“Which Stranger Are You?”: On Gregg Mitman’s “Empire of Rubber: Firestone’s Scramble for Land and Power in Liberia”
By Tom ZoellnerApril 28, 2022
Empire of Rubber: Firestone’s Scramble for Land and Power in Liberia by Gregg Mitman
Firestone swooped into Africa in 1926 in the guise of an altruist, offering the fledgling government of Liberia a predatory loan in exchange for a 99-year lease of approximately a million acres. He got not just an incredible deal but also effective control of the country.
And what a country: a littoral slice of the Pepper Coast that had been effectively “Americanized” since 1822, when the ship Elizabeth landed at one of its natural harbors bearing freed slaves from Southern plantations. The American Colonization Society sponsored the journey with mixed motives. Some of its members wanted to atone for the historic mistake of the slave trade; others were plantation owners who preferred to deport freed workers rather than have them inside the United States plotting rebellions.
The first settlement at Cape Mesurado — which they eventually named Monrovia, for President James Monroe — was a miserable and disease-ridden swamp, every bit as fatal as Jamestown had been two centuries before. But the ACS kept sending more people, and the United States Navy also dropped off refugees seized from illegal slave vessels. A strong class society emerged: the English-speaking Christians, with Southern habits and manners, dominated indigenous tribes like the Bassa, Kru, Mandinka, and many others.
It was this first group, the Americo-Liberians, who signed the $5 million deal with Firestone and benefited most. The tire magnate bragged to the press that he had broken the British monopoly on South Asian rubber and given the United States an “independent rubber supply,” even though his Liberian properties supplied just five percent of global output. “Facts be damned,” notes Mitman.
The propaganda went further. Through the NBC radio program The Voice of Firestone, the company touted its “modern plantation” system where a white overseer “soon gains the respect and love of the trusting and childlike people working under him.” One such program was entitled “The Romance and Drama of the Rubber Industry.” Three of every four dollars made in Liberia eventually went to Firestone’s bottom line. The rest went into the pockets of the Liberian elite, and all too little filtered down to the indigenous people who tapped the trees and hauled the sticky liquid gold.
All of this was made possible with the assistance, surprisingly enough, of W. E. B. Du Bois, who was personally enlisted by Harvey Firestone to do a survey of the nation’s economic possibilities. Du Bois emerges here as a tragic figure of sorts. He agreed in 1924 with the assessment of the Black United States Ambassador to Liberia, Solomon Hood, that the Firestone deal was a desirable means of providing the upstart country with needed cash. What happened here, he reasoned, wouldn’t be “one-tenth as bad” as what could happen under white governance.
But Du Bois later regretted his support. He distrusted the Jamaican recolonization entrepreneur Marcus Garvey, whom he saw as a flamboyant con artist, and concluded that loans from American corporations were a way to create “complete vassalage to white countries.” And Firestone proved a treacherous development partner. “They did all they could to hurt Liberia in Europe,” wrote Du Bois, “and of course their chief object is to make money.”
Mitman’s narrative is at its best when he offers vivid descriptions of the physical environment. We visit the factory in Akron, Ohio, where well-paid men “stretched, smoothed and layered piles of corded fabric around a rotating drum, gluing them together with volatile coal-tar solvents, such as benzol, before adding on a final layer of tread.” We also see the Liberian plantations that furnished the latex, a milky substance designed to protect the Hevea tree from insects, a white-colored blood drawn out with precise slashes on the north side of the tree that couldn’t be too shallow or too deep. It trickled into glass cups, helped along with ammonia, then got dumped into 75-pound buckets that had to be carried for miles on somebody’s shoulders. The laborers were set up to compete with each other rather than work communally, an economic incentive that shattered traditional bonds and ruined friendships.
The white Firestone managers, meanwhile, lived like pashas in brick homes on the Harbel plantation along the Farmington River, where the perks included a staff of servants, a golf course, turkey dinners, a juke box loaded with American rock music, a swimming pool, cocktail parties, and a social newsletter called Planter’s Punch. One manager’s wife, excruciatingly bored, later wrote a fictionalized account of her experience: “Days lack purpose, go limp. After sundown life is crisped up with rounds of iced drinks only to wilt again when sunrise presages another hot and useless day.”
One of the most compelling aspects of the lengthy story goes curiously unexamined in Mitman’s book: the unique sociology of the Americo-Liberians, who set about building a replica of the Old South in their new home. They wore waistcoats, top hats, and hoop skirts; called their bicameral legislature the House and Senate; lived in mansions with verandas; dined on collard greens and roast chicken; built a huge Masonic Temple that became a locus of networking and power; gave their countryside provinces American names, like Maryland and Mississippi-in-Africa; and accepted gifts of rubber saplings and country estates from their friends at Firestone. The True Whig Party, the only real political party, bought and sold indigenous people essentially like slaves well into the 1930s.
But only glimpses of this elite layer — who brokered and administered the Firestone contract — show up in the book, aside from lengthy accounts of diplomatic wrangling. Du Bois himself was suspicious of the Americo-Liberians and did not consider them benevolent. “A body of local private capitalists, even if they are black, can never free Africa; they will simply sell it into new slavery to old masters overseas,” he wrote. The entertainer Ossie Davis, assigned to an Army hospital in 1942, also wrote of his disappointment:
The brotherhood based on race, which I had fully expected, was nowhere to be found. Rather the oppression of one class of people, the native tribes, by another class, the Americo-Liberians, was everywhere in evidence. Had Marx been right — that people as a whole were much more loyal to their class than their race?
Mitman’s narrative ends in the mid-1960s during the presidency of William Tubman, who tried to liberalize trade even as he turned the country into a “patchwork of agricultural, mining and timber concessions.” The book should have kept going. A brief epilogue rushes through an awful — and highly relevant — episode. The Americo-Liberian elite, who were only about one percent of the population, saw their government overthrown in 1980 in a cruel military coup, and the junta itself was displaced 10 years later in a second coup that plunged the nation into 15 years of civil war. The charismatic warlord Charles Taylor took over Firestone’s Harbel plantation from 1990 to 1992 and used it as a base to conduct reprisal killings and invade Monrovia. Incredibly, the executives back in Akron paid “taxes” to him in exchange for continued latex production amid the slaughter. And when another rebel army challenged Taylor in 2003, it sent virtual slave workers out to tap Hevea trees and sell the latex to Firestone.
The company’s archives at the University of Akron were sealed by court order after a 2005 lawsuit over working conditions in Liberia, so Mitman had to rely on years of declassified diplomatic correspondence, plus some of the personal papers of key figures. One curiosity that emerges is the influential role played by academics and professors, especially from Harvard. Harvey Firestone gobbled up data from a 1926 expedition of that university led by tropical medicine specialist Richard Strong (a tale confusingly told out of sequence in this book). Along the way, they encountered the son of a paramount chief, Plenyono Wolo, who just happened to have been in the Harvard class of 1917.
A later visiting academic, Charles Spurgeon Johnson, looked at the millions of latex trees gleaming in the sun and concluded “Anglo-Saxon superiority” was a fable designed as a scheme to ensure a constant stream of cheap labor. And Raymond Buell, on a mission from Harvard to write a report entitled The Native Problem in Africa, thought the tire deal was nothing but a conspiracy “against the native farmer in favor of the outside capitalist.”
In telling these brief human stories, Mitman sometimes lets his outrage get away from him, reinforcing the obvious. On a single page detailing the Ohio childhood of Harvey Firestone Jr., for example, the reader is told he was “surrounded by paternalistic and racist attitudes” in a milieu of “white privilege” where “racism and segregation” and “racist culture” ruled the day. This is certainly true, but the adjectival hammering diminishes the effect of the facts about Akron housing inequalities, wage discrimination, white-gloved servants, and blackface minstrel plays, which would have landed with more force on their own. The reader can be trusted to draw the right conclusions without neon arrows.
The American doctoral student George Brown was taken on a plane flight over the Harbel plantation in 1936 and saw a system that ripped apart the traditional social bonds of farmers for the benefit of an American company and the “parasitic capitalism of Liberia’s ruling class.” In his research, he repeated a question asked by some of the paramount chiefs when a newcomer came to visit: “Which stranger are you? Rubber tree stranger or cotton tree stranger?” The former was someone who wanted to get rich quick, and the latter was someone who wanted to settle down and build lasting roots. In Firestone’s case, and unfortunately for Liberia, it was both.
Tom Zoellner is the LARB politics editor.
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