Commentary Jamaica Magazine

The Garvey-Liberia Connection

The cry of Africans imported to the Americas from as early as the fifteenth century was echoed in Marcus Garvey’s ‘back to Africa’ ideology. This longing for a return to the homeland continued through to the 19th century with the establishment of the American Colonization Society which founded the colony of Liberia for the resettlement of free blacks. The general interest in Africa persisted into the 20th century with the idea of uniting all Africa. Its fullest expression was in 1900 with the calling of the first Pan African Conference in London by Henry Sylvester Williams, a West Indian lawyer. Garvey, a product of Pan-Africanism, with fervour to elevate the people of colour worldwide, translated the concept of ‘return’ into a foreseeable possibility through the establishment of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) and African Communities League (ACL) in 1914. The general plan was to liberate Africa from alien rule and establish a united and powerful African State. This, Garvey believed, was attainable through the cooperation of Africans including those in the United States and the West Indies. Their education, skills and civilized western values would help to save Africa, restoring it to its former glory and gaining the respect of other nations.

Liberia in West Africa was selected as the base for the establishment of the great African nation envisioned by Garvey. The country was significant on account of its history and sovereignty. Founded for the purpose of helping the refugee slaves and exiled Africans to re-establish a foothold in their native land, Liberia was seen by Garvey as the rightful home of those wanting to return to Africa. He felt it expedient also to establish a foothold before white nations of Europe robbed Liberia of its autonomy, under the guise of friendship. The UNIA, in exchange for the permission to settle and establish new enterprises, would work assiduously to improve conditions that existed in Liberia and thus position the country as a great commercial and industrial commonwealth. The Liberian government accepted Garvey’s proposal because at the time he represented the only source of assistance and the government recognised the need for infrastructural development. However on the matter of administrative involvement there was conflict. To address this, the Liberian government outlined that ‘every emigrant before leaving America shall subscribe to an oath that they will respect the established authority of the Liberian government’. Such an oath ran contrary to Garvey’s mission. The regeneration of Africa for Garvey meant the imposition of European values and customs which were upheld as the epitome of civilization.

Those African nations that exhibited no knowledge of these western norms and values were thus regarded as ‘backward tribes’ and in need of Africans from the West who had benefited from western education and cultural habits. Thus Garvey, and all those who espoused ‘back to Africa’ views were intent on a ‘civilizing’ mission. They envisioned West Indian and American blacks, as the most likely administrators of affairs in Africa and in particular, Liberia. The growing popularity of Western bred blacks who settled in Liberia did not sit well with the Liberian Government, and indicated that it would be difficult to keep these ‘outsiders’ in check. Therefore, when the Firestone Plantation Company of Akon, Ohio proposed to develop the natural rubber resources of the country, Liberian President Charles King without hesitation signed an agreement with the Company in 1926 and retracted the offer previously made to the UNIA. Firestone promised to be a very lucrative venture and President King became personally involved in the project. The failed acquisition of lands in Liberia began the downward spiral of Garvey’s ‘back to Africa’ scheme. A power struggle between UNIA members Cyril Crichlow, secretary of the Liberian legation, and Gabriel Johnson, UNIA potentate in Liberia, further exasperated the situation. Crichlow “took the extraordinary asinine step in turning to the U.S. Minister in Monrovia for support. In the process, he turned over confidential UNIA documents to this representative of the U.S. government and thereby contributed more than his share to the downfall of Garvey’s Liberian plans”.

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