Col. Elwood Davis: The 1930s American Mercenary of the Kru War
By Dag Walker
No, history is not written by the victors. History is written by writers.
Writers? They aren’t necessarily famous. They might write about Liberia and not be Liberian. Today’s victor might be tomorrow’s villain. It depends on the writer.
Victors gain fame and sometimes notoriety, but only if they are remembered by history. The ancient Egyptian Pharaohs among others, used scribes to record their lives and careers. In its way, a scroll or a wall of hieroglyphs is like the mortal remains of a mummy, the real existence after death of a human being. To be remembered.
To be remembered is a form of immortality. It’s only a good thing if one is remembered as someone worthy of life in the first place. To be remembered as someone evil is far worse than to be forgotten. Notoriety is an eternal curse. For some, being remembered is worth being remembered as evil. The ancient Greek firebug, Herostratus, set fire to the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus in the 4th Century B.C., only so that his name would be remembered. His act of vandalism led to the damnatio memoriae, the law forbidding the mention of his very name. He is remembered, and remembered as a worthless fool who destroyed a temple.
In the 6th Century A.D. the Byzantine historian Procopius wrote great things about his boss, the Emperor Justinian I. Procopius was highly regarded and given many writing honors until he was fired from his job. Today, he is remembered as the writer who came out with The Secret Histories, the angry side of his time as a writer. All those he wrote about as good and decent became villains once Procopius lost his job. Writers have power that even emperors do not have. Victors can be victims of disgruntled employees. Forever.
Sometimes, a man who is a large figure in history at the time of some great even is lost to history because his event wasn’t as big as it seemed. Such is the case of the American mercenary, Elwood Davis, known and feared in Liberia in the 1930s as The Dictator of Grand Bassa. In his day and in Liberia and around the world, Colonel Davis, head of the Liberian Army, was famous. Today, the infamous Colonel Davis suffers a nasty fate: He is not quite forgotten, but nearly so. Those who know of him find him to be an evil man who preyed on native Liberians for fun and profit. And, perhaps almost humorous, he is remembered mostly because of a chance meeting in the village of Tappee Ta, Liberia when the female cousin of a famous English novelist met him and jotted down some brief notes about the man. The terrifying and sinister Dictator of Grand Bassa is, according to a young English woman, a clown.
In the aftermath of the Fernando Po scandal, the English novelist Graham Greene, accompanied by his young female cousin Barbara Greene, walked across Liberia, ostensibly to gather information for a novel, but in truth to find out about slavery against indigenous Liberians organized by– Liberians. Graham Greene published a little-known travel book in later years; his cousin wrote a book even less well-known, about the same journey, Too Late to Turn Back. (London: Penguin; 1938.) It is in the young woman’s book that we learn more about Col. Davis, The Dictator of Grand Bassa.
Col. Davis is known to Liberians as the man who helped to crush the uprising led by Chief Juah Nimley of the Kru Kingdom. Davis’, the mercenary was also the American Aide de Camp to President Charles Dunbar King. The war began on November 10, 1932, with fierce hostilities between the Liberian Frontier Forces of the Americo Liberian led govt situated in Monrovia and the Krus. Col. Davis defended the burning of 44 villages as a military necessity.
Col. Davis was an American soldier who, “after service in Mexico and the Philippines, had drifted somehow over to Liberia. and had quickly worked himself up to an important position in Liberian politics.” (P. 156.)
Davis was known around the world in his day as the man who “callously murdered … unprotected women and children, a cold-blooded man… I thought, a soldier of fortune.” (Ibid.)
Barbara Greene, a casual observer and a young woman with no previous credentials as a writer, continues: “Colonel Davis marched smartly, but with all the swagger and confidence of a successful adventurer…. I liked the swagger, the proud, slightly insolent tilt of the head, the clean, well-fitting uniform, and the clear, rather too loud voice…. ”
I wish young women would write such things about me. But the young lady wasn’t done with Colonel Davis. “No longer could I think of him as a cold-blooded murderer of women and children. His personality was too colorful, his gestures too theatrical,. He looked the part of the handsome villain in an old-fashioned melodrama.” ( P. 160)
A man who most people feared and loathed turns out to be a petty and vain pretender who is only frightening when he confronts women and children. Miss Greene writes of Davis that “He was a good-looking man, straight, with a great black pointed beard; unfortunately, he had too many gold teeth, so that his flashing smile lost a good deal of its charm. (P161.) She writes that he was “clever, he was efficient, he was brave. … Mention of the Kru war and his part in it, tears nearly came to his eyes.” Nearly, but not really. “After speaking of his great love of children and demanding more whiskey, he spoke of Liberia’s great attractions.”
Davis claims that Liberia’s climate is near to perfect, and he wishes all people would visit such a lovely place. He excused himself from Miss Greene’s company and promised to visit again in the morning. Unfortunately, the next morning he was too ill from a raging fever to get out of bed. (P.169)
Over and over again, this young tourist woman records the murderous Col. Davis as he makes a fool of himself. As a writer, Greene does little but record what she witnessed. She is neither a conqueror or a victim, and yet, she destroys the reputation of a man many to this day think of as a terrifying man. A simple writer of history as it happened does more to reveal the truth than hundreds of academic historians. So it is with writers today in Liberia and elsewhere around the world. Not military victors, not famous novelists, but ordinary people who write: The truth is known.
Main Photo: Dag Walker, writer