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Liberia: how Firestone grabbed a country

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US TROOPS are poised to intervene in Liberia in West Africa. The US has a long and bloody history in the country. One part of that was revealed in 1931 by the Communist writer George Padmore. Here we reprint extracts about Liberia from one of his books
Issue 1860

LIBERIA IS a typical colonial country. A few tens of thousands of the population are ‘Americo-Liberians’, Negroes whose ancestors were once slaves in America but returned and settled in the country during the early days of its colonisation. After the First World War America found herself confronted with the necessity of competing against the British rubber monopoly.

As rubber is an indispensable product in the US automobile industry, a conference was called by the rubber manufacturers in which the US government participated. At this conference it was agreed that the US government would actively cooperate with the industrialists in producing a tropical sphere of interest in order that they might produce their own rubber.

In July 1925 the Firestone Rubber Corporation, one of the biggest rubber trusts in the world, entered into negotiations with the Liberian government for a lease on rubber-producing lands. The company secured the concession of a million acres of land at the cost of six cents per acre.

After the negotiations were completed the company demanded the Liberian government accept a loan of $5,000,000 at the rate of 7 percent interest, failing which Firestone would not carry through its proposed development scheme. The Liberian people were reluctant to accept this heavy financial obligation but finally succumbed to the coercion of the great colossus of the north. Firestone was insistent that the government accept this loan in order that funds might be provided for the construction of railways and roads and to improve the harbour of Monrovia.

These schemes greatly facilitated the company’s transport of its raw material from the plantation. To carry through the imperialist project of large-scale plantations, Firestone has been confronted with two major problems: confiscation of native lands and an adequate supply of cheap labour.

The Liberian government has actively cooperated in both respects. The majority of the population inhabits the interior of the republic. Now that the Liberian legislature has expropriated their lands and given them away to Firestone, the people are resisting the attempt of the rubber interest to turn them into wage slaves.

This has already led to several uprisings, which have been put down by the Liberian military force. By enlisting the services of various Americo-Liberian officials, the American imperialists are gradually succeeding in getting the peasants to leave their villages and work on the rubber plantations.

Over 40,000 have already been recruited and turned over to the Firestone concession. The recruiting is carried out largely under the orders of the chiefs, who are paid one cent for every worker supplied.

The government has also established a central labour bureau through which able-bodied Negroes are conscripted into labour battalions and shipped off to the plantations. The government receives a commission on each man supplied. The workers get about three cents a day and are compelled to labour 14 or 15 hours under the most brutal and demoralising conditions.

In some parts of Liberia actual slavery exists. Kathleen Simon, the wife of the British Liberal Sir John Simon, writes, ‘Whether the number of slaves is 100,000 or 500,000 no one can say.’ The Liberian government not only knows of the existence of slavery, but actually legalised the system in order to enable a few degenerate black politicians to enjoy a parasitic existence by turning over thousands of native toilers to the Portuguese slave traders.

The slave trade of Liberia has become such an international scandal that even the League of Nations has been forced to make a gesture. It set up an international commission. The commission, despite its attempts to whitewash the government, was compelled to admit that slavery existed.

As was to be expected, the commission entirely exonerated the American imperialists for the part they played in recruiting forced labour by stating that they ‘discovered no evidence that Firestone consciously employed forced labour’.

They found no evidence because they knew if they did it would be more embarrassing for the US government to take official action. Such a statement is a shrewd way of whitewashing Firestone and at the same time providing the US government with the pretext for assuming still greater control over Liberia.

GEORGE PADMORE was born in 1901 in Trinidad. During the 1920s he was a student in the US. He joined the Communist Party and quickly rose within its ranks. He was a leading figure in the Communist Trade Union International. In 1931, he wrote The Life and Struggles of Negro Toilers to expose the plight of black labourers throughout the world.

He left the Communist Party at a later period when its Stalinist policies meant that he was told not to criticise colonialism.

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