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The War Nerd February 24, 2006
 
Trading Places: Liberia’s Pompous Slaves
By Gary Brecher Browse author Email
 
 

FRESNO - I've written a little about some of the great military figures Liberia has given the world, like General Butt Naked and his platinum-blonde drag queen psycho killers. But I've never told the hilarious, totally sick story of how Liberia got the way it is. And it's too interesting to hold back any longer.

Liberian history is supposedly "tragic," which is newspaper code for "funny as Hell." I can't help it, it is. It's not like I don't sympathize. I do. I mean, which slum did your grandparents come from? Probably some starved village where the coal mine's been closed since it ate a whole shift of locals. How'd you like it if everybody in your neighborhood took up a collection to send you back there, even if you didn't speak a word of the language? "We feel you don't fit in in Santa Barbara and you'll never be truly happy until you're back in Lower Slobovia:"

That's how Liberia started. It was white people's idea from the start. They were worried about free blacks, who made up about a tenth of the 2 million black people in the US. The two extremes of the slavery issue, abolitionists and crazy slaveowners, agreed something had to be done about all those free blacks.

The abolitionists loved black people so much they wanted them to go far, far away. So did the slaveowners, who announced with no evidence at all that free blacks were "promoters of mischief." (I don't know what "mischief" means--maybe they TP'd those Gone With the Wind plantation houses.)

A group of rich white do-gooders including Francis Scott Key, who wrote "the Star Spangled Banner," got together to raise the money to send free blacks back to Africa. For them Key had a special version of the anthem: "Oh say can you see/the home of the brave? If so, you're standing too close/Go about 4000 miles southeast, to West Africaaaa."

Congress came through with a big grant and in 1819, a ship with 88 freed blacks and three white chaperons landed in that other success-story for re-planting blacks, Sierra Leone. After gassing up at Freetown, they headed down the coast to the promised land, Liberia.

Within three weeks of arriving at their new home, all three whites and 22 blacks died of fever. That's barely time to start naming things "free-" this and "free-that.

Instead they named the place "Perseverance." A little truth in advertising. The rich whites sitting home safe in the US were determined to persevere in Liberia, even if it meant shipping every black they could catch straight into the most disease-ridden, lethal climate in the world. They worked a deal with the US Navy that any slave ships intercepted on the high seas would be detoured to Liberia an dump their cargo there, which meant that no matter how many colonists died, more were always on the way.

It was like a do-gooder version of Darwin, only sped up. Most of the newcomers died so fast they barely had time to thank their benefactors, but a few survived. And they were the ones who married and had kids, so eventually you got a population that had some degree of resistance to all the tropical diseases.

Once they realized they weren't all going to die in the next week, the settlers went to work on the most fundamental thing in any society: setting up cliques. There were three big ones in Liberia: the freed slaves who were "black"; the ones who were "mulatto"; and way back there in the bush, the natives. Naturally, none of these cliques liked each other.

The next step, naturally, was sucking up to the people who abused you. Is this starting to remind you of high school? That's because high school is a totally typical example of how people act when they have to start a society from scratch.

So instead of making peace with the natives, the Liberians spent the 1840s trying to get officially recognized by the whites. The funny bit is that the European states didn't have too much problem granting it, but the US--the country that started Liberia with a huge grant from Congress--refused to recognize Liberia until 1862. Guess why. Yup: because the South might object to having a black ambassador in Washington D.C.

It makes you wonder how they finally agreed to recognize Liberia. I mean, it's 1862, the Confederacy's at war with the US, and some bureaucrat's still sweating over the decision: "Well, Mr. Lincoln, our focus groups show there might be a negative reaction in some of the border districts:"

By this time Liberia was a full-grown country, doing what West African coastal enclaves are supposed to do: getting ripped off in "development" loans from the West, having ridiculous border disputes over some fever-ridden chunk of bush, and making the inland natives feel like dirt. British banks ripped the Liberians off so badly that one Liberian president--"the Liberian Lincoln," no less--had to swim for his life, and ended up as shark food before he made it to a British ship in the harbor of Monrovia, the new Liberian capital city.

Monrovia was named after James Monroe, who was one of the supporters of the Liberian colonization plan. His famous comment on Liberia was, "Love you guys, wish you could stay longer, here's your hat."

My favorite border dispute was between Liberia and that other outpost of freedom, Sierra Leone. In 1883, Sierra Leone claimed territory that Liberia held. The British backed up the Sierra Leoneans; Uncle Sam decided to stay out of it, and the Liberians had to back down. Next it was the French, in the Ivory Coast next door, grabbing another chunk of territory. Through it all Uncle Sam kept his distance from his black nephews in Liberia. It was like he was a little embarrassed by them.

One reason the US might've been embarrassed by the Liberians is that they kept trying to look white. And they succeeded. Take a look at the pictures of Liberian leaders from the 1800s and they look like Confederate generals with a tan--a lot of white blood in there. The Liberians were proud of that; the US wasn't.

These "Americo-Liberians" were never more than five percent of the population, but they ran the coast, had the money, understood more about the outside world--so they considered themselves the elite. They felt even whiter when they compared themselves with the natives, who were pure West African--some of the darkest people in the world. To remind everybody of the difference, the settlers called themselves "Americo-Liberians" and put on a lot of airs, with stiff collars and muttonchop sideburns--not to mention that other mark of higher civilization, land grabs.

Nobody was really sure how far inland Liberia's borders went. Basically, it was as much as they wanted or could grab. Nobody worried much about the natives; they were black and uncivilized. The Americo-Liberians were as racist as the slaveowners their ancestors had crossed the ocean to get away from. They sent their kids to school in the US to make sure they didn't get too African, and didn't even try to find out who lived in the jungle they'd claimed until the 1860s.

By the 1890s, you had the ultimate in, uh, black comedy: Liberian gunboats sailing upriver to bombard savage native tribes who were resisting civilization. In fact, they were resisting it too well: when the Americo-Liberian army marched inland to teach the Gola tribe a lesson, they got their cafe-au-lait asses kicked.

Liberian military history recovered its former glory in 1917, when Liberia formally joined the Allies against the Germans. There was panic among the General Staff in Berlin when the news arrived. But there was rejoicing in Monrovia, because it meant all German assets in Liberia could be seized and handed out to deserving Americo-Liberian pals.

But then unrest flared up inland, in darkest Liberia. The Americo-Liberian government sent a party to investigate. It turned out the tribes back there had heard a rumor that slavery was going to be abolished, and were outraged. The government explained it was just PR, a decree to impress the foreigners. But the natives were still restless, so the government had to send a big force to convince the Kru, the biggest tribe, to be peaceful by sacking their towns and killing off their warriors.

World War II was Liberia's golden age--by Liberian standards, that is. Once again the country took its stand for liberty, enlisting on the Allied side. But this time that actually meant something, because while WW I was basically a European war, WW II really was a worldwide deal. So the US set up some bases on the Liberian coast, with plenty of trickle-down for the locals. All kinds of fancy Western ideas started percolating through Monrovia. Women got the vote and in the early Sixties the Peace Corps did some of its earliest do-gooding in Liberia.

What did those kids actually do in the Corps, anyway? As far as I know, they just hugged a lot of dark-skinned people and meant well. It's kind of fun to think of these white American hippies' welcoming party in Monrovia, with all the snooty mulattoes in town sipping cocktails and warning them about those terribly, terribly primitive blacks one meets inland.

Liberia's biggest break ever came when some genius realized that since Liberia was officially a country--recognized since 1862, remember!--it had the right to sell ship registrations. Which it started doing, cut-rate, to every tramp steamer that didn't want to bother with lifeboats or safety inspections.

Which is why, every time an oil tanker goes aground while the captain was dead drunk, or comes apart mid-ocean, the papers call it "a Liberian-registered vessel." Your assurance of quality on the high seas.

That one's still a big money-spinner for Liberia. Actually Liberia was doing OK, by African standards, right up to the 70s. They'd had the same president from 1944 to 1971, an upstanding old guy with the great name of William Vacanarach Shadrach Tubman. With his suit and horn-rimmed glasses, he looks a little like Papa Doc Duvalier, the scary little dude who ruled Hatii at about the same time. But Tubman was a much more peaceful guy, who actually tried to include the inland tribes in the party. Investment picked up, schools got built, peace almost looked ready to break out. Almost.

When Tubman died another fairly decent guy, William Tolbert, was elected President. Tolbert tried to move with the times, dressing up in those African clothes--little white cap, white leisure suit--that make you look like a hospital orderly on break and carrying one of those sticks of office like Mobutu had in Congo.

But he didn't move fast enough. In 1980 he and a dozen of his officials were killed in a coup. This is the moment when Liberia starts its big, long fall.

Turned out the coup was run by Master Sergeant Samuel K. Doe. Doe was the first of the monsters. Since him, it's been one long string of monsters calling the shots in Liberia.

Doe started the tradition of killing anybody who objected to his decisions and stealing everything he could grab. But he was a weak-kneed moderate, compared to the next generation of Liberian wackos. You get this pattern a lot in the Third World: the first army officer to stage a coup is just an ordinary murderer, but somehow when he overthrows the old-style civilian politicians, all bets are off, and the contenders just get crazier and more violent all the time.

In 1989, an Americo-Liberian named Charles Taylor showed up in charge of a guerrilla army calling itself the National Patriotic Front of Liberia. The NPFL announced it was going to overthrow Sgt. Doe.

Taylor and Doe went way back. In fact, Taylor had been in charge of the money during Doe's regime--until Doe accused Taylor of stealing government funds. Of course that was like accusing him of breathing; it went without saying. But the charge meant that Doe and Taylor had had a fight. Taylor had to run off to the US. He was comfortable there, because like most Americo-Liberian kids he'd been sent to school there.

Then, to his own surprise, Taylor ended up in a Massachusetts prison on a Liberian extradition warrant. He was never extradited, though. Instead, he showed up in Liberia as leader of the NPFL. The question is, how did Taylor get out of jail in Massachusetts? Nobody's sure. His story is that he sawed through the bars, Count of Monte Christo style. Other people, cynical types, say he cut a deal with the CIA.

Everybody was sick of Doe, who was destroying Liberia in record time. He was shot, to everybody's satisfaction, in 1990. Taylor got the blame for that killing, along with a lot of others his guys had done back in the bush on their way to the capital. Charles had one of the all-time great answers for these nay-sayers: "Jesus Christ was accused of being a murderer in his time."

I'm still scratching my head on that one. From what I remember of Sunday School, they called Jesus a lot of stuff, but "murderer"? I must've missed that Sunday.

Still, Taylor should know; he's an ordained Baptist minister, and if there's on thing those rock-head Baptists can do, it's quote Scripture at you till you.

After Doe was shot, Liberia just sort of rotted. Taylor's NPFL ran most of the country, but the young guys back in the bush had gotten a taste for carrying guns, killing people and stealing their stuff. For the first time they were starting to feel included in the Liberian political process, and they weren't in a hurry to have things go back to the dull old ways, with some pompous old man in a suit running things from the coast.

And the rest, as they say, is recent history.

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Gary Brecher
Browse author
Email Gary at war_nerd@exile.ru, but, more importantly, buy his book.
 
 
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