Graham Greene: Our Man in Liberia
The author Graham Greene journeyed to West Africa in 1935, ostensibly to write a travel book. But, claims Tim Butcher, it was a cover for a spy mission on behalf of the British anti-slavery movement which was investigating allegations that Liberia, a state born as a refuge for freed US slaves, was guilty of enslaving its own people.
On a grey January morning in 1935 a steamship of the Elder Dempster line left Liverpool on its standard shuttle service to the west coast of Africa. It was appropriately named – given who was on board – SS David Livingstone, after the missionary, medic, explorer and anti-slavery campaigner whose 19th-century treks through southern and central Africa did much to open up what was then still viewed as the Dark Continent. The ship’s manifest recorded its seven passengers as predominantly the sort one would expect to find on a ship serving British colonial interests. There was a doctor, a shipping agent, an accountant, an engineer and a dutiful wife going out to join her colonial officer husband. There was also a man atypical among camp followers of empire. His address was logged as 9 Woodstock Close, Oxford and his age as 30. His name was recorded as H.G. Greene.
He had been christened with the first name of Henry, but was later to become known worldwide by his middle name. He was the author Graham Greene. Greene always publicly insisted this trip, his first to Africa and his first outside Europe, was a flight of fancy or, as he would later put it in his 1936 account of the adventure, Journey Without Maps, ‘a smash-andgrab raid into the primitive’. There was certainly something fanciful about the presence of the seventh passenger, his first cousin, Barbara Greene.
Graham Greene had tried for some time to find a travelling companion but had failed, largely because his planned itinerary involved an ambitious overland route through Liberia, still one of the darker corners of the continent. But at a family wedding in October 1934 he had run into his cousin, three years his junior. They both admitted afterwards that the champagne consumed at the reception played a part in what happened next. Barbara Greene was a London socialite from a rich, upper middle-class English family. Hers had been an upbringing of pampering and comfort, hardly standard preparation for an arduous and dangerous excursion through remote Africa. Fuelled with bubbly, Graham invited her to join him in Liberia thinking she would shrug it off. Equally fuelled by bubbly, she said yes.
Barbara Greene turned out to be a very wise choice of travelling partner. The trip, a 250-mile journey by rail and road across Sierra Leone, followed by a trek of roughly 350 miles through Liberia and Guinea, would almost cost Graham Greene his life. Struck down by fever six weeks into the journey he lost consciousness and had to be carried in a hammock by Liberian porters. In contrast, Barbara seems to have thrived in the jungle, getting stronger and more confident in counterpoint to her ailing cousin. At one point Barbara was so certain Graham would die that she sought to prepare funeral rites suitable for him as a Catholic convert.
They were both to publish accounts of the trip. Journey Without Maps was written promptly, not least because Graham Greene owed his publisher, William Heinemann, £350 in expenses. It came out in 1936, although with troubled delivery. After a libel action by a British colonial medic in Sierra Leone, a Yorkshireman called Philip Douglas Oakley, the book was pulped and only reissued more than ten years later with all references to a boisterous character called Oakley removed. Barbara Greene’s version, Land Benighted, was published in 1938, although its title was drawn from her misunderstanding the Liberian national anthem. She had recorded it as including the line ‘we’ll shout the freedom of a land benighted’ when, in fact, the anthem says ‘we’ll shout the freedom of a race benighted’. In later editions her book was renamed Too Late To Turn Back.
Both books appeared to represent the sum total of the expedition. In fact, two years of research about Graham Greene’s West African adventure revealed there was more to it than either of these two accounts suggest. For Greene, the journey was a dress rehearsal for his later career as a spy for MI6. In 1935 he was, in effect, working as an agent for the Anti-Slavery and Aborigines’ Protection Society, the leading abolitionist organisation in London, formed in 1909 as an amalgamation of earlier groups. The reason Greene was sent to Liberia is that a country originally set up as a sanctuary for survivors of slavery had committed the ultimate betrayal: the authorities had been caught selling their own people as slaves.
The Lone Star flag of the independent state of Liberia has been flying since 1847, when the country was founded by freed slaves and their descendants returning to Africa to escape racism in America. Just as nearby Sierra Leone was created in the late 18th century by British groups urging former slaves to go ‘back to Africa’, so Liberia was created by their American counterparts. But in spite of similarities in their early histories, Britain would make Sierra Leone a colony in 1808, while early foreign settlers in Liberia had to survive without the embrace of an overarching colonial power. As a result, Liberia developed black republican rule more than a century before the rest of the continent.
For a long time history painted the Liberian project in the glowing vernacular of philanthropy. Guilt over America’s troubled dependence on slavery was partly assuaged by generously providing freed slaves the chance of a new life in their traditional African homeland. Some of the religious supporters of the project even phrased it in terms of persecuted former slaves being born again into liberty, comfort and plenty. This was mostly bunkum. The main group behind the shipping of the former slaves, the American Society for Colonizing the Free People of Color of the United States (known more commonly as the American Colonization Society), was run entirely by white men with a range of agendas. There were a few altruistic souls committed to finding a better life for slaves, but many of the society’s members actively supported slavery and saw the ‘back to Africa’ project as a way not to undermine American slavery but to reinforce it.
In the early 19th century America was home to over two million black slaves, but there was also a growing cohort, numbering perhaps as many as a half a million, of so-called ‘freemen’, former slaves living mainly in the northern states. White slave-owners saw them as a dire threat and the project as a way, in effect, to ethnically cleanse America of freed blacks. James Monroe, the fifth American president (1817-25), described freed black slaves walking the streets of America as ‘a class of very dangerous people’.
Bitter divisions opened up in the black community in America, with those willing to return to Africa criticised as lackeys by those who stayed behind. Many freed slaves argued that they had as much right to live in America as whites and that to cross the Atlantic was an act of betrayal that undermined the wider struggle against slavery. The American Colonization Society was accused by some black critics of kidnapping former slaves and shipping them to Africa against their will. Controversy festered for years, so the number of freed slaves willing to take part in the Liberia venture was never that large and the society only ever managed to relocate around 11,000, a small number compared to the figure of around 85,000 Britain sent to Sierra Leone.
The first American ships set sail in the 1820s. They had no clear idea where exactly they were heading, so they simply followed the earlier British returnees and left it to chance. Making landfall on the coast of Sierra Leone they inched southwards around the bulging African coastline. There were some false starts on islands belonging to Sierra Leone, but eventually they reached what was known to European traders as the Grain Coast, source of a type of ginger spice, aframomum melegueta, a medicinal flavouring Europeans dubbed the ‘Grains of Paradise’. Here they found what they were looking for: local African chiefs willing to hand over pockets of land. Over the next 20 years a series of piecemeal settlements was created, dotted along a 200-mile-long stretch of scarcely developed beach.
Life was dire for these early migrants. Decimated by disease, hunger and clashes with hostile tribes, some of the settlements dwindled and others bickered among themselves over precedence. According to one count, within 20 years of the arrival of the first settlers almost half had perished. By 1847 the American project had reached crisis point. At the equivalent moment in Sierra Leone’s history, Britain had stepped in as the colonial power, mopping up the remnants of the settler communities and declaring it a colony. But Washington had no such interest, so the few thousand surviving freed slaves in their separate communities took the brave decision to unite, sever official links with the American Colonization Society and go it alone as a sovereign nation to be known as Liberia, ‘Land of the Free’.
A Declaration of Independence and Constitution were formally agreed on July 26th, 1847, using language borrowed directly from the American versions although with crucial differences. The Liberian declaration described how the former slaves had been so ill-treated in the United States that they were forced to come to Africa as ‘asylum from our deep degradation’. In the constitution the American order was inverted as whites were explicitly forbidden from ever becoming citizens in Liberia. Article V, Section 13 declared ‘none but persons of color shall be admitted to citizenship in this republic’. The language of the clause was later hardened, restricting citizenship to ‘persons who are Negroes or of Negro descent’.
Monrovia on the coast, named after James Monroe by the first settlers in 1822, was declared the nation’s capital and nominal inland borders were assigned, although it would be years before any government official battled through the jungle to stake the frontier. The whole endeavour was predicated on the granting of freedom to previously oppressed outsiders, an ideal enshrined in the national motto, ‘The Love of Liberty Brought Us Here’.
Life was not easy for the infant republic, surrounded on all sides by acquisitive colonists: the British in Sierra Leone and the French in both Guinea and the Ivory Coast. In an almost permanent state of bankruptcy, the young state limped along, surviving on paltry remittances from the American Colonization Society and a series of expensive loans, a number of which came from British banks. In many ways it was saved because it had nothing worth invading for – no meaningful diamond fields or gold deposits had been found – so the imperial powers let it be.
The promise of economic prosperity flickered after two senior representatives of the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company from Akron, Ohio, arrived by ship in 1923. The government was then too poor to have built a proper harbour in Monrovia, so the prospectors had to come ashore in a tiny, unstable surfboat. The city they discovered was a strange mixture of old and new. A few large buildings had been erected on a grid of wide, modern looking streets, but the absence of regular vehicular traffic meant grass grew long and untended in the thoroughfares, which became a playground for children and a pasture for livestock. Down on the water’s edge was a more traditional crowded shantytown of dilapidated huts and uneven alleyways.
The peculiarities of urban Monrovia were not the concern of the visitors, however. They were interested in what lay outside the city limits, a terrain and a climate that they judged perfect for large-scale rubber production. Firestone, then in the process of establishing itself as America’s leading tyre manufacturer, had found itself dangerously exposed after the First World War to a price-fixing scheme organised by the dominant force in global rubber production: British planters in Malaya and elsewhere in the Far East. To avoid paying what it saw as inflated British prices for the raw material, Firestone sought its own source of supply. Liberia promised exactly what the company was looking for, somewhere it could create its own large-scale production.
It took three years to agree the final deal, largely because the Firestone plan for Liberia was much more ambitious than anything the weak West African state had ever dealt with before. But in 1926 the Liberian government leased a million acres of forest to the company for a period of 99 years. It is a deal that, on paper, still represents the largest single rubber growing project in history. In theory, tens of thousands of Liberians would be offered steady employment planting and maintaining rubber trees and the government would, for the first time, enjoy the guarantee of meaningful revenues.
Yet only a small proportion of land was ever developed (about 65,000 acres) and it took time to train a work force and for the trees to mature. Consequently, income from Firestone was both slow and modest. Worse, it was not shared equally, exacerbating the most active faultline that runs through Liberia’s history: the rivalry between the small cohort of freed American slaves who assumed power over the country and the much larger number of native Liberians who effectively became their vassals. With their American education, Christian faith and English language, the settlers in Liberia were as different from the animist hunter-gatherers and subsistence farmers of the jungle as any white occupying colonial power arriving in Africa. These ex-slave descendants became known as ‘Americo-Liberians’, although the natives later came to call all black outsiders ‘Congos’, an echo from the huge number of Africans taken into slavery from homelands around the mouth of the River Congo. The native Liberians were referred to pejoratively as ‘country people’.
National elections have been held since 1847, but shameless gerrymandering and vote-rigging ensured that the party of the settler elite, the True Whig Party, monopolised power for over a century from 1869 to 1980. The party’s leaders deported themselves like 19th-century US Congressmen until well into the 1970s, adopting a strict dress code of morning coats and top hats utterly inappropriate for the West African climate. They also maintained a peculiarly strong attachment to Freemasonry.
The image of Liberia projected around the world was one of a democratic nation run by Africans for Africans. For years the country was known as The Black Republic, even The Negro Republic, precisely because it was not run by whites, a stark exception following the colonial land grab of the Scramble for Africa. But the reality was that tension simmered for decades between Americo-Liberians and country people, erupting first in the 1890s when fighters from southern, coastal tribes, such as the Kru and the Grebo, rose against the Liberian government and then in an almost endless cycle of clashes upcountry when administrators sent from Monrovia arrived to levy taxes.
Around the start of the 20th century the government raised an army, known as the Frontier Force, comprising tribal soldiers from the ‘developed’ coastal towns led by officers drawn exclusively from the Americo-Liberian community. Their deployment inland was often as bloody and ruthless as campaigns by occupying white colonial forces elsewhere in the continent.
Tension reached crisis point in the late 1920s when the government of a country with a founding charter explicitly condemning the slave trade as ‘that curse of curses’ was accused by the US State Department of allowing large numbers of its people to be sold into slavery. The motive remains disputed. Some argued it was a way for a bankrupt country to make money; others said it was the best way of getting rid of trouble-makers from the tribal hinterland. Defenders of the Americo-Liberian elite suggested that the authorities were simply continuing a longstanding tradition whereby tribesmen effectively ‘belonged’ to village elders who could do with them what they wanted.
France and Britain sought to exploit the allegation in the hope of absorbing Liberia into their colonial holdings but in a rare and early display of multilateralism, the League of Nations asserted itself. A three-man committee was convened in April 1930 consisting of a representative each from the League (a British dentist called Dr Cuthbert Christy, who later died an authentic African colonial death after he was gored by a buffalo in the Congo), Liberia and the United States. The committee heard evidence for three months concerning allegations of slavery among the workforce at the Firestone rubber plantation and of native Liberians being rounded up at gunpoint by government forces, loaded on to ships and taken out into the Atlantic to work on plantations on a Spanish island colony called Fernando Po.
In September 1930 the committee issued its report, clearing Firestone of malpractice but finding proven the charges against the government related to Fernando Po, stating that the native Liberians were exploited ‘under conditions of criminal compulsion scarcely distinguishable from slave raiding and slave trading’.
When it became known that the president, Charles King, accepted the committee’s findings, critics within his party attacked him for threatening to hand Liberia to the ‘white man’ and in December 1930 he was forced to stand down. He was replaced by his Secretary of State, Edwin Barclay. Interestingly, the powerbrokers of Liberia showed no remorse about the slavery taking place in their country (Barclay was himself heavily implicated in the export of slaves) but were incensed at what they believed to be President King’s willingness to kowtow to foreign powers as represented by the League.
After the hubbub surrounding King’s departure had died down, new fears emerged that slavery had returned to Liberia and the Anti-Slavery and Aborigines’ Protection Society viewed the country with growing concern. In a 1935 letter to the High Commissioner in London of the Union of South Africa, the society said it regarded the West African country as ‘one of our most difficult and anxious problems’. What the society needed was someone willing to go to gather up-to-date information on the ground. Graham Greene, a young writer who had already worked for several years as a journalist for The Times, would make the perfect snoop.
Biographers of Greene have picked up on his connection, prior to his Liberian trip, with the antislavery society. But they failed to reflect the depth and extent of the relationship and the role it played in turning him into a full Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) spy in the Second World War.
The papers of the Anti-Slavery and Aborigines’ Protection Society are today held at Rhodes House in Oxford, walking distance from the flat Greene was renting at the time of his departure for Africa. Among the bundles of carbon copies there is clear evidence that the society was the force behind his trip. It may have been Greene’s dream to travel to Africa but somehow he was persuaded by the society into first visiting Sierra Leone and then Liberia.
‘Our Committee is of the opinion that you would like to know that it has been arranged for Mr Graham Greene, a young author, (British subject) to visit Liberia and prepare a book upon the whole Liberian question,’ Sir John Harris, head of the society, wrote in a private letter of December 6th, 1934, to the Foreign Office in London:
Certain members of our Committee have formed a very high opinion of Mr Graham Greene, and they are hoping it may be possible for the Foreign Office to give to him a simple introduction to the British Consul at Monrovia, expressing to him the hope that any assistance it may be proper to render to Mr Graham Greene should be forthcoming.
In a letter sent the same day to the Colonial Office, Sir John took credit for suggesting that Greene should travel through Sierra Leone en route to Liberia:
I have strongly urged him [Greene] to see a properly governed colony before he goes to Liberia, and he is now making arrangements, at my suggestion, to visit first Sierra Leone, travel through the interior, witness the well-ordered and progressive administration on the British side of the border, then enter Liberia and travel down to Monrovia.
According to Dr Christy in 1931, the authorities in Monrovia had deliberately banned all freelance travel upcountry by outsiders, the implication being that the government had something to hide, most likely the continued existence of slavery. Throughout Greene’s writing he repeatedly refers to dodging government control in Liberia, first by entering the country incognito and then by completing his journey without government minders. ‘If there was anything to hide in the Republic I wanted to surprise it,’ he wrote.
There was tidy historical resonance in Greene’s role as agent for the anti-slavery campaigners, perhaps even a sense of payback, as the original Greene family fortune had been made in part from sugar estates on the Caribbean island of St Kitts, properties that relied heavily on African slave labour. If he had been born in an earlier age Greene would have been expected to follow other family members out to St Kitts to oversee the slave-dependent business. He never knew his paternal grandfather because, after sailing to the Caribbean on sugar business in the 1880s, he contracted fever and died.
The original British government file on Greene’s trip, held at the National Archives in Kew, confirms the Foreign Office’s knowledge of the journey, which it supported, cabling its people in Liberia and Sierra Leone urging them to help the Greenes in their enquiries. It was intended that Greene be debriefed by the Foreign Office on his return, though there is no record of this. He did, however, address the AGM of the Anti-Slavery and Aborigines’ Protection Society following his return in March 1935.
Greene’s original diary of the three-month trip and one of his first manuscript drafts of Journey Without Maps are held at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas. These contain extensive details of labour practices in Liberia, including details of wage rates, that go far beyond what one would expect a journalist or travel writer to focus on.
Greene was to serve as a spy for SIS between 1941 and 1944. After basic training in Britain he was deployed to West Africa, but his first choice of returning to Liberia was stymied because its government was still angry at the way he had presented the country in Journey Without Maps as backward, undeveloped and peopled with primitive tribes who were being ruthlessly exploited by a corrupt elite. Instead he completed field training in Nigeria and then spent just over a year serving as officer 59200 in Sierra Leone before returning home to work briefly under Kim Philby, who was later exposed as a Soviet spy.
Much has been written about Greene’s time with MI6 in Sierra Leone. He himself was to mock his own inadequacies as a spy, describing the comic scenes when he had to arrange for someone with a blowtorch to recover his codebook after he locked it in his safe and forgot the combination. But about the secret role of his 1935 expedition less is known. Forty years after their shared adventure Graham Greene would reminisce with Barbara and describe it as ‘altogether a trip which altered life’. To the extent that it prepared him for wartime service as a spy, this observation is undoubtedly true.
- Graham Greene, Journey without Maps (William Heinemann, 1936)
- Barbara Greene, Land Benighted (Geoffrey Bles, 1938; reprinted as Too Late to Turn Back)
- P.J.Staudenraus, The African Colonization Movement, 1816-65(Columbia University Press, 1961)
- Michael Shelden, Graham Greene: The Man Within (William Heinemann, 1994)
- Norman Sherry, The Life of Graham Greene (three volumes; Jonathan Cape, 1989/ 1994/ 2004)
- W. J. West, The Quest for Graham Greene (Weidenfeld & Nicolson,1997)
- Mary H. Moran, Liberia: The Violence of Democracy (University of Pennsylvania, 2006)
- Wilson Jeremiah Moses, Liberian Dreams (University of Pennsylvania, 1998)
Tim Butcher is the author of Chasing the Devil: The Search for Africa’s Fighting Spirit (Chatto & Windus, 2010).
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