|| BACKGROUND TO THE ORATION
late 1920 until mid-1921 Momolu Massaquoi, an indigenous Vai,
went with his wife on a private visit to Europe ostensibly to
examine trading prospects for his firm, the Vai Development
Corporation (VDC). In reality, President King asked him to probe
German trading interest in Liberia. Until the end of World War
I (1914-1918) Germany was the country's most important
trading parter, but it was infuriated when Liberia, at the behest
of the United States, gave up its nutrality, ended trade relations
and declared war. Partially successful in his fence-mending
mission, Momolu urged his government to open a consulate in
Hamburg to help restore friendly relations.
After a decade of distinguised government service under President
Daniel Howard, ending with the election of President C. D. B.
King in 1920, Momolu needed to augment his private income. Public
service salaries during the war were seldome paid. As the first
indigenous Liberian and traditional ruler to hold cabinet rank,
he paved the way for others. B.W. Payne from Bassa was King's
Secretary of Public Instruction; Harvard graduate Henry Too
Wesley, a Grebo, was his Vice President, while American trained
Didhwo Twe, a Kru, had earlier served as district commissioner
recommended to the post by Massaquoi.
More importantly Momolu and King's secretary of state Edwin
Barclay were very close friends. Edwin Barclay served as acting
president while King was out of the country - as he frequently
was -and Monrovia gossip acknowledged him as the most
influential person in government. Their friendship made King
insecure, fearing a possible Barclay-Massaquoi team opposing
him in a future election. Yet, separating them was not easy
as long as they both remained in Liberia.
A Decisive Speech
The oration comemorating Liberia's independence on 26 July 1921
had political significance and this time doubly so since no
other person from the hinterland had ever been considered. Momolu
would not have been chosen without the agreement of Monrovia's
policy elites. Indeed, the choice had to be carefully orchestrated
because many Liberians felt threatened by indigenous people
near the levers of power.
At the time a public address, often called an oration, was a
vital means of communication in many parts of the world. Radio,
used extensively in Europe and America, was a relatively new
phenomenon in Africa. The printed word had its place but then
not everyone could read. Almost all public occasions were marked
by an oration - political, religious, and educational
gatherings presented opportunities to convey a message to crowds
that invariably gathered. Rhetoric, taught in most universites
and secondary schools, prepared a steady stream of future orators
versed in the techniques of holding an audience without the
benefit of sound amplification.
Many festivities were associated with the 26 July public holiday,
highlighted by an oration. The majority of Americo-Liberians
lived in and around Monrovia so that several hundred adults
actually heard the speech, with word of it undoubtedly reaching
others throughout the country in ensuing weeks.
More than likely Momolu had discussed his basic themes with
close friends Arthur Barclay and Daniel Howard. They knew that
the ill treatment of the native majority was a heart-felt issue
and that he would not let an important opportunity like this
pass. In the event, the oration and his assessment of why Liberia-in
the absense of genuine reconcillation between the indigenous
and repatriate communities-would never be a successful
state, upset some important people. Their influence prompted
President King to make a placating gesture. New 1920 legislation
authorized the establishment of four consulates-general, so
citing the success of his German trip, the president appointed
Momolu to be the Liberian Consul-General in Hamburg.
A careful reading of the 1921 Oration, and an analysis of the
events surrounding it, point to the president engineering the
separation of Edwin Barclay and Momolu Massaquoi. There is no
evidence at all that Momolu sought a foreign assignment, in
fact, the oration emphasises rural agricultural development.
I believe that Momolu wanted to be the secretary for agriculture
in the King cabinet and to conduct his own business, the VDC
essentially a logging export operation.
The oration may also be viewed in an Africa-wide context. Given
the tight colonial grip that European powers had on the whole
continent in 1921, it is inconceivable that a colonized African
would have been allowed to publicly criticize the colonial regime
in which he lived. For Momolu to have done so in such strident
terms is a tribute to himself and to the Liberian First Republic.
In retrospect, a careful rereading of his 1921 oration reveals
the Massaquoi legacy to his country and people - the blueprint
for a bridge to link the traditional and modern worlds that
he straddled. It remains today- in the twenty-first century
- the most prowerful plea for national unity ever delivered
by a Liberian.
“Readjustment and Development of Liberia as an African
State” follows, replicating the text published by the
Government Printer in 1922.© Though beginning with page
four the pagination is correct.
Raymond J. Smyke
15 June 2004
here to read the 1921 Oration"