Wednesday, September 7, 2011

SENYON JUAH NIMLEY, Legendary Sasstown Paramount Chief

Sasstown is the largest and most important of the five original Kru towns established on the southeastern coast in the 1500s(?) Its power was built on trade, fishing, seafaring and migrant labor. Designated a territory by early Liberian governments, it is now a district in the county of Grand Kru.

In 1930, long-held resentment over abuse of power by corrupt government officials and the Liberian Frontier Force exploded in all-out war on the Kru Coast, triggered by government reprisals against Kru chiefs and their people who had testified before the League of Nations Commission investigating forced labor practices in that area of the country. At the epicenter was Sasstown and its now legendary leader, Juah Nimley.

The following passage is from HISTORICAL DICTIONARY OF LIBERIA 2nd Edition (Dunn, Beyan, and Burrowes, African Historical Dictionaries Series No. 83, Scarecrow Press Inc. 2001)

The resistance to government authority began in 1931 and effectively continued until 1936 when the "rebel chief" was captured and exiled by the government. The people of Sasstown (a locale from which Liberians were forcibly shipped to Fernando Po) decided on a campaign of systematic non-cooperation with the government. Between July 1930 and October 1931, the District Commissioner of the town abandoned his post and there was no government representative. A government military expedition led by Colonel T. Elwood Davis was unable to restore authority.

There ensued a period of civil strife for which the government blamed Chief Nimley. He was warned, but to no avail. By November 1931, actual hostilities occurred between the Sasstown Kru and government forces. President Edwin J. Barclay decided to send a delegation of lettered Kru to mediate. It was reported that while mediation talks were ongoing between Colonel Davis and Chief Nimley, the Chief's men surrounded the conrence hall in combat attire. Intense hostilities soon resumed.

With the resistance already in an advanced stage, Nimley seemed sustained by the fear that he would be treated by the government as were the rebels of the 1915-16 Kru rebellion. Expressing this fear in 1934, he wrote to Lord Cecil of the League of Nations Liberia committee:

"It is most certain that we will be arrested like the Nana Kru chiefs who are now in custody in Sinoe, and in the end we may be killed like the 75 chiefs who were invited to a "peace conference" at Sinoe but then seized and executed in 1916." 

With failure of the League's plan of assistance largely as a result of the diplomatic skills of President Edwin Barclay and his Secretary of State Louis Arthur Grimes, the rebels of Sasstown took a more pessismistic view of their plight. This was reflected in a renewed correspondence by Nimley with Lord Cecil.

"Disappointment and sorrow ran throughout the whole of Liberia when it was found out that President Barclay alone with his first cousin, Grimes, had turned down the League's plan which all of us wanted." (Sundiata, 1980, 128-43)

Not long afterward the entire rebellion crumbled. By August 1936, Juah Nimley had defied the government for five years. Two months later, he arrived in Monrovia as a prisoner. Barclay subsequently interviewed "Wonderful Nimley," as he had come to be known by some. It was the considered view of the President that Nimley had been led astray by lettered Kru Liberians with Didhwo Twe as the "evil genius" behind the resistance. Chief Nimley was then exiled to Gbarnga for several months and in 1937, he was allowed to return to Sasstown. He died shortly thereafter.

For more on the Kru-Liberian government relations:

Jo Sullivan, CAUSES OF THE 1915-16 KRU REVOLT, Liberian Studies Journal

D. Elwood Dunn, HISTORY OF THE EPISCOPAL CHURCH OF LIBERIA

Charles S. Johnson, SEASONS IN HELL and BITTER CANAAN: STORY OF THE NEGRO REPUBLIC

Anthony Morgan, KRU WARS, Seabreeze Journal of Contemporary Liberian Writings