Building an Empire In Africa’s Jungles (May, 1930)

I guess it’s not surprising that the article says almost nothing about the native population other than: they are primitives, they like buying stuff at the company store, and that Firestone drove a hard bargain with them.

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Building an Empire In Africa’s Jungles

A NEW world is in the making at the western edge of Africa, where American business has undertaken to reclaim the jungle for the purposes of modern industry. Today the republic of Liberia is the scene of a great overseas enterprise hardly matched in the annals of empire building. For the first time private business has embarked upon an effort of the kind that nations heretofore have struggled to perform. What England did in America, France in Canada, and Spain at the south from two to three hundred years ago, an American organization is striving to do upon its own account.

Back in 1922 the British government decided to restrict the production of raw rubber in the East Indies. Immediately the price advanced, and each advance of one cent a pound cost the American people $8,000,000. It was then that Harvey S. Firestone, president of the Firestone Tire & Rubber Company, determined to grow his own rubber. But rubber cultivation is possible within a narrow zone only, bounded by a few degrees of the Equator. After investigations extending to Central and South America, the Philippines and East Indies, the discovery of an ideal combination of soil, climate and friendly population led to the selection of Liberia.

The negro republic at the Atlantic edge of Africa was founded less than a hundred years ago by freed American slaves and has many ties with the homeland. It was natural that American business should find a ready reception. But to undertake a large scale enterprise in Liberia meant to create not only a new empire, but almost a new world. There was not a highway in the country and nothing resembling a railroad. Ships still anchor off shore and transfer cargoes to lighters. The only source of supplies was represented by the stocks of foreign traders, which were inadequate for the enterprise.

The Firestone interests obtained a concession to plant one million acres in rubber anywhere within Liberia. Then the task of organizing a field force began. The nearest route by frequent steamships involved a trip via London, seven thousand miles. But the technical men soon began to arrive—rubber men, soil experts, doctors, dentists, engineers, a staff such as an army might require. For the most part they were young college men picked for their high standing from the graduating classes of 1926. Everything needed by these men had to he shipped overseas, from European ports, or by means of the occasional steamship from home. There was the matter of houses. Apparently simple enough. Why not cut down the abundant timber and build to taste? But there was not a sawmill in the country—or hardly a saw. It was months before the sawmill came. With it arrived Liberia’s first gasoline engines—and the gasoline to run them. So the trees were felled, the timber cut and American bungalows rose on the two plantations selected for development.

One of these lies on the Du River near Monrovia, the capital, a city named for our President Monroe. The other is two hundred miles away, near Cape Palmas. The adventurers who laid out these plantations pushed up uncharted rivers in canoes, carrying their grub and tools. When a likely site was found the canoes turned in-shore, the rubber men grasped the nearest creepers and swung themselves onto the fringes of the jungle. Then the trail blazers cut their way inward, laying out a straight path by means of the compass. At a mile distant they turned at right angles, to go another mile and turn again, returning to the river.

Having plotted a field of experiment the soil experts began their tests. The medical men looked over the ground. The engineers considered their special problems. And finally, in this way, the two principal plantations were laid out. A third, already under cultivation, has been taken over. In the case of the first two it was necessary to organize working battalions of natives to fell the primitive forest before there could be any thought of plant- ing. A cargo of axes was one of the first shipments made. But the forests proved to consist largely of hardwood and even the keen American axes were dulled. Local sharpening operations were unsatisfactory. A new cargo of axes was ordered forthwith and the others returned to be retempered.

In the beginning even mineral water had to be shipped across the Atlantic for the white workers. When the bungalows began to rise there was insistent demand for bath tubs. These presently appeared. But the Firestone organization at its headquarters in Akron, Ohio, has not yet forgotten the man who complained that a needed section of the plumbing for his bath tub had failed to turn up. The section was shipped, only to bring another letter complaining that it was the wrong one, accompanied by a drawing! We may hope that he then got his bath in peace.

But all this has changed, magically. After the felling of the forest it was necessary to burn the debris. And so swiftly did the work go forward that a few trees were planted in 1926. These are now more than three years old and more than twice the height of a man. They will bear rubber in from two to three years. As rapidly as ground could be cleared, roads were built and motor transportation introduced, the first known to Liberia. Monrovia has had to organize a staff of traffic policemen. In fact, every incoming ship brought supplies and equipment for the empire builders.

Last year they planted 3,000,000 trees, a record for all time in any land. Power plants have been erected on both of the new plantations, with high power lines running to distant points, supplying power for shops and homes. The bungalows have electric fans, light and refrigeration, on the edge of the jungle. Special apparatus purifies drinking water. A modern sanitation system is undergoing development, for the 15,000 native workers as well as the white staff. Many members of the latter have brought over their women folk and social life on the Du River in the evenings is not essentially different from that at home, across the Atlantic and perhaps across the continent, too.

The Firestone influence in Liberia has provided the spark for a broad, new development that is quickening the spirit of the whole country. When the rubber men arrived they found trade largely in the hands of Europeans, who drove sharp bargains with the natives. In an effort to improve the condition of the natives and the country’s economic outlook, the Firestone company has introduced a string of chain stores on the plantations and elsewhere. There either native or white may buy almost any common article to be had at home, at prices only modestly above cost. Practically any article from a thimble to a radio set is purchasable. Some of the most popular items with the Liberian workers are peaked American caps, wrist watches of the dollar kind, and canned salmon, a delicacy of the Liberian table since the stores opened.

With so many activities under way, it is difficult even to attempt a catalogue of them all. It was found, for instance, that numerous trees in the Liberian forest bore no scientific definition. The Yale School of Forestry, with Firestone co-operation, accordingly undertook a study of the country’s woods. The Harvard School of Tropical Medicine sent over a mission to consider the hygiene and medical needs of the country. Experimental efforts have been made in the agricultural field, looking to the encouragement of a better and diversified diet. It is likely that the company will begin farming operations. Chicken and cattle breeding have been investigated.

Although it may be considered astonishing, the Liberian natives, many of them but a degree removed from their jungle lives of yesterday, have taken readily to rubber culture and the white man’s ways. The two hundred trucks and motor cars operated on the plantations are run by natives who never saw an automobile until the coming of the rubber men. They are learning carpentry, masonry and shop practice. With an eye to the future the rubber cultivators have established trade schools where boys of a likely turn are receiving instruction in the mechanical crafts.

This introduction of the mechanical world to the primitive has involved far reaching efforts. From the first sawmill to the power plants has been a long step. Not only the equipment of these plants, but their maintenance, has required an organization of the first order.

But in carrying out this broad enterprise it was found that communication between home and the frontier offered the one almost insurmountable difficulty. Weeks were needed for letters to arrive. The mechanical age again provided the way. A radio station to operate on short wave length was shipped overseas and installed upon the Du River. The Cape Palmas plantation received a radio telephone outfit to connect with the Du station.

Again there were weeks of experiment to find the best medium of communication between a northern city like Akron and the tropical station on the Du. It required no little radio engineering to select the appropriate wave length and establish the service. But it is working today as easily as communication is maintained between one floor of the Akron plant, and another. Every twenty-four hours there are reports of progress, requisitions for supplies, and interchange of news. Mr. Firestone, sitting in his Akron office, can consult his plantation managers in Africa with the same facility as he talks with those in San Francisco by long distance telephone.

Here, then, is an enterprise carried on across four thousand miles of ocean, in a primitive world, according to the methods of modern industry. It is unlike any other enterprise of American business and well might be creditable to any nation. The speed of its development and maintenance may be credited to the magic of modern mechanics.

1 comment
  1. xritl says: February 19, 201210:08 pm

    It’s actually still there and has a website:


    It was the European traders who are described as driving a hard bargain with the natives. Firestone is depicted shouldering the white man’s burden with great benevolence.

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