Kru people of Liberia,circa 1910
Linguists use the name Kru to refer to a linguistic group within the larger larger Niger-Congo language family. Peoples speaking language in this Kru group include Bete, Dida, Grebo, Wobe and the Kru people themselves.
Kru man,circa 1910
Beautiful Kru woman
Recent documentation has noted “Kru societies can now be found along the coast of Monrovia, Liberia to Bandama River in Cote d'Ivoire” “Villages maintain their ties based on presumed common descent, reinforced by ceremonial exchanges and gifts”. The Kru people and their languages, although now many speak English as a second language, are said to be “dominant in the southwest region where the forest zone reaches the coastal lagoons”. Nevertheless, the Kru people rely on the forest for farming supplemented by hunting for their livelihood. Overall, in 2010, Kru and associated languages were spoken by 95 percent of the approximate 3.5 million people in Liberia.
The Kru languages include many subgroups such as Kuwaa, Grebo, Belle, Belleh, Kwaa and many others. According to Breitbonde, categorization of communities based on cultural distinctiveness, historical or ethnic identity and socio-political autonomy“ may have brought about the large numbder of distinct Kru dialects; "Although the natives were in many respects similar in type and tribe, every village was an independent state; there was also very little intercommunication". Breitbonde notes the Kru people were categorized based on their cultural distinctiveness, separate historical or ethnic identities, and social and political autonomy. This is the possible reason for so many subgroups of the Kru language. Unfortunately, as noted by Fisiak, there is very little documentation on the Kru and associated languages.
The Marchese (1989) classification of Kru languages is as follows. Many of these languages are dialect clusters and are sometimes considered more than a single language.
The origins of Kru people are still historically unknown. The legend has it that they migrated from the sea to their current habitats. Historians, These Kwa-speaking, related but distinct cultures were all lumped together under the collective term "Kru", a corruption of the original "Krao" by Europeans with whom they traded as far back as the fifteenth century. Successive waves of migration brought them overland from the east and north, and by the sea. Those coming from the Gedeh forests to the north claimed Mount Pahn in the Putu Range as their ancestral home. Geological flights in the 1950s confirmed the remains of a village on the summit of the mountain, half-shrouded in clouds of mist and ancient mystery.
Kru people from Ivory Coast
Those migrating from across the Cavalla and down the Atlantic seaboard have their own oral histories and myths centered around the crossing of the dangerous surf waters in canoes. All were fleeing more militaristic groups that were conquering and subjugating everyone and everything in their paths. By the time of their earliest recorded encounters with the Portuguese in the 1400s, there were three distinct yet similar groups inhabiting what came to be known as the Kru Coast: The Grebo, literally meaning "Those Who Made It Across the Water," the Sapo, and the Kru. The three groups were less "tribes" than loose federations of clans with common ancestors. Each Dako, as the clans were called, could encompass several different chiefdoms and be related by blood or history to other Dako. The Grebo name for this social structure was Dakwe, identified by town names. There the Krus settled in a loosely connected villages based on lineage and living by hunting and subsistence farming. Although they lived along the coast, the Krus refused to take part in Trans-Atlantic slave trade and they fought viciously against slave trader who made attempts to capture a Kru.
Kru man with braided hair
Mostly agriculturists like their interior relatives the Krahn, the Kru also engaged in trade, migrant labor, and seafaring. They established fishing and migrant worker settlements along the coast as far east as Cameroon and as far west as Freetown and Cape Verde. Their skill with canoes in the treacherous surf waters was already world renowned by the 1700s, when they served on British merchant and war ships, and even established small settlements in Liverpool and in the Americas. They lived mostly in five large towns along the coast: Nana Kru, Settra Kru, King Willie Town, Fishtown, and Sasstown, the largest and most powerful. These towns produced mariners primarily.
Kru woman from Ivory Coast in her traditional dress and her body painted
The Grebos were centered around Grand Cess, Cape Palmas, and Tabou, with power concentrated in Grand Cess. Migrant workers were recruited in and around these three centers. The arrival in the 1820s of African-American settlers at first had very little impact on the Kru. "Quee people," as the locals referred to the westernized colonists at Greenville and Harper, were far from unknown on the Kru Coast. The Krus and Grebos themselves had a sizable population of western-educated people living among them for decades. Some of these "civilized" Grebo and Kru had been educated in Sierra Leone, on the Gold Coast, and in Britain.
The first descriptions of core group of Krumen's religion were done by missionaries notably James Connolley,But these accounts can also be augmented by more detailed accounts of the Grebo of nearby Cape Palmas who were linguistically and culturally related and were, by 1855 becoming Krumen themselves by going to sea and may have been as important in the overall culture as the core Krumen themselves.
Kru couples doing their traditional dance
The central elements of the spiritual universe of this region included a figure identified by missionaries as a
high, creator God, named Nyesoa, spirits or deities associated with territories called, familial spiritual guardians called ku and finally kwi or the souls of the departed who remained near by and could influence events.
These spiritual entities were contacted through a class of people called deya, who underwent long and specialized training and apprenticeship to take up their office. They addressed problems both medical and spiritual using pharmaceutical and spiritual remedies.
Kru woman with her body painted
Kru Political system
Kru Culture is ahierachical (no rigid hierarchy existed among its members) and heavily influenced by traditional democratic system at the village level (Beugre and Offodile,2001). In this culture, the village chief acts as a spokesperson rather than a ruler whom they have to blindly obey. Among the Kru, the chief is held accountable for his deeds (its very rare to see women selected as chiefs). Elders select a village chief for a limited term, at most five years.
After which if he performs well he may be re-appointed or another person shall be selected in a case where the chief performs abysmally. This selection is not based on kinship or family of rulers, but on the persons character,statecraft and achievements. In general, the Kru resent authority. A key belief in a Kru culture is that everyone should gain his or her recognition in society based on his or her skills,abilities and deeds. Power is not considered an important indicator of societal differentiation. the power holder is perceived as spokesperson. Modern Kru tend to resent autocratic leaders and people and expect treatment with respect and dignity from those in power. As a result of this culture amongst the Kru,people see them as disrespectful and intolerant.
Ivorien international football superstar Didier Drogba, Kru man
Ritual object or 'Kru money'?
“The society that loses its symbols loses its identity and in the process loses touch with itself.”
In: 'Rock of the Ancestors: namôa koni'
(William C. Siegmann, 1977)
Kru Money. Collected 1975 near Tchien, Grand Gedeh County, Liberia.
The origin of these objects is not known with certainty, except for the fact that they were made and used among the Kru and the Grebo in southeastern Liberia. According to one source, the Kru and Grebo believe these objects to be living creatures that can be found in creeks, rivers and lagoons. They call them ‘tien’,‘nitien’ or ‘Dwin’ meaning water spirits or ‘Gods of water’. A variety of powers are attributed to them including the ability to stop wars, found villages, heal the sick and guarantee fertility. They are also capable to catch people crossing these streams. The Kru and Grebo believe that the ‘tien’ live in the water but can be caught and brought to town where they may be enjoined to serve as protector or guardians (Siegmann, 1977, p. 82).
It is seriously doubted whether any of these objects have been made in recent times. In any case, nowadays they are extremely rare. A nineteenth century source described objects that resembled the above shown objects (in particular object B). In 1845, Horatio Bridge, a US Navy officer who served on a cruiser sailing in the Gulf of Guinea, reported: "I have procured some of the country-money. It is more curious, than convenient."
And he continued that the ‘Manilly’, worth a dollar and a half, would be a fearful currency to make large payments in, being composed of old brass-kettles, melted up, and cast in a sand-mould, the weigh being from two to four pounds (Nathaniel Hawthorne, ed., 1845, p. 106).
In 1853, Horatio Bridge reported that he had seen them being cast in sand-moulds on the beach near Sasstown in southeastern Liberia. He described how some were made by melting down old brass kettles, others were made using the so-called lost wax technique of casting. He must have seen more and bigger objects than in 1845 since he mentions that their size varied from less than two inches to more than ten inches in diameter whereas a big one could weigh as much as twenty-five pounds. Some objects were solid brass, while others had a sand core - like object A, above on the extreme left. Most objects consisted of an unbroken circle with four knobs, but a few were open on one side. Bridge reported that they were called ‘Kru money’. (Siegmann, 1977, p.82).
Kru Water spirit symbol
Kru Wars: Southeastern Revolt in 19th to Early 20th Century Liberia
The wars between the traditional Kru political systems and the Liberian government were less a clash of cultures than a pure and simple struggle for power. The Krus traditionally controlled the ports and the European trade, regulated and taxed migrant labor, and negotiated their own relations with the neighboring French and British. All this was contrary to Liberian interests, as the fledgling nation state struggled for survival against the open hostility and aggression of those same British and French colonial governments, a complete lack of financial resources and increasing indebtedness to European powers under outright loan shark terms. Their only source of revenue was customs and head tax on migrant labor.
former Liberian international football superstar, David Weah is a Kru man
From the Liberian point of view, the Krus simply couldn't be allowed to control the ports or relations with the British. Indeed, the main thread running through the Kru Coast rebellions was an expressed desire to be ruled by the British, even going as far as raising the British flag on their territory. The Liberians were fiercely protective of their independence from European rule, and the sight of the Union Jack must have been especially galling and troubling. The way the Krus saw it, it was their country and they had the right to control their ports, collect tariffs and head tax, and to be ruled by the British if they so chose. The stage was set for confrontation almost from the moment the first ships sponsored by the Maryland and Mississippi Colonization Societies landed their passengers at Cape Palmas and at the mouth of the Sinoe River.
In the highly militarized Kru social structure, young men of the Kinibo order trained for warrior status and leadership. Warriors at the highest level belonged to the Sedjibo order, usually chiefs and sub-chiefs, and atop the hierarchy were the Nyekbade or elders. Less visible was the real power underlying warrior culture, secret societies like the forest Ekpe (Leopard Society) and the Neegee (Water Leopard Society) centered around the confluence of the Cestos and Neegbah (Two Rivers) or St. John Rivers. This militarism inevitably led to frequent internecine battles over land, trade, women, and more trivial issues.
Liberian actress Saycon Sengbloh is a Kru
In 1843, a common enemy was introduced into the fray. Commodore Matthew Perry of the United States Navy landed at Cape Palmas in command of three ships and seven hundred marines. Commander of the West African Squadron, ostensibly created to suppress the slave trade, his mission was twofold: punish the Kru for attacks on American shipping, and for the murders of American traders, and assist the Maryland colony locked in conflict with the locals. Perry decided that the Americans had been the aggressors and settled the matter, then went on to Little Berebay to investigate another murder involving an American schooner. This time he found the chief, Ben Krako, guilty, and executed him. Thus was the Kru Coast drawn into the American-British struggle for naval supremacy and control of the African coastal trade. Realizing that a strong Liberia was the best defense against the obstinate British-allied Kru, the United States Navy would from then on back Liberia militarily in all conflicts with the Kru, and then negotiate resolutions to disputes.
Kruman from Setra Kru. Circa 1906 by Johnston, Harry Hamilton, Sir, 1858-1927
War drums again pounded out of the Sapo forests in 1854, with Maryland's attempt to dislodge Grebos from land they claimed had been ceded to them. The USS John Adams was sent to help President Roberts' fledgling government and its allies. Two thousand Grebos were driven from the Cape. An uneasy peace lasted until two years later, when the Grebos again took up arms over the question of land.
Peace once more enforced by US Navy gunboats, trade flourished in the area to the benefit of both Krus and their Liberian neighbors. Liberian merchant ships manned by Kru seamen carried coffee and palm oil to foreign markets. Then Liberian coffee, reportedly the best in the world, was introduced into Brazil, and Brazil soon monopolized the market for it, severely crippling Liberian commerce. As the European scramble for Africa heated up, the pressure increased on the obstinate "Negro Republic," and the palm oil trade was taken over by Britain, leaving Liberia with no revenue at the same time that high-interest loans were due to that very European power. The government began to impose head tax on the migrant workers of the Kru Coast, and to take over customs collections at the ports of entry.
In 1874, several Dakwe came together to form the Grebo Reunited Kingdom, or Gededebo, under King Seah Nybar Weah, and various chiefs and mission-educated men. Initially, the confederation was not opposed to the Liberian state, but primarily advocated for the protection of migrant workers. However, the dispute over head tax lingered, exacerbated by the memories of 1854. When yet another land dispute flared up around Cape Palmas in 1875, the drums summoned the Sedjibo war councils together in Grand Cess. The land around Harper had been ceded to the Maryland colony by Grebo chiefs before the colony joined the Republic of Liberia, or so the Liberians claimed. They also claimed that the British were instigating the trouble. From the Grebos' point of view, there was no such thing as "ceded". Their fathers had granted the Marylanders a place to stay, but for them, that didn't mean forever. They felt the land rightfully belonged to the Grebo people.
Kru people of Monrovia 1890
In 1875, Gededebo launched the most serious war the Liberians had faced up to that point in their history. The Grebos came very close to driving them off the cape for good. And once again, an American naval vessel prevented what would become the seat of Maryland County from being wiped off the map. American President Ulysses S. Grant dispatched the USS Alaska to Cape Palmas. In the negotiated peace, the Liberians adopted the migrant worker protection laws enacted by the Grebo Confederation.
In 1884 under President Hilary Johnson, indigenous groups were allowed representation in the House of Representatives if they paid above a specified amount in tax. The Grebo and Kru were the only groups wealthy enough to qualify. The Sinoe County Kru presented their grievances to the House: Economic discrimination. Cultural arrogance. Discrimination in educational opportunities. Forced labor. Above all, control of the ports had been taken away from them, causing Kru cities to decline into villages and reducing a proud, independent people to subservience. They asked that Settra Kru be declared an international port of entry.
In 1890, American military officers Colonel Young and Captain Roundtree organized the Liberian Frontier Force. Both were African-Americans with equal respect and sympathy for the indigenous people and for the Black republic.
A Kru woman with "shield" finger-rings and hair ornaments. (1906) by Johnston, Harry Hamilton, Sir, 1858-1927
In 1905, President Arthur Barclay agreed to make Settra Kru a port of entry. However, faced with stiff opposition from the settlers in Sinoe, he reneged on his agreement. The Sinoe County wing of the ruling True Whig Party wielded enormous political clout as one of the three original colonies and signers of the Declaration of Independence in 1847. But they were not as welcoming of Kru political and economic participation as their Maryland neighbors. Where the Marylanders saw strong, economically vibrant Kru communities as an added strength, the Greenville political machine did their best to repress Kru power, and thwarted President Barclay’s plans for unification and integration.
In 1910 the Grebos revolted against the hut tax, a desperate measure by President Barclay to raise revenues for debt payments on the 1871 loan from Britain. This war revealed how complex relations between settlers and the indigenous people had become. For one thing, the “civilized”} Grebo” communities of large towns like Grand Cess and Cape Palmas mostly supported the government, while future vice president Allen Yancy claimed “neutrality” even though he was a militia captain, and earned huge profits repairing guns for the Grebos. Yancy was married into the powerful Nabo clan of the Grebos, spoke the language fluently, and was reportedly up to his neck in the Grebo secret societies. As wealthy elite groups have always done everywhere, American settler wealth and power intermarried with Grebo wealth and power, making the Maryland County wing of the TWP the most powerful faction in the years following the 1910 war. A series of decisive victories by the Grebos forced the Americans to dispatch the USS Birmingham to Cape Palmas and in the negotiated peace, powerful concessions were awarded the Grebos. The following years would see the son of a Gededebo leader, Henry Too Wesley elected vice president and ultimately the ascension to the presidency of another Marylander, William V. S. Tubman in 1943.
By 1912, the Sinoe River Krus' long list of grievances included arbitrary executions of their chiefs by a senator with the silent acquiescence of Monrovia. They complained to the American Mission to bring pressure on the Liberian government, but nothing happened. They then turned to the British for guns and ammunition.
For two years the forests were eerily silent. Trade was cut off with the Liberian towns and all the Kru living in or near them retreated into the bush. Young men of Kinibo age disappeared from the coastal towns and settler farms where they worked. When they emerged out of the forest in 1915, it was to set the Kru Coast almost literally on fire. Once again Liberia, faced the serious threat of annihilation.
President Daniel Howard appealed to Colonel Young and Captain Roundtree for American assistance. They agreed on the condition that the government make immediate reforms in the administration of Kru affairs. On November 8, 1915, the USS Chester appeared off the coast of Monrovia, bringing arms and ammunition for the Frontier Force. On the assurance of Captain Roundtree that their grievances would be addressed, the Krus laid down their arms, awed by the imposing presence of the American warship. Three weeks later, in violation of the peace treaty's prohibition on reprisals, and against the advice of his own Attorney General, President Howard declared martial law on the Kru Coast and sent a military commission of sixty-three men who then launched an orgy of retaliation, executing seventy-two chiefs on his direct orders.
The Klakan, puberty dance from the Kru people of Liberia
In 1927, Superintendent Samuel Ross of Sinoe and his District Commisioner Watson began selling young boys to the Spanish plantations at Fernando Po. They built their barracoons at Blue Barrow Point and used their authority over the Frontier Force, corrupt interior chiefs and district commissioners to obtain a steady supply of forced labor. When a member of the cabinet, Postmaster General R.A. Sherman discovered this activity and reported it to Monrovia, he suddenly lost his job. It became plainly obvious then that Ross's slave trading was sanctioned at the highest levels of government.
Didho Twe, a Kru member of the House, also lost his job when he brought the matter to the Legislature. Expelled by a two-thirds vote, he then made a compelling case to the League of Nations together with TJR Faulkner, another fearless crusader for human rights and former Mayor of Monrovia, who presented the evidence collected by Twe to the League in Geneva. They were backed by Britain, France, and the Firestone Company, which operated a large plantation in Maryland County. While Twe and Faulkner’s motives seemed clear, those of Britain and France were questionable, since they themselves engaged in the practice of forced labor. Firestone for its part depended on the very labor that was being exported to the Spanish plantations, Spain being an enemy of American interests. The League dispatched a commission of inquiry to Liberia and the ensuing investigation indicted President King and his Vice President Allen Yancy with trafficking in human beings. The American and European powers were not investigated, nor indicted.
King and Yancy were forced to resign in 1930, but not before another orgy of revenge was carried out on those chiefs who had testified before the Commission. Towns and villages were razed and more chiefs executed, imprisoned, fined, flogged and humiliated in front of their people. No surprise then, that in 1932 the Kru Coast erupted again over the long history of Frontier Force atrocities and, ironically, partly instigated by Liberians in the area, concerned that their country would be taken over by white men as a result of the Commission's findings. This time the conflagration engulfed the entire coast, from Rivercess to Cape Palmas.
It was only after President Tubman launched his Unification Program in 1945 that the Kru Coast chiefs finally accepted the authority of Monrovia, sending word to Tubman that they were now at peace with the Liberian Government. The country then entered its most prosperous and stable period with Krus and Grebos making substantial contributions. Among the most outstanding were Vice President Henry Too Wesley, Tubman’s former law partner J. Gbafflen Davis, Attorney General Nete Sie Brownell, Didho Twe, Episcopal Bishop George Browne, Methodist Bishop S. Trowen Nagbe, Army Chief of Staff George Toe Washington, University President J. Bernard Blamo, Paramount Chiefs Juwely Jeh of Webbo and Juah Nimley of Sasstown, and an endless list of other leading lights of Liberia, most of them descendants of the Sasstown, Grand Cess and other Kru Coast chiefs.
This excerpt is from the forthcoming book, Kru Wars: Southeastern Revolt in 19th to Early 20th Century Liberia By Anthony Morgan (http://archives-two.liberiaseabreeze.com/anthony-morgan.html)
Religious formal celebration of the Kru people of Liberia. Circa 1885
Ivorien Kru chiefs wearing their tappa dress
Kru people performing traditional dance, Ivory Coast
Guere (kru) woman
Ivorien Kru people
Bhete-Kru woman in traditional dress,Ivory Coast
grebo-Kru girl performing traditional dance,Liberia
kru men 1890
Kru woman. Circa 1910