HL Deb 16 March 1932 vol 83 cc912-38

EARL BUXTON rose to ask His Majesty's Government whether they have any information they can give to the House in reference to the position in Liberia; and to move for Papers. The noble Earl said: My Lords, my sole object in raising this Question this afternoon is to obtain information from the Government regarding the present position. I have no criticism to make of their action in the past. I know what they have done, and I feel certain that all noble Lords, to whatever part of the House they may belong, will support them in any action they can take to bring to an end the evils which exist in Liberia. My original interest in regard to slavery is rather an hereditary one. It has now got a good deal beyond that. The subject has become a very acute one, a matter of urgency, and one that is becoming of international importance. I do not propose to trouble your Lordships with a history of the position, because I hope my noble friend Lord Lugard will deal with that, if necessary, later, but it has been in the hands of the League of Nations now for two or three years past, and I think it is a great tribute to the beneficent action that the League of Nations takes, apart from the general questions of peace and war and disarmament, that in these social and economic matters, and matters of slavery and forced labour, it has done a very great deal of most admirable work in bringing about improvements in many parts of the world.

We have now in the League of Nations what I ventured to call the other day in these matters an international conscience. In addition to that the League is able to bring massed international opinion to deal with these points, and to bring pressure to bear when necessary. I will, therefore, begin with the position as it arose a little while ago when the Committee of the League of Nations, of which, I believe, my noble friend Lord Cecil is Chairman, at the request of the Liberian Government appointed a Commission consisting of Dr. Christy and others, to go to Liberia and enquire into the allegations that were made with regard to slavery and forced labour. That was an International Commission, and I think we may congratulate Dr. Christy and his colleagues on the great industry and courage they showed in examining into all these questions, and for the Report that they made.

I would summarise the conclusions to which the Commission came. They found that what they call "classic" slavery—that is to say, slave markets and slave dealers—no longer existed, but that, apart from that, there was a considerable amount of inter-tribal domestic slavery. They stated also that there existed a system of the pawning of natives, scarcely distinguishable from slave-owning as the difficulties of redemption were almost insuperable. In some cases, they stated, the system was criminally abused by Americo-Liberians for their personal ends. They also reported that natives were recruited and sent to Fernando Po and French Gabun—this is what they say: under conditions of criminal compulsion scarcely distinguishable from slave-raiding and slave-trading. Before the Commission went out their representative at the League of Nations stated that in Liberia, in principle, all labour was free, and all labour was justly paid. That was in principle, but in practice the Commission found that unpaid and unfed forced labour was being used for public works. This is the Commission's own conclusion about that: frequently under conditions involving systematic intimidation and ill-treatment on the part of the Government officials.

Not only so, but to a very large extent such forced labour was diverted to private purposes and privately-owned plantations and used for the personal gain of Government officials and others. Among the Government officials and others they mentioned the President and the Vice-President, some members of the Government, members of the Senate, and Government and other officials. It appears that extortionate fines were imposed on the unfortunate natives without any judicial authority, largely for the benefit of officials or members of the Government. Those are the conclusions to which Dr. Christy's Commission came. It has been known, I think certainly to our Government and to others, for some time past, that deplorable conditions did exist in Liberia, especially as affecting the relations between the deported Africans and the natives, but I do not think anyone appreciated or realised the full extent of what was going on in Liberia in regard both to slavery and forced labour and those orders to which I have referred. Such a state of things was not, I think, fully I appreciated, and the existence of the Commission and their Report came as a shock to those persons interested in these matters, showing as it did that for such a long time past these evils had existed without being publicly known and without being checked or brought to an end by the Liberian Government itself.

I think it also created a somewhat disturbing feeling that this sort of thing existed in a place like Liberia, which was fairly well known, because it gave rise to the fear that it was quite possible other evils of a similar kind or even worse might still be existing, unknown to the public, in other parts of the world. It revealed a state of things which, I think, much shocked public opinion here and elsewhere. The immediate effect of the Report of the Commission was the resignation of the President and of the Cabinet, which was practically an admission of the truth, more or less, of the allegations made against them. I should think it is the first time that the Report of a Committee or Commission has ever led to the resignation of a Government, let alone the resignation of a President. It shows what the state of affairs must have been that the Report of this Commission should have brought about that immediate result.

The upshot of the matter was that the League of Nations appointed another Committee of experts to report in regard to these matters. We have not had an opportunity of seeing their Report. It is in the possession of the League of Nations, or at all events of the members of that Committee, but we have not had an opportunity of seeing it. Therefore we have no means at present—I hope the representative of the Government will give us some information about the point to-day—of knowing to what extent the Liberian Government have taken steps to remedy all the evils that were existing a little while ago. I am afraid, from the answer to a question in the other House the other day, that the Government are not satisfied, at all events at present, by the steps which the Liberian Government have taken to remedy the evils which existed.

I have here—and it is very germane to the questions I am discussing—an interesting and illuminating document containing the speech of the new President of Liberia, Mr. Barclay, to the Legislative Council delivered just before Christmas. I should like to say I sympathise deeply with Mr. Barclay in the very difficult and delicate task he has undertaken in succeeding the late President, and in endeavouring to bring about improved conditions in Liberia itself. Mr. Barclay, as President, protested strongly and emphatically against interference in the government of Liberia by outside authorities. He said an International Government Commission would be a violation of the constitution of the Republic and would also be tantamount to a surrender of its sovereignty and autonomy. He stigmatized as a "pernicious proposition" the suggestion that the administrative personnel must be approved by an outside authority. He took a very strong line against the suggestions made by friendly States. At the same time it would appear from other parts of the speech that the financial and economic position in Liberia is very serious and constitutes almost a complete breakdown of the ordinary administration of the country, which means, of course, that still less would they be able to deal with these acknowledged evils to which I have referred. The speech goes on—and this is the point on which I particularly want an answer from the Government—to disclose what purport to be representations made by the British Government and by the Government of the United States of America, which the President said amounted to a rupture in the official relationships of Liberia and these Govern- ments. I should like to know how far that is the actual position or what are our relations at present with Liberia.

The President in his speech gave extracts from Despatches which had passed between him and Great Britain, the United States and Germany in regard to these matters. I would like, if I may, to read to your Lordships one or two extracts from those Despatches, because I think they put the matter in a nutshell, and because I am anxious to know how far the Despatches represent the present views of the Government and how far these extracts really show the true position in regard to these matters. In December, 1930, the United States through their official representative sent a note to the Liberian Government to say: Unless they [the twin scourges of slavery and forced labour] are abolished and unless there is instituted by the Liberian Government a comprehensive system of reforms loyally and sincerely put into effect it will result in the final abdication of the friendly feelings which the American Government have entertained for Liberia since its establishment nearly a century ago. Then in January, 1931, just over a year ago, there was a communication from His Britannic Majesty's Chargé d' Affaires. The only authority I have for these extracts from the Despatches is the speech of the President himself, but I take it that he quoted them correctly. This is what the British Chargé d' Affaires is reported to have said: In accordance with instructions, which he has received from His Britannic Majesty's Government, he has the honour to inform the President that they were greatly concerned at the conditions existing in Liberia, as revealed by the Report of the International Commission of Inquiry into Slavery and Forced Labour.… This Report, which was then published to the world, constitutes a shocking indictment of the administrative methods of the Liberian Government. His Majesty's Government understand that the Liberian Government has agreed to accept 'in principle' the findings and recommendations of the Commission of Inquiry, and that certain legislation, purporting to carry into effect some of the recommendations of the Commission, have been enacted. His Majesty's Government are unable to regard this programme of reforms as either adequate or satisfactory. They are convinced that, without assistance from outside Liberia, no Liberian Government would be able to carry into effect the full programme of reforms recommended by the Commission. His Majesty's Government give their fullest support to the suggestion which has been made that the government of Liberia should be committed for a time to an International Commission. Then they go on to say that they hope the Liberian Government will ask for such a Commission, and that failure to make such a request would be "viewed by His Majesty's Government with grave concern."

That Despatch was practically confirmed and endorsed by the Government of the United States and by the German Government. It is because I am anxious to have publicly stated the views of the Government on this subject that I have ventured to raise this question to-day. It is singular, it seems to me, and very unusual for one Government without agreement with the other Governments and not simultaneously, to publish diplomatic representations and Despatches, especially in the way in which these have been published in the forms of extracts only. I should like, therefore, to ask my noble friend to promise, if he can, to publish in the form of a White Paper or in some other way the full correspondence which has taken place, and to which Mr. Barclay has referred, between the Liberian Government and the British Government.

I should also like to ask him if he can give us any information to show what is the present position in regard to the matter. All we have are the documents which the Liberian Government have published, the Report of the Christy Commission and the speech which my noble friend Viscount Cecil made to his Committee at the League of Nations at Geneva. Such information as we have available, hampered as we are by not knowing how far these representations by the Government represent their whole minds, make clear, I think, to any ordinary observer that the views and actions taken by His Majesty's Government, by the German Government and by the Government of the United States were entirely justified. They practically show, as I said just now, the complete breakdown of the ordinary administration of Liberia. Their finances are shown to be in a very bad state and it would seem to be very difficult without outside assistance to avert a complete breakdown. The particular Papers which I ask for are three in number. I have already informed my noble friend, through the Foreign Office, that what I should like are: (1), Diplomatic Despatches between the Foreign Office and other Governments on the matter; (2), British Consular Reports from Liberia; (3), Reports from adjacent British territories.

I am glad that my noble friend Viscount Cecil is here because I should like him, if he can, to tell us how the matter stands at the League of Nations. They have taken the matter very actively in hand and have had a great deal of correspondence with the Liberian Government. It would be of immense value to us if he is able to inform us how the matter now stands. This Black Republic was created about 100 years ago as a place of refuge for freed slaves. It was believed, at that time, that these persons under the auspices under which they were sent to Liberia, would have taken with them the principles of liberty and progress and would have formed a nucleus of progress for the hinterland and the natives living there. It is a lamentable thing that these high hopes have not been fulfilled and that the present state of Liberia, as far as the natives are concerned, is as deplorable as it is possible to be. While we cannot go back on that we should try, I think, internationally to bring to an end these injuries affecting 2,000,000 natives by some 15,000 Americo-Liberians who have been brought over there. I beg to move.


My Lords, the noble Earl who moved this Motion has quoted largely from a message which purports to have been sent by the President of the Liberian Republic to the House of Representatives. In that message he quoted the words that "His Majesty's Government would give its fullest support to the suggestion that the Government of Liberia should be committed for a time to an International Commission," and he told us that it had been stated that that suggestion was supported by the representatives of France and the United States. On March 10 the Undersecretary for Foreign Affairs, speaking in another place on behalf of the Government, stated that representations had been made which partially confirmed what we have heard from the message sent by the President of Liberia, but he did not say whether those important words had or had not been used, or whether the interested Powers have pressed for international control at Geneva.

Such a declaration would seem to me to be in entire accord with the policy pressed upon the Liberian Government any time during the last twenty-five years by this country and the United States. That it is in accord with the attitude of America towards Liberia in the past is evident from the Despatch read just now by the noble Earl, Lord Buxton. It also appears from the terms of the proposed Agreement of 1921 between Liberia and America. The terms, of that proposed agreement are given very fully by Professor Buell, Research Director of the Foreign Policy Association of New York, in his book "The Negro Problem in Africa." The agreement proposed that as a condition for a loan of 5,000,000 dollars the President of the United States should appoint a Financial Commission which should undertake the collection and administration of the revenues of Liberia. In all twenty-two Americans were to be appointed on fixed salaries, including four military officers for the Frontier Force. That, of course, would mean that the whole administration, civil and military, would be transferred to the Commission. That agreement was accepted by Liberia, but after considerable debate it failed to pass the United States Senate. The conception therefore of foreign control is not a new one to Liberia. It has, in fact, been accepted on occasion by Liberia in the past.

I should like to put the position as it stands to-day clearly and consecutively before your Lordships. In consequence of the very strong letter written by the United States Government calling attention to the grave charges that had been made against the Liberian Government, that Government found it advisable to ask for an Inquiry. The League of Nations sent out a Commission under Dr. Christy. The general tenour of his Report has been described by the noble Earl and was also described at considerable length by the Lord Archbishop in this House last July. In effect it declared that what is practically an organised slave-trade, accompanied by murder and outrage, is being carried on; that the natives have been seized and forcibly exported as labourers; that taxes are often levied twice over; and so on. In spite of such methods of raising revenue the Government is bankrupt. Such revenue as it can raise is apparently entirely absorbed in paying high salaries to Liberian Ministers. In defence of their rights the natives have risen again and again, though they have been suppressed by the well-armed Liberian forces.

A second Commission, a Commission of experts headed by M. Brunot, was sent out to report on how the recommendations of the Christy Commission could be put into effect and the League has set up a Committee to deal with the matter. We hear that that Committee has been informed by M. Brunot that the unfortunate natives who gave evidence before the Christy Committee have been subjected to reprisals. We are told that the Committee declares it was unable to do anything without the consent of the Liberian Government—that is to say, of the very Government whose misrule has given rise to the intervention of the League of Nations, misrule which is being carried on by its successors in office. The Committee has adjourned and the Liberian Government is considering the matter. It is now fifteen months since the Christy Commission's Report was published—a Report which Mr. Stimson said had "profoundly shocked" the American people. The persistent reports of continued persecution have compelled the interested Powers to take action independently of the League.

We have heard a good deal of late about the maintenance of the prestige of the League of Nations in connection with events in the Far East. Surely there can be nothing more damaging to its prestige than the failure to take effective action in a matter in which it has become so deeply involved. Liberia has broken the Covenant and broken the treaties to which she is a party regarding slavery and forced labour, the witnesses before the League's own Commission are being persecuted, two million natives have been reduced to a state of misery by a handful of foreign negroes, and a slur is being cast on the progressive elements of the African race by their deeds. Liberia claims the privileges of a Member of the League of Nations and it would seem that in order to maintain the so-called independence of a small foreign oligarchy it is necessary to obtain their consent before such measures as the League may consider necessary can be put into force. Is membership of the League of Nations to afford protection for gross misrule? If the action of the League is to be circumscribed by what those who are convicted of misrule will consent to, and if their agency is to be employed, it amounts in practice to reestablishing their rule under the ægis of the League of Nations.

It has been said, though I hesitate to credit it, that the Committee of the League holds the view that the League is entirely free to accept or decline any responsibility in this matter. It would seem to me that it will rather be expected that they will call upon the Liberian Government to indemnify those whom it has wronged, and to bring back to their homes those natives who have been forcibly deported. Great Britain was the first to recognise the independence of Liberia, and she has always admitted her responsibility in regard to that country, and the United States Secretary, Mr. Hughes, in 1922 explicitly recognised the special responsibility of the United States with regard to that matter.

May I venture to suggest what in my view are the essential conditions to achieve the object of liberating the population of Liberia? In the first place the tribal areas must for a time be placed under a Commissioner appointed by an International Commission, to whom he would be entirely responsible. That International Commission should, in my view, be appointed by the League of Nations, conjointly with the United States. The cost of this administration should be paid by the International Commission from a small loan raised on the security of the revenue of the hinterland, preferably under the guarantee of the League of Nations. The Commissioner should be empowered to raise that revenue by direct taxation and by Customs Duties on exports from and imports to the hinterland. The loan need only be a small one, and the security should be a good one, for it is believed that the natural resources of the country are very good. The people are industrious, and the population is believed to be denser than in most other parts of Africa. They would, no doubt, gladly pay a moderate tax to be relieved of the oppression from which they have suffered for so long. The country should be self-supporting within a very short time, and able to pay both interest and sinking fund under the loan, and the co-operation of the Firestone Company would be welcomed.

The first object should be to regain the confidence of the natives, and that can only be done if the armed force and the civil administration are unquestionably and unquestionably severed from the control of the Liberian Government. In face of the disclosures which have been made I find it difficult to believe that any self-respecting foreigner would consent to serve under the present oligarchy. The nominal independence of Liberia would be preserved, and the Commissioner's reports—for I suggest he should send an annual report—could be transmitted, under flying seal, through the President, but the activities of the present rulers of Liberia would be confined to the municipality of Monrovia.

I have been myself in touch with several sources of information on the subject, and among others with an intelligent, educated native of Liberia, who states that he has been sent as a delegate by 24 tribal chiefs to represent their case in Europe, and also with the Advisory Committee of the Liberian Education (Phelps Stokes) Committee of America, which works in conjunction with the Booker-Washington Institute, and has several white men in Liberia. From these various sources of information I have gathered that the present conditions in Liberia are very much as described by Dr. Christy, and it is not improbable that they may, unless remedied, give rise to bloodshed, followed in all probability by foreign intervention and possible complications. I hope that the present Motion, and the opinions which it has evoked in this House, may strengthen the hands of the noble Viscount, Lord Cecil, who has always been a foremost protagonist on behalf of the under-dog, and may strengthen the hands of the Committee over which he presides. I support the Motion of the noble Earl.


My Lords, owing to the unfortunate absence, through illness, of the noble Viscount who leads the House, I have been asked to give a reply to the interpellation made by the noble Earl, Lord Buxton. He gave a recital of the events of the last two or three years, the accuracy of which I think cannot be questioned. Previous to 1930, when the Commission was appointed, there had been murmurs of complaint about the maladministration of affairs in Liberia. It was in 1930, at the instigation of the Council of the League, that the Liberian Government appointed that Commission to the Report of which the noble Earl has called the attention of your Lordships, and the noble Earl was quite correct in saying that the revelations of that Report shocked the moral conscience of the whole world.

Early in 1931 Liberia asked for the assistance of the League of Nations—more particularly for help of a financial character—and then a Committee of the League of Nations, to which reference has been made, and the Chairman of which is the noble Viscount, sent three experts to Liberia last summer to investigate the financial, sanitary, and economic conditions on the spot, and to submit their recommendations to this Committee of the League of Nations. The United States, who have, I think, a very great responsibility in this matter, are represented upon this Committee of the League of Nations. The Report of this Committee was completed in the autumn of last year, but as the noble Earl said, though the Report is in the possession of the Liberian Committee of the League of Nations, it has not yet been published.

The noble Viscount (Lord Cecil of Chelwood) who, I understand, is going to speak later, has the most intimate knowledge of these matters, and can speak upon them with an authority that I should make no pretence of claiming, but I understand that there were several meetings of this Liberian Committee of the League in January, but no definite conclusions were then reached. The experts who had formed the Committee of Investigation were present, I understand, at those meetings, and they furnished further information supplementary to their written Report. It was at the request of the Liberian Government, or the representative of the Liberian Government on the Committee, that the preparation of a final Report was delayed until its next sitting, which, I understand, will take place probably in April or May. The reason why the Liberian Government made that request was that they might be given time and opportunity for the Government itself and the Liberian Parliament to consider the recommendations of the Report.

There is, I understand, no reason to doubt that the existing legislation in Liberia, provided it is adequately enforced, assures satisfactory safeguards against the prevalence of the abuses, if not to say cruelties, which are said upon such excellent authority to exist. One of the immediate results of the Commission of 1930 was the resignation of the then President of the Republic, President King, who had accepted the Report, and this was regarded as evidence of his weakness by what the noble Lord who has just spoken described as the Liberian oligarchy. He was succeeded, as the noble Earl, Lord Buxton, pointed out, by Mr. Barclay as Acting-President. Presidential elections were held in May of last year, and they resulted in a victory for the administration of Mr. Barclay, and a similar victory for his Party.

The noble Earl, Lord Buxton, asked if I could state what was the attitude of the Government at present in regard to diplomatic relations with Liberia. In concert with the Government of the United States, His Majesty's Government decided to withhold recognition of Mr. Barclay's Administration until it had given satisfactory evidences of a desire to act upon the recommendations of the International Commission, and the position at the moment is that His Majesty has no representative in the capital. The Chargé d' Affaires is not fully accredited, because subsequent events have not, in the opinion of His Majesty's Government, justified him in presenting his credentials to the Government. That is the position in regard to the diplomatic relations of His Majesty's Government with Liberia at the present time.

The noble Lord who preceded me referred to a question which was answered in the House of Commons last week. He did not quote the answer in full, but it might perhaps be interesting to your Lordships because it states, concisely but fully, the present attitude of the Government to diplomatic relations with this State. The Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs said: His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom are represented at Mon- rovia by a Chargé d' Affaires, who has, however, not yet presented his credentials. The United States Government are in a similar position, but I am not aware that any country has withdrawn its representative altogether. The proposals of the League of Nations are to be considered further by the Liberia Committee of the Council of the League in April or May, by which time these proposals will also have been considered by the Liberian Parliament. In the meantime, and in view of persistent reports of ill-treatment of sections of the population in Liberia by the Government forces, His Majesty's representative at Monrovia, in concert with certain of his diplomatic colleagues, on the 7th March made strong representations to the Liberian Government that these practices should cease. Steps are being taken to verify the results of these representations, and the League Committee are being kept informed of these developments. The noble Earl, Lord Buxton, asked if we had any information from Consular Reports or from the reports of States or Governments adjacent to Liberia as to what the present position was in regard to this maladministration. We have had Consular Reports, and they tend to confirm the fears that so far there has been very little, if any, improvement in this unfortunate state of affairs. The period since the visit of the League experts to Liberia last summer has been marked by what appears to be a recrudescence of the campaign of cruelty and oppression by the Americo-Liberian governing class, and it appears to have been directed against the aboriginal natives, and most particularly against a tribe called the Krus. This tendency had already been noted and commented upon by the experts who went to Monrovia. From these Reports there was some ground for believing that the campaign was in retaliation for the complaints by the Kru people to this International Commission. Information from the sources I have mentioned reached His Majesty's Government that a detachment from the Liberian Frontier Force had been sent into the Kru country, ostensibly to collect taxes and enforce the surrender of arms, but this force, it is reported, acted in a most tyrannical, cruel and high-handed manner, and the loyal chiefs complained at various times that the Government forces were burning and pillaging their countries and that hundreds of natives had been killed. These figures, of course, may be exaggerated, but there appears to be little doubt of the existence in some degree of the alleged cruelties to which I have just referred. Information reached His Majesty's Government in the early part of this year that these operations were continuing.

In view of the urgency of the situation, His Majesty's Government decided not to await the submission of the Report of the Liberia Committee of the League of Nations, and they approached the French and American Governments with a proposal that joint representations should be made to President Barclay by their representatives at Monrovia—representations which would protest against the high-handed and cruel conduct of the recent operations of the Liberian Frontier Force and would demand that the immediate discontinuance of these practices should take place. The French and American Governments agreed to co-operate with His Majesty's Government in taking this step, and the representatives of the three Powers—that is, His Majesty's Government, the United States of America and France—had an interview with President Barclay last week, on March 7. The next day the reply of the Liberian Government was received, which, I am afraid, I can hardly describe to your Lordships as being of a very satisfactory or conciliatory character. It denied that any action taken against the Krus by the Liberian Frontier Force merited the condemnation pronounced by His Majesty's Government.

At the same time, these are the words of their reply: They gave explicit assurance that no action would be taken against the Kru tribes concerned so long as they refrained from attacking neighbouring peaceful tribes and threatening foreign interests established under the protection of the Liberian Government. The action which has been taken by His Majesty's Government in association with the other Governments has been explicitly associated with the work of the Liberia Committee of the League, and the members of that Committee are being kept fully informed as to what His Majesty's Government are doing in the matter. At the moment steps are being taken to obtain further first-hand information as to the state of things in the Kru country, and as to the effect which the representations recently made by the three Governments have had upon the Liberian Government. I think the noble Earl and your Lordships generally will agree that His Majesty's Government have done all that is possible for them to do in extremely difficult circumstances.


Hear, hear.


Although His Majesty's Government cannot act alone, they are willing to continue to take a very active and prominent part in promoting steps which are likely to put a stop to this grave and cruel maladministration. The noble Earl, Lord Buxton, put one or two specific questions to me and I think I have dealt with most of them. The quotations which the noble Earl gave from British representatives last year are quite correctly reported. I think I have dealt also with his request for information as to the Reports of our Consuls there. But we have had at any rate no recent reports from any of the States adjoining Liberia dealing with these matters. I do not know that it would be either possible or of very much use to submit at the present stage any Papers upon the matter. Between now and the meeting of the Liberia Committee in April or May, His Majesty's Government will watch the situation and they will be prepared to take any action which in the meantime seems likely to lead to any useful results, and to do that particularly in co-operation with the United States of America, and France.

The noble Lord who preceded me made a number of very interesting suggestions as to the future administration of Liberia. I think your Lordships will hardly expect me to express views upon those matters, but I have no doubt that the noble Viscount, Lord Cecil, heard those recommendations with interest. They are not matters that this Government alone, of course, could carry into effect, and we shall have to await the Report of the Liberia Committee of the League and see what recommendations they make for improving the administration of that country. In conclusion, I should like to say that I am and His Majesty's Government are very grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Buxton, for raising this question and for giving the Government an opportunity to explain their attitude on this matter.


My Lords, Liberia is a country, as your Lordships probably know, on the West Coast of Africa. It is of considerable size. As far as I can make out from the figures I have seen it is at least as large as this country, and it consists of a strip of land on the sea coast occupied mainly by the Americo-Liberians—that is to say, the Americans who in 1845 or some date of that kind were sent over from the United States to found a free State in Africa—and their descendants. There has been no exact census taken of them but they consist of somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 individuals. Behind them stretching up for a distance of 100 to 120 miles there is a considerable hinterland occupied by native tribes of several races and several languages. There are probably a million or two million—I think it is more likely to be two millions than one million—of these natives. But the whole government of the country is in the hands of the 10,000 or 20,000 Americo-Liberians on the coast. The native tribes have no share in the government at all. They are, in effect, the subjects of the Liberians on the coast.

I am afraid that this experiment which was started with the greatest enthusiasm seventy or eighty years ago has been a complete failure. The administration has been extremely bad. Those who came out from America appear to have had no experience and no guidance, and every kind of abuse has developed in their administration. We heard at Geneva an account of the sanitary conditions. It was incredible. It was incredibly bad. There was not any sanitation. It is the same, roughly speaking, with all departments of their Government, and it is really more due to that total incompetence of government that the particular scandals of slavery arose than from a particular desire to establish slavery. As far as I know, there is no slavery in the sense of slave-owning by these Americo-Liberians. What they have done—and a very scandalous and terrible state of things was referred to by the noble Earl, Lord Buxton—is this: they have undoubtedly engaged in slave trading, or something indistinguishable from slave trading, by which a considerable number of the natives were shipped over to Fernando Po and other places. But the real trouble of Liberia is the incompetence of the Government, and corruption—but incompetence even more than corruption.

That has been shown in the matter to which my noble friend Lord Buxton referred just now, the troubles of the Krus. We were not able to investigate them properly; we had no machinery for doing it. But there were the strongest allegations made of the grossest possible cruelty on the part of a certain Colonel Davids, who had been sent down from Monrovia—and denied, I need not say, by the representatives of Liberia, but I have very little doubt there was a great deal of truth in them. There did not seem to be really any means of controlling him from Monrovia. That was really what was the truth. He went down there, a kind of buccaneer, I should think, and he burned and harried the place, set one tribe against another and created the utmost confusion and cruelty.

That, is the state of things in Liberia, and it; is complicated with, or it is apparently due to, their financial troubles. They have no money. As far as we could make out they have no money at all at this moment. Some years ago an American Company called the Firestone Company conceived the idea of creating a big plantation there—I think it was a rubber plantation—and they did so. In connection with that they advanced money to the Liberian Government and for the purposes of their plantation, and they obtained from the Liberian Government a contract under which they made a loan to the Liberian Government. The contract in effect deprived the Liberian Government of any kind of freedom. They were not to make any fresh loan; the administration was to be in the hands of a financial adviser, who was to be appointed by the Firestone Company, and to that extent the liberty of the Liberian Government was entirely removed. Unfortunately, this loan, which was designed for the best possible purposes of public works and so on, was in fact squandered, and it is a matter of very grave regret, and indeed criticism, that the financial adviser should have permitted the squandering of this loan. But the result, your Lordships see, is this. The Liberian Government is compelled to find the interest and sinking fund for this loan. That practically absorbs almost the whole of their revenue, and there is no possibility of their raising another loan independently of the Firestone Company.

My noble friend said quite rightly, or some speaker said quite rightly, that we had before us the three advisers—I will mention who they were in a moment. One was an expert financier who had been sent out for the express purpose of reporting on the financial position. We asked him if there was any possibility of the Liberian Government raising money, and he said: "Unless you had a guarantee of other States there is no possibility." As far as we could learn there was no possibility of a guarantee by States composing the League of Nations. They are not in a position to enter upon guarantees of that description. Therefore it really comes to this—and it is one of the essential facts of the situation which your Lordships must consider—that if any money is to be found it must be found in connection with the Firestone Company. Those are the broad facts of the situation as I see them.

How did this come up to the League? It came up in this way. Two Americans made violent charges, probably thoroughly justified, against the Liberian Government. The Liberian Government protested vehemently, and demanded a Commission to investigate these charges. It was on their demand—and that is a matter which must be remembered in their favour—that the Christy Commission was appointed by the League—that is to say, I think the Americans and the Liberian s each nominated one member, and the League appointed a Chairman, who was Dr. Christy. Dr. Christy made the Report that has been referred to. He did not point out in detail the reforms that he thought ought to be carried out, but he did indicate generally that very extensive reforms were necessary, and that the existing state of things was very bad. My noble friend Lord Lugard thinks that the League ought then and there to have intervened and appointed a Commission or something of that kind. I am afraid that is not really within the power of the League. They have no power to go and interfere in the internal administration of another country. They cannot do it, and it is not only that they have no right, but there are several Members who would vehemently protest against their doing anything of the kind; and of course they cannot do anything unless they carry with them the general assent of the Members of the League.

They were then in a great difficulty. They had before them this very damaging Report. Most of the representatives of the various countries were, I have no doubt, most anxious to do something, but they had great difficulty in doing anything which the Liberian Government were not prepared to assent to. It is a deplorable condition of affairs. Some day we may have a much more satisfactory international organisation which will have much greater powers of control, but that is the present state of things. The one hold they had over the Liberian Government was this great difficulty of getting money. The Liberian Government came to the League and said: "Can you help us to find money?" Whereupon the League said: "We will consider whether we can help you in any way. We do not know how we can help you, but we will consider how it can be done provided you will carry out such reforms in your administration as we think necessary." That is the position now. In that position the Commission of three experts, one a Frenchman, M. Brunot, one a Dutch financial expert named Ligthart, and one a British medical expert, Dr. Mackenzie, went out, and they have produced a most valuable Report explaining exactly what the conditions are and making their precise recommendations as to what they think could be done, having in view the fact that you have to carry the Liberian Government with you whether you wash it or not. That is an essential factor of the problem.

They made a Report, and it has been presented to the League. I venture to suggest to my noble friend Lord Snowden that possibly that Report might be laid before Parliament. As far as I know it is public property, and certainly it would help those noble Lords who wish to understand this question to see exactly where they are. That Report came before the League Committee—that was a Committee appointed the year before last. I have been referred to as the Chairman; that is not quite correct. The Chairman is the British Government, which was in the first instance Mr. Henderson, and when he was too busy he asked me to take his place, and I have gone on and am very glad to go on. But that is the actual position.

When this Report came before us last January we said we thought we ought to act upon it immediately, but the Liberian Government made a very earnest appeal to us, saying it was impossible for them to assent to it without further examination, that they were most anxious to examine it, and would examine it as quickly as they could, but that they did earnestly propose an adjournment till some time in the spring or early summer of this year. We replied: "We must examine it broadly to see the state of things that exists and to give some indication to the Liberian Government of what they might expect from the League. We will not, however, conclude our deliberations on the matter till the Liberian Government can give us their considered views, but they must give them in good time to enable us to deal with the matter in the early summer of this year." That is the actual position as I understand it, and that is the position with which we are faced.

Broadly speaking, the reforms suggested by the Expert Commission are not very far from those suggested by my noble friend Lord Lugard. They suggest the appointment of a number of white officials who, in effect—it was a little wrapped up in order to save the susceptibilities of the Liberians—will be in control of the whole administrative machine of Liberia. During the course of the discussions, we pointed out to them that merely to have officials scattered about without any unity of action would be quite unsatisfactory, and they entirely agreed and amended their recommendations, so that there should be one supreme white official to whom all the others should be responsible and who himself would report to the League of Nations what was going on. That is, broadly speaking, the situation for consideration of the Committee next summer.

With regard to finance we found the Firestone Company very decent people. They were quite ready to help and to relax the conditions of their agreement so as to enable money to be raised. I think it will be quite possible to enter into negotiations with them and to get them, not only to relax their conditions, but, since they have sunk considerable sums of money, probably to advance further sums on reasonable terms in order to start this new administration. That at any rate is the plan on which we are working. I noticed that my noble friend said he very much regretted that the League Committee had stated that they did not feel themselves bound to go on with this matter unless it was necessary. I believe I am myself responsible for that statement, and I think it was right, for this reason. The representatives of Liberia were rather inclined to take up the attitude of saying that they would take this recommendation but would not take that recommendation, and so on. That would have led to an impossible situation. We should never have got anything satisfactorily done. We have no power to coerce them. That is to say, we have no material means of coercion. Our only power of coercion is to say to them: "Very well, you will not have any money." That is really the only power we have, of coercing them. The only way in which we could act was to say that unless there was a satisfactory scheme of reform established they could not rely on getting any assistance with money. We did not put it so crudely or brutally as that, but that is what it came to and it was the only way, I think, in which we could produce any good result.

I must add, because I feel it very strongly, although I am afraid it will be discouraging to my noble friend Lord Lugard, that I think the position is an extremely difficult one. I think you will have to get exactly the right white ruler—because that is what he will be really. I do not think you will succeed unless you can induce the Liberians—by that I mean the Americo-Liberians—to accept him cordially. If you try to impose him against their will, I am afraid they will bring your system to grief. The thing has got to be done in that way, and only in that way. I should be altogether opposed to any attempt on the part of the League of Nations to administer this country themselves. They have no machinery for doing it and they would only make an awful mess of it. They can act as Parliament acts. They can receive reports of what is being done and they can make criticisms and set up a standard of what they desire should be done, but they cannot interfere with the details of administration. If they attempt to do that they will fail. The only way to do it is to get somebody you really trust, give him assistants who also must be trusted, and hand over to them the business of ad- ministration. We must help them also by using our influence with the Firestone Company or whatever other financial source there may be, and success will depend entirely on carrying out the advice of these gentlemen. Even so, I confess the position is one of the very greatest difficulty and I do not look forward with very great confidence to the result.

I think that the best thing—only it is not practicable or indeed thinkable at the moment—would be for some civilised country to take over the whole thing. That really would be the best plan, but it is not a practicable course at the moment and it is not suggested even for consideration. It is really the only way in which the matter can be dealt with satisfactorily. What is now proposed was necessary in view of the very serious condition of affairs. They are remedies which have a chance of success, but I cannot pretend that they have any certainty of success. I have thought it right to state frankly what I think. It may be entirely wrong, but that is the view I have formed.


My Lords, after the speech of my noble friend Viscount Cecil, I will not say very much about the condition of Liberia, but there are one or two relatively small points which I wish to raise. My noble friend Viscount Cecil has referred to the extraordinary difficulty of the situation. Not very long ago, I had the opportunity of talking to someone who knew Liberia well and who had been there recently, and he emphasised, not only the difficulty, but the real danger of the present situation. You have there a- relatively small governing population of 15,000 to 20,000 and behind them in the hinterland two million people. This small governing population is oppressing the two millions. There have been risings in the past and there is real danger and risk of further risings unless something is done relatively soon. I need not repeat what has been said by other noble Lords because it is quite obvious that in Liberia there are horrors which have always been associated in the past with the slave trade. When you have these conditions imposed on a large population by a small population there is a very real and serious danger. My noble friend Viscount Cecil indicated just now the possibility in a very distant future of some country taking over the government of Liberia. I do not know whether it would be possible for anything to be done by way of a Mandate. I do not know whether that is a practical proposal. Of course there is the difficulty that Liberia is a Member of the League of Nations, but where you have a condition of affairs which amounts to an international and world scandal, where you have a Government obliged to borrow money under such circumstances as exist, it seems to me that the other nations of the world might be in a position to impose certain conditions in order to reestablish peace and good government.

There is one point which I should like to address to the noble Viscount who spoke on behalf of the Government. During the debate there has been reference to co-operation between the League of Nations and the United States of America. I hope that the British Government and the American Government are also getting the active co-operation and support of Spain and Portugal because I think they probably are in a position to assist us. In the Christy Commission's Report I noticed that the Commission finds that a large proportion of the direct labourers shipped at Fernando Po have been recruited under conditions of criminal compulsion scarcely distinguishable from slave raiding and slave trading. Now I am certain that it is to the interest of Spain to rectify matters and, similarly, I feel it is to the interest of Portugal, which is also mentioned as one of the countries to which these unfortunate Liberians are sent, to assist His Majesty's Government, the American Government and the League of Nations in putting things right. I think they should be in a position to render substantial assistance. I am certain His Majesty's Government can feel that public opinion in this country will support them in taking firmly and strongly, and without unnecessary delay, any action they may think necessary.


My Lords, I should like to say one word because this subject was fully discussed in this House in July last, when I represented the then Government and explained the action we were prepared to take. I think it is perfectly clear from what Viscount Cecil has said, that the influence or authority of the League of Nations cannot of itself solve the difficulties which have arisen, and with considerable experience in these matters I agree that the League of Nations could not on a question of this kind commence a compulsory policy against the Liberian Government. That would be futile in itself and would probably lead to greater difficulties and more brutal conduct even than those which have already been endured by these native tribes. It really would be a terrible revelation if the civilised world, after the disclosures made to-day and on prior occasions, confessed itself unable to produce in Liberia the ordinary conditions which civilisation requires in dealing either with slavery or forced labour.

I do not know whether the noble Viscount could explain a little further his answer. We felt last July, and I am sure he feels now, that every effort ought to be made, particularly by a country so closely associated as we are with the suppression of the slave trade and its brutal consequences, to bring to an end this condition of affairs in Liberia. Let me assume for a moment the accuracy of what the noble Viscount, Lord Cecil, said, that the League of Nations is unable to make further progress because of the Liberian Government.


If the noble Lord will pardon me, I think the probabilities are that the Liberian Government will accept the suggestions made and that we shall get these people appointed. I cannot say for certain, but that looks like the probability.


I do not wish to suggest anything contrary to what the noble Viscount has said, but I was assuming as the basis for asking for further information that that hope was not realised and that, as a matter of fact, the Liberian Government did not meet the League of Nations in an endeavour to bring to an end these terrible conditions. I do not know whether the noble Viscount could give any further information as to possible action by the British Government. I do not in the least wish to ask him a question which in his discretion he thinks he is unable to answer at the present time, but I think the matter is one which should be kept closely in mind and very carefully considered. Any intimation given by the British Government might be of the greatest value to the League of Nations in carrying out the policy which Viscount Cecil has suggested. We are all agreed in this House that this is a terrible condition of things in Liberia. We want to bring it to an end. I do not believe there is a single man in Great Britain who does not want to bring it to an end as soon as possible and with as little Buffering and brutality as possible. I rather hope the noble Viscount will assent to Viscount Cecil's suggestion and publish the Paper to which reference has been made. There does not seem to be any secrecy in the matter. Viscount Cecil, who could inform us on that point, does not himself think there is any secrecy. He practically says that the Paper has been publicly quoted. It would be of great advantage to have it-published in extenso by the present Government. I hope the noble Viscount will consider these two matters even if he cannot give any further assistance to the House at the present time.


My Lords, if I may offer one or two words in reply, this debate has divided itself into two parts—the action of His Majesty's Government and the question of what can be done by the League of Nations to bring these terrible evils to an end. May I say that I welcome very much the speech of my noble friend on behalf of the Government and that I think the point of view expressed by all your Lordships was highly satisfactory? I think the action His Majesty's Government have taken will be warmly endorsed by every member of the House and by the country at large. They have not been content to let the matter rest and I am sure their attitude will have a great influence on public opinion. I think it was Lord Astor who suggested that it would strengthen the position they have taken up if they cooperated not only with the Spanish Government, but especially with the German Government, who made representations about a year ago similar to those of the United States and this country to the Liberian Government. I agree that that co-operation would strengthen the position of the Government.

I understand it is suggested that there are no particular Papers and documents which at the moment it would be advantageous to have published, but I think the publication of the representations which were made a year ago and recently repeated to the Liberian Government would be of great value as showing what strong action the Governments of the United States, of this country and France have taken, and I suggest it would strengthen the hands of the League of Nations in considering this matter. It might further be considered whether there are not certain documents which it would be advantageous to publish from the point of view of bringing pressure upon Liberia.

The other part of the debate has turned on the question of the League of Nations and I think this House welcomed the frank way in which Viscount Cecil dealt with that question. If what he said was not very encouraging he did not at any rate wish to hide any difficulty, and there are serious difficulties with which the League, has had to contend. I think his speech will help to clear the air in showing what the real difficulties are. I am very glad that Lord Parmoor, as I gather, took a little more sanguine view than I had concluded he did from his previous speech. At any rate we feel sure the League of Nations is very anxious, within its limited range of power, to give the matter its best attention, and we hope for the best result. I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

House adjourned at half-past five o'clock.