National Geographic : 1948 Feb
Rubber-cushioned Liberia BY HENRY S. VILLARD* UT of the morning mist the African coast rose in low outline, disclosing the rocky promontory of Cape Mesu rado. As we drifted nearer, the city of Mon rovia took on form, giving the unmistakable impression of architecture transplanted from our Southern States. At 8 o'clock our United States war vessel was thundering a 21-gun salute to the Negro republic of Liberia, the only fully independ ent Negro state on the African Continent, where only persons of African descent are eligible for citizenship.t Our greeting was duly echoed with white puffed accompaniment by the battery at Fort Norris. A courtesy call by the U.S.S. Boise was officially under way. Our cruiser rolled at anchor in the coastal swells while port officials clambered aboard from a longboat rowed by stalwart Kru oars men in striped jerseys. At the stern floated the flag of Liberia, patterned on the Stars and Stripes: six red and five white stripes, with a white star against a blue background in the upper left-hand corner (Plate I). Riding the Breakers into Monrovia We left the ship's side in a naval launch to negotiate the breakers over the sand bar which blocks the approach to Monrovia and the Mesurado River. An exciting experience always, this landing on the African coast. With an expert Kru pilot perched in our bow, we took the running waves at exactly the right moment. A breathless second when we seemed to drop to the ocean floor, a dash of salty spray in our faces, and we were rid ing serenely in the protected lagoon behind the sand bar to a welcome at the customhouse. Future travelers to Liberia will not experi ence this thrill of landing through the danger ous surf. Monrovia now has a modern, man made harbor, just completed by American contractors under a tripartite agreement with the United States Government and under the supervision of the United States Navy. The harbor is large enough to accommodate freighters and small naval craft. Begun during the war, Monrovia's new port cost $19,000,000 in Lend-Lease funds. Liberia expects its wharf and warehouse facilities to be of tremendous value in helping to open up undeveloped but potentially rich hinterland. Wedged between the British colony of Sierra Leone and the French Ivory Coast, a few degrees north of the Equator, Liberia occupied one of the most strategic areas on the globe during World War II (map, p. 204). The country was not far from the British naval bases at Freetown, Sierra Leone, and Bathurst, Gambia, and athwart the route of American bombing planes which were ferried to the British forces in the Middle East. In recognition of the ideals for which the United States fought, the Liberian Legislature, on January 27, 1944, declared war upon Ger many and Japan. War Brought Modern Airports A modern airport was constructed above Marshall, on the bank of the Farmington River near Harbel, for the use of landplanes com ing from America and as a link in the coastal airdromes of West Africa. It was named J. J. Roberts Field in honor of the first President of Liberia. Just behind Cape Mount, on a vast natural expanse of water called Fishermans Lake, Pan American Airways established a transatlantic terminal for its Clipper seaplane service from the United States to Leopoldville, in the Bel gian Congo. When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, all bomber and passenger traffic to the Far East was routed by way of Africa, and Liberian territory became a principal African landfall for these flights. After the war, the U. S. Army forces pulled out of Liberia. Roberts Field, which cost $5,500,000, no longer was a scene of feverish activity. More recently it ceased to be a regular stopping place for Pan American Air ways planes on their route from London and Lisbon to Leopoldville, and to Johannesburg, in South Africa. Fishermans Lake fell into complete disuse. Liberally sprinkled with palm trees and bright flowers, tall pillars and wide verandas, the city of Monrovia with its 10,000 inhabit ants suggested to our first glance a miniature Charleston or Savannah (page 206). Along Water Street, teeming with small shops and markets, crowded with brightly dressed native women and European-clad citi zens (Plates V, VI, VII, and page 205), we drove to the American Legation. The streets were unpaved but neat. Houses in the residential quarter, closely akin in style * The author, a Foreign Service Officer of the United States, is a former Deputy Director, Office of Near Eastern and African Affairs, United States Depart ment of State. t See "Land of the Free in Africa," by Harry A. McBride, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, October, 1922.