By The Metric Maven
In my second anniversary blog I made a short statement about why I thought Liberia had not adopted the metric system. I did not think it would be controversial in any way, but to my surprise some non-US residents of the world seemed to take issue with my summation:
Liberia: settled by expatriate former slaves from the US. Many Liberians apparently still think of themselves as tied to America, so it’s not shocking they are also not metric.
Liberia, has always been a curiosity for me. It first entered my consciousness somewhere about 1970 or so. I watched a report on CBS (I think it was 60 minutes) about Liberia. It was mind boggling. The town they showed (I assume it was Monrovia) looked like my own hometown. The houses looked the same, the mail boxes looked the same, the postal uniforms were the same, people spoke English, but everyone was black. It made quite an impact on me. Liberia would later become known as the place for U.S. ships to register to avoid U.S. safety regulation. In the 1980s I was saddened to hear about the civil war there. After that, I really didn’t know what happened. Perhaps the people from outside the US knew something I didn’t? Had Liberia changed so much that I could not make the assumption they still related as Americans?
I looked for a current history of Liberia, and was rewarded when I found Another America: The Story of Liberia and the Former Slaves Who Ruled It, by James Ciment. It was published in 2013. The future Liberians arrived in Africa on what the author called The Black Mayflower. The name of the ship was The Elizabeth. In a document, apparently lost to history, there was a version of a Mayflower Compact. When they arrived, Ciment states: “[Lott] Carey was one of the first colonists to recognize that the colonists, soon to be Liberians, were a tiny and largely friendless people in a big and hostile land.” The local Africans referred to the colonists as “Black White men.” These men would create a Declaration of Independence which began “We, the people of the Republic of Liberia were originally the inhabitants of the United States of North America.” They wrote a Constitution which largely ignored the local population, and elected their first President. The capital, Monrovia, is the only one named for the elected leader of another country.
Liberians would later lose a considerable amount of their territory to British and French ambitions. As they saw the US as harboring no designs on territory in Africa, America would often become the trusted broker in disputes. At one point Buffalo Soldiers from the US were dispatched to Liberia as part of a loan guaranteed by the American government. This caused some stress between the Liberians and the US.
By World War I the Liberians had begun to look toward Europe, and Germany in particular, for trade. Ciment relates: “But when the United States entered the war in April 1917, it pressured Monrovia to sever ties with Berlin, which, by the early twentieth century, had become the country’s leading trade partner. President King felt that his nation was owed something for this act of loyalty.” Unfortunately, the US did not compensate Liberia for doing so.
In 1924 Harvey Firestone, decided Liberia would be a great place to get rubber. Firestone pushed through a deal in which: “Liberia would remain a virtually wholly owned subsidiary of Harvey Firestone until its economic expansion after World War II….”
Liberia had been founded to do missionary work in Africa, and so almost all its schools were seminary schools where “They learned little that was modern or practical—little that might prove useful in business and industry—a constant complaint of domestic and foreign pedagogical reformers then and since.” What they did produce in excess were Lawyers.
After World War II the Liberians continued to be diplomatically close to the US:
The Barclay administration, ever suspicious of white outsiders, put up obstacle after obstacle to a potential deal. “I am of the opinion … that only an American enterprise will succeed, as only they can recon with the collaboration of the Liberian authorities.”
Indeed this proved to be true, and cash began to flow into Liberia in the 1950s and 1960s. There was an improvement in the everyday lives of some Liberians:
…but Monrovia’s well-connected “big-men” benefited as well, While they were chauffeured in American sedans to desk jobs at foreign subsidiaries, their wives cruised the aisles at the White Rose Supermarket, lured by advertisements boasting “a fresh supply of goods from the U.S.”
Unfortunately the well-off had grown rich, but the poor remained poor. This would precipitate stress in Liberian society. The tight connection with the US continued in this period. Ciment indicates that “….in Liberia, having been “abroad” always meant having been to America, and was a coveted status marker….”
In 1980 there was a coup. It ended the 133 year rule of the Americo-Liberian elite. What happened during this time is still uncertain and clouded in mystery. Even basic information is not known about the principals involved, and who did what. When the coup did occur, the Americo-Liberian elite who could, fled the country. Many ended up in Virgina, Maryland and New York. The Liberian civil war and its aftermath were horrific, and only in recent years has any semblance of stability reestablished itself.
In my view, Liberia has remained very much the Lone Star Country. The talk of becoming metric in the US ended in 1980 with the disbanding of the Metric Board by Ronald Reagan. Liberia was and is culturally tied to the US, and so, if the US was never to become metric, it would make sense that Liberia saw no reason to change.
But what do Liberians think of the US currently? In his preface James Ciment offers these observations:
I was greeted warmly. Having never been the subjects of Western imperialists, Liberians evince little animus toward white people. They also genuinely like Americans. In the interviews, I sensed that many felt we were practically kin, although the sentiment always seemed tinged with disappointment.
The kinship contemporary Liberians of all backgrounds felt with Americans had deeper and more meaningful roots than I—and perhaps even my interviewees—had ever imagined.
James Ciment’s book, Another America, does not mention the metric system. I spoke by phone with James Ciment on 2014-03-25. The question as to why Liberia has remained non-metric had not occurred to him. He stated that the maps he had when he visited Liberia were old, but as he recalled they were in miles. Liberia’s neighbors are all metric. I asked him if it was because the Liberians see themselves as Americans, and in solidarity retained Ye Olde English measures. Ciment’s answer was short and simple: “Yes.” He added that another aspect is the political and legislative inertia there. Ciment indicated there is not a lot of signage in Liberia these days.
Climent verified that in the 1960s Liberia was richer and better off than its neighbors. When I related my recollection of a 60 minutes story about Liberia and how everything looked like the small town from which I came, he confirmed it. Back in the 1960s-1970s it looked like the US. There are still houses in Liberia that look like they have been transported from Alabama to Africa.
The measurement system used in Liberia was transported from America to Liberia as well. It remains there, in the Lone Star Country, probably waiting for the United States to become metric—if it ever does.
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