British Reaction to the Firestone Investment in Liberia
Britain was lumbered with a huge war debt to America. Winston Churchill, the British secretary of state for the colonies, believed in the principle of paying Paul by robbing Paul. Britain controlled 70% of the world’s production of rubber from its plantations in the colonies of Malaya and Ceylon. America, because of its large automobile industry, consumed about 65–70% of the world’s production of rubber. In 1922, British Parliament passed the Stevenson Restrictions Act, which reduced production and controlled export. The rubber price, which stood at ten pence a pound, shot up to five shillings a pound. Every time the governor of Malaya increased the price of raw rubber a penny a pound, it cost the USA $8 million. It did hit the tyre manufacturers of America very hard.
Mr. Harvey Firestone, one of the most important American rubber barons, decided to plant rubber in a country outside British influence and free the industry from British dependence. He chose Liberia and in 1926 signed an agreement which, inter alia, gave him the right to plant rubber on one million acres of land. The delight of the Americans was immense.
In the process of freeing the American rubber industry from British dependence, the USA imposed a kind of economic imperialism on Liberia which conflicted with the economic, political and strategic interests of Britain—the largest colonial power of those days. For obvious reasons, Britain did all it possibly could to scuttle Firestone’s efforts. Excessive zeal of the Foreign Office representative at Monrovia and the opaque and protracting nature of the negotiations between Firestone and the government of Liberia created enough space for speculation, rumour and gossip, making the narrative an interesting chapter of the history of Liberia.