and their lack of ethnic connections.

The ruling Americo-Liberian elite was far from a cohesive and unified minority. There were four distinct orders in the hierarchical caste system of Liberian society, partly based on skin color. At the apex stood the educated Americo-Liberian elite, mainly light-complexioned people of mixed black and white ancestry descended from the original colonists or from later Caribbean immigrants. Darker-skinned Americo-Liberians who worked as small farmers and laborers occupied the second rung of society. Third came the former slaves, or recaptives, who had been rescued from slave ships by the U.S. Navy, of darker complexion still. At the very bottom stood the indigenous groups who had occupied Liberia before the arrival of the colonists.

The four-tiered hierarchy was far from rigid, however, with several ways an indigenous person or repatriated slave moved up to earn Liberian citizenship. From the time of Liberia's establishment, the American Colonial Society encouraged an apprenticeship scheme in which Monrovia placed both recaptured slaves and the children of indigenous groups with settler families to be educated, evangelized, and taught a skill or trade. Once the recaptive adults completed their training, the government awarded them citizenship and settled them in so-called Congo towns adjacent to Americo-Liberian settlements. The recaptives were called Congos because of the presumed origin of most enslaved people in that period. In time the indigenous people of Liberia used the term Congos interchangeably for both the Americo-Liberians and the recaptive slaves, assuming most of both groups originated from the Congo River basin.

The apprenticeship program for recaptive children differed from that of adults. The Liberian government placed recaptive children with Americo-Liberian families to be trained and attend school at least one month each year per the law. Monrovia paid a stipend to the Liberian families to care for and feed the children until they reached the age of twenty-one for boys and eighteen for girls. In addition to receiving the stipend, the host families often saw the system as one that provided free labor in exchange for room and board. Occasionally, Americo-Liberian families boasted of having recaptives working in their plantations and homes, a haunting echo of their former lives in the American South.

The Liberian government later adopted a ward scheme as a means of assimilating indigenous people into Americo-Liberian society and granting them citizenship. Like the apprentice system for recaptive children, the ward system placed indigenous children with settler families to be educated, learn a trade, and convert to Christianity. At the completion of the period at the age of twenty-one for boys and eighteen for girls, the government returned the young people to their communities and, in theory, sent civilization with them. This practice continued throughout the nineteenth century with up to 2,500 indigenous children placed in settler homes at any given time. Ward programs proved a mixed success yet constituted one of the few ways an indigenous person could achieve citizenship in Liberia until the second half of the twentieth century.

Positive aspects of the apprentice and ward systems coexisted alongside abuses, yet the recaptured slaves had few options, since many lost their families and it was impractical to send them home. It was different for the indigenous children who were separated from their families and villages and given up as wards to settler families. In some cases the settlers treated them well, but many Americo-Liberians viewed the indigenous children as a source of cheap labor to be mistreated at will. Almost all suffered the indignity of having their names changed to better suit their new Americo-Liberian social status. However, almost all wards received an opportunity for education they would not have had otherwise. Perhaps most important, it gave the children access to eventual citizenship, something not available to other indigenous people.

(Continues…)


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations,
Preface,
Acknowledgments,
Chronology,
1. Liberia: Black Colony,
2. American Support: Dollar Diplomacy,
3. Davis: Mission Defined,
4. Young: Rescuing Liberia,
5. York, Green, Anderson: War and Peace,
6. Young: Final Post,
7. Nabors, Staten, Outley: Mission Transition,
8. Firestone: Privatization,
9. Aftermath: Starting Over,
10. Conclusion: Accomplishments,
Appendix: Biographies of African Americans Who Served in Liberia, 1910–1942,
Notes,
Bibliography,
Index,

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