The 1930 Forced Labour Scandal  


 


After his defeat in the 1927 presidential elections, Thomas Faulkner accused the President-elect, Charles D.B. King, of allowing slavery to exist in the Republic. Worse, he also stated that certain highly placed government officials were engaged in the forced shipping of labourers to the Spanish island of Fernando Poo. Moreover, he accused them of making use of the Liberian Army (called Frontier Force) to achieve this. The accused government officials were the President of the Republic and Standard-Bearer of the True Whig Party (TWP), the country’s ruling political party, Charles King, the Secretary-General of the TWP and Postmaster-General Samuel A. Ross, and the country’s Vice-President Allen N. Yancy.

After Faulkner’s accusations a wave of international reactions followed and a Committee of the League of Nations was established to examine the allegations. The Committee was composed of Dr Cuthbert Christy, an Englishman (representing the League of Nations), Charles S.A. Johnson, an Afro-American (representing the USA), and former Liberian president Arthur Barclay (representing Liberia). 

 

The Christy-report

In 1930 the ‘Christy Report’ was published, named after the Committee’s chairman. The Committee concluded that: 

  • Slavery as defined by the Anti-Slavery Convention, in fact, does not exist in this Republic.
  • Shipment to Fernando Poo and Gabon is associated with slavery because the method of recruiting carries compulsion with it.
  • Persons holding official positions have illegally misused their office in recruiting with the aid of the Liberian Frontier Force.

The House of Representatives then started the procedure to impeach President King who hastily resigned. He thus escaped a public trial as the Liberian Constitution reads: ‘No person shall be held to answer for a capital or infamous crime, except in case of impeachment.’ Vice-President Yancy made the same decision – defended and advised by his cousin, the lawyer William Tubman (who became President in 1944). The third high-ranking Liberian involved, Samuel A., Ross, had died in the beginning of the year. Secretary of State Edwin Barclay succeeded King.  

 

Firestone

Not only Americo-Liberian government officials had benefited from the fruits of forced labour. A large foreign enterprise was also involved, as the Christy-report stated: 

  • Labour for private purposes is forcibly impressed by the Government, and used in the Firestone Plantations.

Since the US Government had supported Firestone’s plans and ambitions from the beginning of its operations certain Liberians also criticized the US Government, like Clarence L. Simpson, Vice-President under Tubman (1944 – 51).

Prior to Firestone’s arrival in Liberia the employment in the monetary sector of the economy was practically limited to the civil service and a small number of trading companies. A few hundred people were employed by the Government, virtually all recruited from the ranks of the Americo-Liberians. After 1926, the only employer of significance was Firestone. This company employed more than 10,000 labourers on its plantations in 1930. According to official government sources, however, more than 8,500 had not come to work for Firestone voluntarily.

A Liberian (‘Old Man Paul’) interviewed by the present author (FVDK) in the 1970s confirmed the forcible character of the recruitment. ‘I was a small boy when Firestone came to Liberia’, he stated, and continued: ‘(…) during the King Administration soldiers of the Liberian Frontier Force would come to the villages and compel people to leave for the Firestone Plantations to work there.’

The recruitment system that supplied Firestone with tens of thousands labourers continued until the early 1960s. In August 1961 the Government of Portugal – in retaliation of Liberia’s staunch anti-colonial position – filed a complaint with the International Labour Organization (ILO) concerning the observance of the Liberian Government of the Forced Labour Convention of 1950. Before the Commission which had been appointed by the ILO to investigate the complaint published its findings in 1963, the Liberian Legislature hastily enacted a law regulating the recruitment of labour in Liberia (1962). It was then only that the recruitment system that had supplied Firestone since 1926 with labourers became outlawed.

 

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