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KRU WARS: SOUTHEASTERN REVOLT IN 19TH TO EARLY 20TH CENTURY LIBERIA

 

By Anthony Barclay Morgan Jr.

 

SACRED MOUNTAIN, FIVE TOWNS

Liberia’s southeastern coast begins at the Cestos River and ends several hundred miles away at the mouth of the Cavalla and a verdant promontory aptly named Cape Palmas. The roaring surf and jutting rocks give way to a sparkling white sandbar and dense mangrove swamps that yield to wetlands, stately palm groves, and lush rainforest on both sides of the mighty Cavalla.

The diverse peoples who inhabit this coast form part of a Niger-Congo subgroup found in neighboring Ivory Coast and further east, in Ghana. These Kwa-speaking, related but distinct cultures were all lumped together under the collective term “Kru”, a corruption of the original “Krao” by Europeans with whom they traded as far back as the fifteenth century. Successive waves of migration brought them overland from the east and north, and by the sea. Those coming from the Gedeh forests to the north claimed Mount Pahn in the Putu Range as their ancestral home. Geological flights in the 1950s confirmed the remains of a village on the summit of the mountain, half-shrouded in clouds of mist and ancient mystery.

Those migrating from across the Cavalla and down the Atlantic seaboard have their own oral histories and myths centered on the crossing of the dangerous surf waters in canoes. All were fleeing more militaristic groups that were conquering and subjugating everyone and everything in their paths. By the time of their earliest recorded encounters with the Portuguese in the 1400s, there were three distinct yet similar groups inhabiting what came to be known as the Kru Coast: The Grebo, literally meaning “Those Who Made It Across the Water,” the Sapo, and the Kru. The three groups were less “tribes” than loose federations of clans with common ancestors. Each Dako, as the clans were called, could encompass several different chiefdoms, and are related by blood or history to other Dako. The Grebo name for this social structure was Dakwe, identified by town names.

Mostly agriculturists like their interior relatives the Krahn, the Kru also engaged in trade, migrant labor, and seafaring. They established fishing and migrant worker settlements along the coast as far east as Cameroon and as far west as Freetown and Cape Verde. Their skill with canoes in the treacherous surf waters was already world-renowned by the 1700s when they served on British merchant and warships, and even established small settlements in Liverpool and in the Americas. They lived mostly in five large towns along the coast: Nana Kru, Settra Kru, King Willie Town, Fish Town, and Sass town, the largest and most powerful. These towns produced mariners primarily. The Grebos were centered on Grand Cess, Cape Palmas, and Tabou, with power concentrated in Grand Cess. Migrant workers were recruited in and around these three centers. The arrival in the 1820s of African-American settlers at first had very little impact on the Kru. “Quee people”, as the locals referred to the westernized colonists at Greenville and Harper, were far from unknown on the Kru Coast. The Krus and Grebos themselves had a sizable population of western-educated people living among them for decades. Some of these “civilized” Grebo and Kru had been educated in Sierra Leone, on the Gold Coast, and in Britain.

The people the American colonists met lived in highly organized societies far stronger economically and militarily than the settler towns of Lexington, Harper, and Greenville. The Liberians relied on the local people for their food and for items of trade. The locals were also willing to exchange land for education, on the condition that they were treated equally. Initially, the Krus did not identify as Liberians and rejected that description. Later, however, assimilation occurred much more readily than in any other region of the country, due in large part to the Krus’ long exposure to European culture for centuries prior to the establishment of Liberia.

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The Krus, in a traditional dance

The wars between the traditional Kru political systems and the Liberian government were less a clash of cultures than a pure and simple struggle for power. The Krus traditionally controlled the ports and the European trade, regulated and taxed migrant labor, and negotiated their own relations with the neighboring French and British. All this was contrary to Liberian interests, as the fledgling nation-state struggled for survival against the open hostility and aggression of those same British and French colonial governments, a complete lack of financial resources, and increasing indebtedness to European powers under outright loan shark terms. Their only source of revenue was customs and head tax on migrant labor. From the Liberian point of view, the Krus simply could not be allowed to control the ports or relations with the British. Indeed, the main thread running through the Kru Coast rebellions was an expressed desire to be ruled by the British, even going as far as raising the British flag on their territory. The Liberians were fiercely protective of their independence from European rule, and the sight of the Union Jack must have been especially galling and troubling. The way the Krus saw it, it was their country and they had the right to control their ports, collect tariffs and head tax, and be ruled by the British if they so chose. The stage was set for confrontation almost from the moment the first ships sponsored by the Maryland and Mississippi Colonization Societies landed their passengers at Cape Palmas and at the mouth of the Sinoe River.

SEDJIBO

In the highly militarized Kru social structure, young men of the Kinibo order trained for warrior status and leadership. Warriors at the highest level belonged to the Sedjibo order, usually, chiefs, and sub-chiefs, and atop the hierarchy were the Nyekbade or elders. Less

visible was the real power underlying warrior culture, secret societies like the Leopard Society and the Neegee (Water Leopard Society) centered around the confluence of the Cestos and St. John Rivers, (Neegbah, Two Rivers) This militarism inevitably led to frequent internecine battles over land, trade, women, and more trivial issues.

In 1843, a common enemy was introduced into the fray. Commodore Matthew Perry of the United States Navy landed at Cape Palmas in command of three ships and seven hundred marines. Commander of the West African Squadron, ostensibly created to suppress the slave trade, his mission was twofold: punish the Kru for attacks on American shipping, and for the murders of American traders, and assist the Maryland colony locked in conflict with the locals. Perry decided that the Americans had been the aggressors and settled the matter, then went on to Little Berebay to investigate another murder involving an American schooner. This time he found the chief, Ben Krako, guilty, and executed him. Thus, was the Kru Coast drawn into the American-British struggle for naval supremacy and control of the African coastal trade. Realizing that a strong Liberia was the best defense against the obstinate British-allied Kru, the United States Navy would from then on back Liberia militarily in all conflicts with the Kru, and then negotiate resolutions to disputes.

War drums again pounded out of the Sapo forests in 1854, with Maryland’s attempt to dislodge Grebos from land they claimed had been ceded to them. The USS John Adams was sent to help President Roberts’ fledgling government and its allies. Two thousand Grebos were driven from the Cape. An uneasy peace lasted until two years later when the Grebos again took up arms over the question of land. Peace once more enforced by US Navy gunboats, trade flourished in the area to the benefit of both Krus and their Liberian neighbors. Liberian merchant ships manned by Kru seamen carried coffee and palm oil to foreign markets. Then Liberian coffee, reportedly the best in the world, was introduced into Brazil, and Brazil soon monopolized the market for it, severely crippling Liberian commerce. As the European scramble for Africa heated up, the pressure increased on the obstinate “Negro Republic”, and the palm oil trade was taken over by Britain, leaving Liberia with no revenue at the same time that high-interest loans were due to that very European power. The government began to impose head tax on the migrant workers of the Kru Coast and to take over customs collections at the ports of entry.

In 1874, several Dakwe came together to form the Grebo Reunited Kingdom, or Gededebo, under King Seah Nybar Weah, and various chiefs and mission-educated men. Initially, the confederation was not opposed to the Liberian state but primarily advocated for the protection of migrant workers. However, the dispute overhead tax lingered, exacerbated by the memories of 1854. When yet another land dispute flared up around Cape Palmas in 1875, the drums summoned the Sedjibo war councils together in Grand Cess. Grebo chiefs had ceded the land around Harper to the Maryland colony before the colony joined the Republic of Liberia, or so the Liberians claimed. They also claimed that the British were instigating the trouble. From the Grebos’ point of view, there was no such thing as “ceded”. Their fathers had granted the Marylanders a place to stay, but for them, that did not mean forever. They felt the land rightfully belonged to the Grebo people.

Twe, icon, and legendary politician

In 1875, Gededebo launched the most serious war the Liberians had faced up to that point in their history. The Grebos came very close to driving them off the cape for good. Once again, an American naval vessel prevented what would become the seat of Maryland County from being wiped off the map. American President Ulysses S. Grant dispatched the USS Alaska to Cape Palmas. In the negotiated peace, the Liberians adopted the migrant worker protection laws enacted by the Grebo Confederation.

In 1884 under President Hilary Johnson, indigenous groups were allowed representation in the House of Representatives if they paid above a specified amount in tax. The Grebo and Kru were the only groups wealthy enough to qualify. The Sinoe County Kru presented their grievances to the House: Economic discrimination. Cultural arrogance. Discrimination in educational opportunities. Forced labor. Above all, control of the ports had been taken away from them, causing Kru cities to decline into villages and reducing a proud, independent people to subservience. They asked that Settra Kru be declared an international port of entry.

In 1908, American military officers Colonel Young and Captain Roundtree organized the Liberian Frontier Force. Both were African-Americans with equal respect and sympathy for the indigenous people and for the Black republic. In 1905, President Arthur Barclay agreed to make Settra Kru a port of entry. However, faced with stiff opposition from the settlers in Sinoe, he reneged on his agreement. The Sinoe County wing of the ruling True Whig Party wielded enormous political influence as one of the three original colonies and signers of the Declaration of Independence in 1847. Nevertheless, they were not as welcoming of Kru political and economic participation as their Maryland neighbors. Where the Marylanders saw strong, economically vibrant Kru communities as an added strength, the Greenville political machine did their best to repress Kru power, and thwarted President Barclay’s plans for unification and integration. In 1910, the Grebos revolted against the hut tax, a desperate measure by President Barclay to raise revenues for debt payments on the 1871 loan from Britain. This war revealed how complex relations between settlers and the indigenous people had become. For one thing, the “civilized” Grebo” communities of large towns like Grand Cess and Cape Palmas mostly supported the government, while future vice president Allen Yancy claimed “neutrality” even though he was a militia captain, and earned huge profits repairing guns for the Grebos. Yancy was married into the powerful Nabo clan of the Grebos, spoke the language fluently, and was reportedly up to his neck in the Grebo secret societies. As wealthy elite groups have always done everywhere, American settler wealth and power intermarried with Grebo wealth and power, making the Maryland County wing of the TWP the most powerful faction in the years following the 1910 war. A series of decisive victories by the Grebos forced the Americans to dispatch the USS Birmingham to Cape Palmas and in the negotiated peace, powerful concessions were awarded the Grebos. The following years would see the son of a Gededebo leader, Henry Toe Wesley elected vice president and ultimately the ascension to the presidency of another Marylander, William V. S. Tubman in 1943.

By 1912, the Sinoe River Krus’ long list of grievances included arbitrary executions of their chiefs by a senator with the silent acquiescence of Monrovia. They complained to the American Mission to bring pressure on the Liberian government, but nothing happened. They then turned to the British for guns and ammunition.

For two years, the forests were eerily silent. Trade was cut off with the Liberian towns and all the Kru living in or near them retreated into the bush. Young men of Kinibo age disappeared from the coastal towns and settler farms where they worked. When they emerged out of the forest in 1915, it was to set the Kru Coast almost literally on fire. Once again, Liberia faced the serious threat of annihilation.

President Daniel Howard appealed to Colonel Young and Captain Roundtree for American assistance. They agreed on the condition that the government make immediate reforms in the administration of Kru affairs. On November 8, 1915, the USS Chester appeared off the coast of Monrovia, bringing arms and ammunition for the Frontier Force. On the assurance of Captain Roundtree that their grievances would be addressed, the Krus laid down their arms, awed by the imposing presence of the American warship. Three weeks later, in violation of the peace treaty’s prohibition on reprisals, and against the advice of his own Attorney General, President Howard declared martial law on the Kru Coast and sent a military commission of sixty-three men who then launched an orgy of retaliation, executing seventy-two chiefs on his direct orders.

In 1927, Superintendent Samuel Ross of Sinoe and his District Commissioner Watson began selling young boys to the Spanish plantations at Fernando Po. They built their barracoons at Blue Barrow Point and used their authority over the Frontier Force, corrupt interior chiefs, and district commissioners to obtain a steady supply of forced labor. When a member of the cabinet, Postmaster General R.A. Sherman discovered this activity and reported it to Monrovia, he suddenly lost his job. It became plainly obvious then that Ross’s slave trading was sanctioned at the highest levels of government.

Didhwo Twe, a Kru member of the House, also lost his job when he brought the matter to the Legislature. Expelled by a two-thirds vote, he then made a compelling case to the League of Nations together with TJR Faulkner, another fearless crusader for human rights and former Mayor of Monrovia, who presented the evidence collected by Twe to the League in Geneva. Britain, France, and the Firestone Company, which operated a large plantation in Maryland County, backed them. While Twe and Faulkner’s motives seemed clear, those of Britain and France were questionable, since they themselves engaged in the practice of forced labor. Firestone for its part depended on the very labor that was being exported to the Spanish plantations, Spain being an enemy of American interests. The League dispatched a commission of inquiry to Liberia and the ensuing investigation indicted President King and his Vice President Allen Yancy with trafficking in human beings.

kru warriors
Kru Warriors

King and Yancy were forced to resign in 1930, but not before another orgy of revenge was carried out on those chiefs who had testified before the Commission. Towns and villages were razed and more chiefs executed, imprisoned, fined, flogged, and humiliated in front of their people. No surprise then, that in 1932 the Kru Coast erupted again over the long history of Frontier Force atrocities and, ironically, partly instigated by Liberians in the area, concerned that their country would be taken over by white men as a result of the Commission’s findings. This time the conflagration engulfed the entire coast, from Rivercess to Cape Palmas. It was only after President Tubman launched his Unification Program in 1945 that the Kru Coast chiefs finally accepted the authority of Monrovia, sending word to Tubman that they were now at peace with the Liberian Government. The country then entered its most prosperous and stable period with Krus and Grebos making substantial contributions. Among the most outstanding were Vice President Henry Too Wesley, Tubman’s former law partner J. Gbafflen Davis, Attorney General Nete Sie Brownell, Didhwo Twe, Episcopal Bishop George Browne, Methodist Bishop S. Trowen Nagbe, Chief Justice H. Nimene Russell, Army Chief of Staff George Toe Washington, University President J. Bernard Blamo, Paramount Chiefs Juwely Jeh of Webbo and Juah Nimley of Sasstown, and an endless list of other leading lights of Liberia, most of them descendants of the Sass town, Grand Cess and other Kru Coast chiefs.

 

Revolt in 19th to early 20th Century Liberia by Anthony Morgan

First published on SEABREEZE ONLINE JOURNAL OF LIBERIAN CONTEMPORARY WRITINGS

 

Main Photo: Kru Warriors /Etan Rider

 

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