Roye Presidency and the First Coup
The preferred professions of the high class Americo-Liberians were politics and law, although the ones who settled outside of Monrovia did persevere in agriculture. The Congoes (recaptured slaves) were the most successful farmers as they were accustomed to farming in Africa. Other prestigious professions included Christian Ministry, teaching and business.
Those involved in commerce worked as middlemen between the tribal producers and the foreigners that bought these goods along the coast. According to Liebenow, these bargainers would exchange camwood, cane sugar, palm kernel and other products from the tribal traders with cloth, rum and tobacco from the Americans and Europeans. Some of these trade representatives like J.J. Roberts, E.J. Roye and Francis Devaney became wealthy through this venture.
Liberia’s economic decline continued, but its small Americo-Liberian class still controlled the political, social and other standards of the community. The social strata created by the Americo-Liberians did not reflect their disdain for slavery, but the fact that they were unable to participate while in the US. They set up a society like the American South, continuing the speech, dress code and norms from where they came, and viewed the natives as savages.
Liberia was in need of economic revival and it was believed that Roye, being one of the richest men in the nation could help with its resolution. He was a successful business man who had also served in the House of Representatives and on the Supreme Court. His presidency began in 1870.
Roye was of pure black descent and so was his Vice President, Dr. James S. Smith. They both were educated in the US, and this era would mark a time of pure blacks governing Liberia, as the True Whigs had defeated the Republicans.
With the rise of the True Whig party and pure blacks, the position of the Congoes in Liberian social and political spheres was changed. This alignment with the ruling class enabled them to be near equals with the descendants of the freed slaves.
Previous administrations had considered various financial schemes to fund their projects but none had taken on foreign loans. In dire economic state, most of the country favored obtaining an international loan. Roye asked his agents abroad if it was possible to guarantee a loan that favored the nation. Liberia’s Consul General to Great Britain, David Chinery responded that some banking agencies were willing to negotiate such a loan. Roye then appointed William H. Johnson and W. S. Anderson to travel to London and negotiate the loan of 100,000 pounds ($500,000).
The issue with the northern boundary with Sierra Leone reemerged and Roye and his Secretary of the Interior, Hilary R. W. Johnson, traveled to London to resolve this problem. Apparently, Roye agreed to a proposal that would grant the British the land up to the Sulima River and to investigate if Liberia legally owned the land beyond the stream. Perhaps in disagreement with the negotiations, H.R.W. Johnson returned to Liberia and left the President in England.
This loan of $500,000 was initially issued as bonds discounted at 30% – this meant the nation would receive $375,000. The terms also included an interest of 7% on the original loan amount of $500,000 that would be paid back over 15 years. Hence, Liberia would have to repay $663,000 although she received only $375,000 of the loan amount. Roye approved of the terms of the loan.
Even before he returned to Liberia, the business community and others with knowledge of finances deemed the loan unfavorable to Liberia and would result in economic difficulties for the country. The Republicans used this assessment to oppose the loan. However, Roye’s first annual message on the state of the nation resulted in a favorable consideration by the legislature.
When Roye was elected in 1869, a referendum was passed to increase the presidential term from two to four years, representative term from two to four years and senate term from four to eight years. The House of Representatives approved the change but the Senate did not. The Legislature decided that the nation would vote again on the referendum in Many 1870. The May 3 1870 referendum was also disputed with the True Whigs claiming and constitution was amended and the Republicans saying that it was not. As such, in the Presidential election of May 1871, Joseph Jenkins Roberts of the Republican Party ran unopposed and was again elected President of Liberia.
The legislature had approved the loan but Chinery and his conspirators deducted 3 years’ interest and gave Liberia $270,000. Cassell further states that “It was arranged that about 1/4 of the amount was to be sent to Liberia, the remainder held to the credit of the government, subject to disposition by the legislature. The initial payment was made in goods and some worthless notes which had to be discounted at a loss” (Cassell, 1971). Even W.S. Anderson who was one of the commissioners of the loan and was returning home with some of the proceeds diverted to St. Paul de Loanda and said he would return to Liberia only if he was granted immunity against prosecution.
Although Roye was not a beneficiary of the loan, the Republicans claimed that he had gained from it, and used this along with his push for the constitutional amendment that would extend the presidential term to destroy his government. They Republicans led an outcry from Montserrado and Grand Bassa Counties claiming Roye had asserted his presidency was four years instead of the two years. They held numerous meetings and incited their supporters to revolt. They were determined to unseat his lawful government without following the constitutional provision for removing elected officials.
On October 26, 1871, the Republican leadership called a meeting where they read a manifesto to unseat Roye based on the unfavorable loan, the presidential term of office, and allegations that the President had armed his supporters to infringe on the liberty of the populace. This document also concluded that the nation would be governed by a Chief Executive Committee of 3 members and Department heads until constitutional leaders took office.
Instead of the constitutional process, the Republicans resorted to an armed discord. They attacked Roye’s private home, raided it and threw him in jail. The nation was in chaos and many of the True Whig elites were arrested and tried for treason.
With the help of the prison guard, Roye escaped and got on a canoe headed for the harbor. Afraid of the shots being fired at them, his Kru paddler jumped overboard and the canoe capsized. One of the canoes in pursuit captured Roye and brought him ashore. All of the money he had was taken and almost naked, he was brutally flogged and dragged through the streets of Monrovia. His wife brought a blanket and covered his near lifeless body. He was thrown in prison again and left to die.
Other accounts claim he was trying to swim to a British vessel and drowned by the weight of the money he carried. His body was recovered by some Kru men who said they found no money on the former president. His son who was also on the run with him was later pardoned of treason charges. He left for Britain shortly afterwards.
The Republicans setup a junta Executive Committee which included Charles Benedict Dunbar, Reginald A. Sherman and Amos Herring to head the government. Hilary R. W. Johnson continued as Secretary of State. The Committee ruled for one month and power was turned over to Vice President Smith who was away from Monrovia when these events occurred. To save face, the Republicans had Smith complete the rest of Roye’s term.
This is the story of the first Liberian coup d’état that brought the Republicans back to power. The legislature had not met during the crisis and at their annual session in December approved all of the unlawful acts of the coup. Joseph Jenkins Roberts returned to the Presidency in January 1872.
Burrowes, Carl Patrick. Power and Press Freedom in Liberia, 1830-1970 : the Impact of Globalization and Civil Society on Media-government Relations. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 2004. Print.
Cassell, Abayomi. Liberia: History of the First African Republic. New York. Fountainhead Publishers, 1970. Print.
Ciment, James. Another America : the Story of Liberia and the Former Slaves Who Ruled It. 1st ed. New York: Hill and Wang, 2013. Print.
Elections in Liberia. African Elections Database. 25 Nov. 2011. Web.
Liebenow, J. Liberia : the Quest for Democracy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987. Print.
Richardson, Nathaniel R. Liberia’s Past and Present. Diplomatic Press and Pub. Co., 1959. Print.
Wilson, Charles Morrow. Liberia: Black Africa in Microcosm. [1st ed.]. Harper & Row, 1971. Print.