American Relations With Africa


By HENRY S. VILLARD, Assistant Chief of the Division of Near Eastern Affairs of the Department of State

Delivered at the Chautauqua Institute, Chautauqua, New York, August 19, 1943

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. IX, pp. 722-725.

NEVER before has the word Africa meant so much to the people of the United States. On the morning of November 8, 1942, the name of the erstwhile Dark Continent leaped into the headlines, and America suddenly learned that thousands of her sons had landed on what used to be considered a distant shore. By now, we all know the enormous importance of North Africa to the prosecution of the war against the Axis and the part it plays in global strategy.

But Africa is a vast territory, three and one-half times as big as the United States, with a population about as large. It embraces a tremendous range of climate, geography, flora and fauna, natural resources, and cultures. The Africa of the Congo is very different from Morocco or Algeria. Ethiopia is totally unlike Portuguese Mozambique. The Union of South Africa has an individuality of its own. Yet each in its way represents the Continent, a peace of the jig-saw puzzle which goes to make up the variegated whole.

In these days of miraculously fast transportation, the existence of such a huge land with still undeveloped riches and a relatively primitive native population is alone enough to arouse our curiosity. In addition, the war has turned a powerful searchlight on Africa, focusing attention on its strategic position and bringing home the fact that there are intricate problems to be solved there if future threats to world peace are to be avoided.

From Brazzaville to Casablanca, from Accra to Nairobi, from Eritrea to Cairo, our boys in uniform are learning today what Africa is like. Many of them will come back with a first-hand knowledge of those problems which must be considered in any organization for the peace—problems dealing with the orderly exploitation of raw materials, with the opportunity for trade by all nations, with the welfare and advancement of the native inhabitants. These are subjects which must interest everyone concerned with human progress, whether in the economic, commercial, or sociological field. For the first time we as a nation are beginning to ask exactly what are the relations of our country with the great undeveloped continent across the seas, and what are those relations to be in the future.

I shall try to state the main problems with respect to Africa from the standpoint of the American Government. But first, let me mention briefly the historic connections of this country with the Africa we have always heard about and read about, but which because of its remoteness from our ordinary paths of travel few of us have ever visited.

Our first contact with Africa is traceable to the iniquitous practice of slave trading. To our forefathers, perhaps, as inthe case of the other raiding nations, it did not seem particularly wrong to land upon an alien coast, seize its helpless people and consign them and their descendants to slavery—all in the name of progress and the upbuilding of civilization. The inhuman traffic in slaves and rum carried on by early traders and businessmen on the Ivory Coast, the Gold Coast and the Slave Coast of Africa had a lasting influence not only on our own society but on the outlook of the African tribal communities, and reflects the dark record of those who participated in the spoils.

But early in the nineteenth century a bright spot appeared in the unpleasant picture. After the Acts of 1818 and 1819 had declared trading in slaves to be piracy, colonization societies in the Eastern States made efforts to transport and settle in Africa the increasing numbers of slaves who had obtained their freedom and for whom no economic solution appeared to exist in this country. The plans first took tangible form in 1821, when, in a transaction reminiscent of the purchase of Manhattan Island, a strip of land on the edge of the continent nearest to South America was obtained from the natives of West Africa "for a miscellaneous assortment, including muskets, tobacco, umbrellas, hats, soap, calico, and other things."

Philanthropy and government joined hands in the founding of what is now Liberia. American naval vessels brought additional settlers in succeeding years, who gradually merged into groups of self-administered communities. Their difficulties rivaled those of our Pilgrim Fathers. Disease, attacks by native tribes, lack of supplies, and adverse climatic conditions played havoc with the early colonists. Health was imperiled; deaths were frequent. In 1837 the struggling communities united in the Commonwealth of Liberia, governed by a board of directors delegated by the several parent societies in the United States. A dispute with the neighboring British Colony of Sierra Leone over the right to levy local import duties resulted in the decision to inaugurate a republic. Liberia's declaration of independence was proclaimed on July 24, 1847, and treaties were soon afterwards negotiated with Various European countries.

For political reasons in that crucial period immediately preceding our Civil War it was not possible for the American Government to extend recognition to its protege until 1862. From then on, however, the progress of the young republic has been followed with a sympathetic and watchful eye in the United States. As I shall explain later, it is the one place on the African Continent where our national help has been markedly felt—and doubtless our interest there will continue and deepen.

Piracy—from Africa—entered into our relationship at an early date. Under the leadership of the notorious Deys of Algiers, corsairs of the Barbary States attacked our shipping in the Mediterranean, pillaging our vessels and seeking to exact tribute from our merchants. In the years between 1801 and 1819 occurred many of the incidents which are familiar to every American schoolboy, climaxed by the famous encounter of Stephen Decatur with the Algerian frigate "Copper Bottom" on June 10, 1815. By our victory on that occasion we not only put an end to the depredations of the corsair admiral, Rais Hammida, but paved the way for the abolition of piracy, of the payment of tribute, and of the enslavement of Christian prisoners. Our nation was scarcely forty years old when it performed that task. The exploits of American naval vessels off the shores of Tripoli brought about what none of the European powers of the time accomplished. It is peculiarly fitting that our air, land and sea forces should have returned to the scene today to defeat the Nazi and Fascist highwaymen in the Mediterranean.

The most noteworthy contribution by an American to the development of Africa lay in the work of Stanley, whose name will be forever associated with the penetration of the Congo. His pioneering activities between 1879 and 1883 stirred our national pride and made us conscious of the immense tract of totally unknown land that awaited exploration. Here was a challenge, sentimental and humanitarian—and to the keen-eyed Yankee, commercial as well. In his annual message to Congress of December 4, 1883, President Arthur stated that the area was being opened to commerce by King Leopold's International Association of the Congo; that an American citizen—Stanley—was the chief executive officer; that the objects of the Association were philanthropic; that the United States could not be indifferent to this work, nor to the interests of its citizens; and finally that cooperation with other commercial powers might become advisable in order to promote the rights of trade and residence in the Congo Valley free from the interference or political control of any one nation.

Shortly thereafter we recognized the flag of the International Africa Association as the flag of a friendly government—and we were the first to do so.

With the opening up of the Congo, the era of colonial rivalries and annexations was on. It became necessary to define the formalities to be observed in order that new occupations along the coast of Africa might be considered effective. The question of freedom of commerce had to be discussed, as well as the principal of freedom of navigation as applied to international rivers, such as in the case of the Danube. Acting in concert with the French Government, the German Government proposed in October 1884 that representatives of the various powers interested in African commerce should hold a conference at Berlin.

On the stipulation that we should not be bound by any of the conclusions that might be reached, the United States accepted an invitation to attend this first international meeting on Africa. We signed the General Act of the Congress of Berlin on February 26, 1885. Shortly thereafter the administration of President Arthur ended and that of President Cleveland began. It was therefore up to a different administration from that under which the United States had participated in the conference to decide whether or not the Act should be submitted to the Senate for ratification. President Cleveland refrained from asking the Senate's approval. The reason he gave was the inclusion in the Act of certain provisions obligating the signatories to maintain neutrality in the Congo region, which were held to conflict with ourtraditional policy of nonintervention in the disputes of other nations with regard to territorial questions.

Although we did not ratify the Act of Berlin, we made clear our benevolent attitude toward the principles it laid down. A great area known as the Conventional Basin of the Congo was delimited, in which the "Open Door" policy of trade was to apply. The understanding reached on this and other matters pertaining to the newly discovered heart of Africa was the cornerstone on which rested all subsequent agreements dealing with that Continent.

Free trade in the Congo at first was short-lived. In 1890 the nations met again at Brussels and passed a General Act and Declaration permitting the imposition of ten per cent import duties. The United States did not even sign this Declaration, and stood aside while it was made applicable by the signatory nations.

In the busy days of treaty-making following the first World War this Government became a party to several agreements relating to Africa. First and foremost, the Convention of St. Germain-en-Laye, signed in September 1919, revised the previous acts concerning the Conventional Basin of the Congo, restored freedom of trade, and is the instrument governing our relations with that area today. We signed multilateral conventions on particular subjects: the liquor traffic, in 1919; the arms trade, in 1925; slavery, in 1926. Between 1923 and 1925 we negotiated six conventions with the powers holding mandates in Africa, securing our rights in the colonial territories which Germany surrendered by the Treaty of Versailles. Those conventions established the fundamental principle that we had a right to be consulted in the disposition of the ex-enemy colonies, regardless of the fact that the Peace Treaty of 1919 had not been accepted by the United States. This interest of our Government in the mandated territories was a significant step in the relationship of America to Africa. It not only marked the advent of American influence in the determination of ultimate sovereignty over a substantial portion of African soil, but secured us equality of opportunity as far as trade or commerce was concerned.

As I have previously suggested, on all the checkerboard map of Africa our ties with the Negro Republic of Liberia have been the most intimate. With a constitution, flag and government patterned on our own, with a history of American encouragement and supervision against possible foreign encroachments, it is natural that Liberia should constitute our main link with the Africa of today. Liberia looms out of all proportion to its size for a number of reasons.

For one thing, Liberia is a source of that vital commodity, rubber. The Firestone plantations, American-owned, are producing about 35,000,000 pounds annually. Another point is Liberia's favorable situation at the so-called narrows of the South Atlantic. According to precise measurement of the air routes, the Pan American Airways base at Fisherman Lake, Liberia, is actually nearer to Brazil than the French fort of Dakar. The implications of such a strategic location in the aerial age that is sure to follow this war are quite obvious.

Liberia stands ready to encourage American enterprise. Last June President Barclay visited Washington and made it clear that he would welcome the development of his country by United States interests, provided only that they benefited Liberia and did not exploit his people. The extension of Lend-Lease aid and the presence in Liberia at this moment of American forces under the terms of a defense agreement entered into last year, give an indication of the reciprocal assistance which the two countries are rendering. I do not doubt that in any plans which may be worked outfor international security after the present conflict, Liberia—across the way from the bulge of Brazil—will be one of the focal points of special importance to the Americas.

Mention should be made here of our relations with Ethiopia. No discussion of Africa would be complete without reference to the valiant Kingdom of Haile Selassie, one of the first victims of Axis aggression and the first to recover its independence. During the entire period of Italian occupation, the United States Government steadfastly refused to recognize Italy's claim to sovereignty over Ethiopian territory. I have been assured by Mr. Yilma Deressa, Vice Minister of Finance of Ethiopia, who was the chief Ethiopian delegate to the recent International Food Conference at Hot Springs, that this attitude on the part of our Government will never be forgotten in his country.

An extraordinary development of Africa's physical resources is taking place today. The war has created an insatiable demand for minerals, lumber, foodstuffs and tropical produce of every sort, draining off surpluses and awakening new demands in hitherto untouched regions. Under Lend-Lease, military supplies have flowed in a steady stream to the defense of African territories; modem roads and railways have been constructed; air bases have dotted the landscapes and the airplane has become a familiar sight; ports have been enlarged and improved. As new needs have arisen under the emergency, the demand has increased for such little known ores as tantalite or columbite, and for such exotic products as shea butter and kapok and calabar beans and pyrethrum. In the cause of victory, agents of this Government have flown hither and yon collecting valuable products for shipment to the Allied war machine. The expansion of trade which has occurred in each direction is limited only by the desperately overburdened shipping facilities.

Such has been the impact of war on the economy of Africa that far-reaching results may be anticipated. The artificial stimulus has caused many changes in methods of production and in the utilization of native labor. A new standard of living has been introduced, from which Africa cannot retreat.

Now what of the postwar period? To what extent will our ships continue to ply the waters of Africa, laden with building supplies and machinery on the one hand and returning with valuable tropical cargoes on the other? Common sense tells us that the wartime pitch cannot be maintained, that the requirements of the African bases will diminish sharply. It is problematical to what degree our Lend-Lease arrangements will permit us to extend the projects which have so materially assisted the common war effort in Africa. War goods will be replaced by peace goods, and our normal shipments of automobiles, radios, leaf tobacco and hardware will be resumed.

Yet trade is bound to grow over the years. We would not be American if we were not interested in that. Moreover, our recently developed use for some of Africa's products may well persist after the war. The staggering consumption of metals alone may seriously affect our own reserves, for instance, of manganese, copper and tin. Natural resources such as exist in Africa offer great reservoirs for development and use by the peoples of the world—including those indigenous to Africa. In the past these reservoirs have in some instances been responsible for international jealousies and bitter strife.

To avoid this prolific source of unrest and competition, point four of the Atlantic Charter was framed. I repeat here the declaration of President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill that their respective countries (I quote) ". . . will endeavor, with due respect for their existing obligations, tofurther the enjoyment of all States, great or small, victor or vanquished, of access, on equal terms, to the trade and to the raw materials of the world which are needed for their economic prosperity."

When the time comes to formulate the conditions for the better world we all hope will follow the present struggle, I feel certain that the American principle of equality of opportunity in trade will remain a paramount factor in Africa, applicable in the colonies of whatever nationality. Furthermore, our interest in Africa is not that of the pirates of old who plundered and robbed and took without giving in return. Africa needs our skills and services in order to achieve greater productivity, just as we need access to Africa's resources. There will be ample room for cooperative effort in the working out of mutually beneficial economic undertakings.

Opportunities for American aid of one kind or another in Africa after the war will be boundless. The single problem of education is enough to stagger the imagination. The need for educational facilities will dwarf all previous efforts of the missionary and philanthropic societies which have carried the burden of instruction in the past. For instance, the matter of health will cry loudly for attention. Weaving together the African communities by air, and linking them up in turn with the other regions of the world, brings in its train a host of medical problems. In addition to the inexhaustible need for private practice, Africa may require the establishment of an adequate tropical health institute sponsored by governments or by an international organization, to prevent the transmission of disease and to help eradicate local sources of infection.

It is certain that in the fields of education, of medicine, of social welfare in general, America can find full scope for its philanthropic impulses.

While we are well aware of the economic possibilities in Africa and the amazing accessibility of that Continent which is now a fact, the political aspects of the colonial question are also clearly of interest to the American people. I say this for two reasons: first, because Americans are intensely alive to developments all over the world; secondly, because the peaceful development and welfare of Africa inescapably affect the security of all the Western Hemisphere. The appearance of sore spots and frictions in the colonial systems of Africa is surely a matter of concern to us.

From the political standpoint, various solutions have been proposed here and abroad for the problem of colonies. The British Labor Party advocates a form of international supervision over the national administration of colonies, carried out by an International Colonial Commission functioning under a theoretical International Authority to be created after the war. This would leave the existing local administrations intact but would make them responsible to the bar of an expert public opinion. Others would go further and transfer the sovereignty now exercised by the controlling bower to an international body charged with full legislative and administrative authority over a colony. Both these forms of international control embody the mandate principle, evolved after the last war, under which the victorious powers assumed the guardianship of certain backward peoples "not yet able to stand alone." The Mandates Commission of the League of Nations supervised the carrying out of various mandatory obligations designed to protect the native from abuse and to uphold the international commitments of the administering power. Those who advocate a different system believe that the Mandates Commission suffered from the same fault as its parent body: it lacked the teeth to make itself effective; nor could it initiate policies of its own. Theypoint out that while no harm and some good actually resulted from the mandate system in Africa, its application in the islands of the Pacific was a tragic failure. The Japanese thumbed their noses at the Mandates Commission and secretly fortified the islands entrusted to their care—eventually using them for bases in their attack on Pearl Harbor.

Still another suggestion has been made for the future handling of colonial problems, which has received attention on both sides of the Atlantic. This involves the establishment of Regional Councils, composed of representatives of the powers controlling adjacent or neighboring colonial territories, together with such other powers as have a valid related interest, as, for example, from the standpoint of security. A regional council would aim at consultation and cooperation on problems common to the immediate area; on coordination of policies; and on mutual checks and criticisms. Here again, the proposal is based on the principles of trusteeship.

Whatever the dispositions of the peace to come, it is unlikely in the extreme that the former enemy territories in Africa will come into the outright possession of any one power. It is equally improbable that the United States would alone accept jurisdiction or control over any part of such former enemy territory. Notwithstanding the astonishing and probably Axis-inspired rumors which crop up from time to time, this Government—in keeping with its traditional policy throughout the world—has no designs on the colonial possessions of other nations, and no desire to carve out for its exclusive benefit any portion of Africa.

Some of our allies in this great war have looked with mixed feelings at America's interest in the future treatment of Africa and its inhabitants. Yet it is entirely natural in a war for the Four Freedoms that we as Americans should openly discuss the question of political advancement for the natives of Africa. That does not mean we intend to see one set of views or another enforced, or that we even listen seriously to the extremists who advocate the instant liberation of all dependencies from external control. Aside from the chaos and confusion which would result from casting adrift on the uncertain political seas great masses of inexperienced people, the readiness of the communities involved requires the most serious thought.

The Anglo-Saxon democracies freely admit that self-government is a desirable goal. Moreover, it is increasingly recognized that the imperialism of the past, the old system of colonial exploitation, is giving way to new social concepts. Yet great as our desire may be to see the Africans enjoy and profit by political independence, we must remember that definite stages of economic progress must precede the capacity to manage successfully the self-governing institutions of an independent political entity.

We should furthermore remember that only a small minority of the peoples in the colonies have expressed a desire for self-government. While we may assume that many morel would ask for it if they knew what it meant and were able to make their wishes known, it is also true that many of the inhabitants of these colonies are actually opposed to self-government. In Nigeria, for example, numerous Africans oppose it on the ground that they receive a greater measure of justice from British courts than they do from the African courts functioning in the same districts, and because of the fear that many of the people would fare less well under a purely African regime.

We reserve to ourselves full liberty of discussion on such important questions affecting the advance of mankind. Butin fairness to the colonial powers who are our allies, and for the sake of greater unity in war and peace, we would do well to reflect that we have minorities in territories under the United States flag who call for self-government. Even though many Americans may agree with them, we would scarcely welcome being advised by our allies to hasten the grant of self-government wherever it is asked. If we consider how thorny are the problems in our own territories, we will be less hasty in reaching conclusions about Africa.

No doubt the governing powers would welcome our participation in international bodies or regional councils, should they be set up, specifically to aid in the development of Africa for the benefit of the African people. As I have just pointed out, the opportunities for improvement in living standards, in education, health and agriculture, are practically without end. The governing powers have developed their colonies with limited colonial revenues. Granted that these resources have not permitted as rapid development as the British people—or as you and I—might wish, it is worth noting that the British Parliament recently voted to make available over the next 10 years sums which may amount to 55 million pounds or more for the development of the British colonies. That is only a drop in the bucket of appropriations which Africa could absorb, but it is a start.

If we wish to obtain benefits from the development of Africa, in the interest of all peoples—including the natives themselves—capital must be supplied for various purposes and from various sources: philanthropic, commercial, and perhaps international. The proof of our sincerity in fulfilling hopes awakened during these years of war will lie in our willingness to contribute to and invest in the future of Africa.

I have mentioned the treaty of St. Germain, signed in 1919, and known as the Revising Convention of previous acts on Africa. One of the provisions of the St. Germain treaty was that another international conference should be held ten years after the treaty had gone into effect. The purpose of the second meeting would be to introduce such modifications as experience might have shown to be necessary. In the decade before the outbreak of the present war, the nations were obviously too preoccupied with matters nearer home, for no one ever suggested the calling of that second conference.

So much has been said and written about colonial problems, so prominent has been the discussion about Africa's raw materials, that another meeting of the nations interested in Africa at some future date seems likely. As presently distributed among the powers, the colonial dependencies present questions which must be settled—particularly those relating to strategic and economic advantages.

The Continent of Africa is bound to play a prominent part in any system of international security which may be devised for the future. At Dakar the presence of an American Naval Mission under Vice Admiral William Glassford is testimony to the importance of the Atlantic routes and to our cooperation with the French in making them safe for travel. Such a strategic locality as Liberia has been shown to be vital to the defense of this Hemisphere. Our traditional policy of the "Open Door", if applied uniformly to all colonial areas, is one which we confidently expect will aid in removing sources of economic conflict and contribute to the advancement of the native. If raw materials are made accessible to all on a basis of non-discrimination, one of the fundamental excuses for conquest by force will be destroyed and a real step will be taken toward a peaceful world.