He is noted in Nigeria as the first recorded Igbo lawyer in history. In Liberia, however, Edward James Roye is well-known as the country’s fifth president whose administration was short-lived and who died under rather mysterious circumstances.
Celebrated as the first pure black person to become president of Liberia, Roye was a “pure descendant of the Igbo tribe from Nigeria”. His father, John Roye, was an Igbo slave in Ohio, America who later gained his freedom and became an illustrious merchant with considerable wealth and land in many cities.
Born on February 3, 1815, in Newark, Ohio, Roye would benefit from the financial standing of his family and attend one of the best schools – Ohio University in neighbouring Athens, Ohio.
Following the death of his father in 1836, Roye relocated to Terre Haute where he became famous for establishing the largest barber shop in the community, boasting a 79-foot (24 m) high barber pole, “the tallest in western Indiana”.
In the midst of his fame and success was the American Colonisation Society that was then encouraging free African-Americans to move to the colony of Liberia in West Africa to live in a “prejudice-free nation”.
Not having any ties to the United States after the death of his mother in 1840, Roye decided to make that journey. On May 2, 1846, at the age of 31, he left New York with the rest of his family and arrived in Monrovia, Liberia’s capital, June 7, according to sources.
There, he improved and within two years, he was already Liberia’s top shipping merchant. He also became active in Liberian politics and by 1849, he was the Speaker of the Liberian House of Representatives as well as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Liberia from 1865 until 1868.
For one who once said that Liberia was “decreed to champion the black race and should be governed only by ‘pure Africans,’” Roye was in 1870 elected president of Liberia. This made him the first member of Liberia’s True Whig Party (oldest political party in Liberia founded by Americo-Liberians) to serve as President.
“I do not expect immunity from the criticisms of our opponents, nor do I ask for it,” Roye said in his inaugural address.
“But I shall endeavour so to act for the good of the people while allowing our opponents … the utmost latitude in their criticisms … ” he was quoted by a 1996 article written by Vigo County historian Mike McCormick.
His regime lasted for only a year as he was deposed over some lapses in his administration, especially his unpopular loans with Britain. According to Indiana University, when Roye took office in 1870, Liberia’s political climate was unstable largely due to a fiscal crisis.
Roye started a programme of reconstruction with the intention to build new roads, schools, and other infrastructure. He needed funds for such projects, so he went to England to negotiate with London banks.
Following the world competition, conditions worsened in Liberia, as they were not able to make enough revenue from exports. Reports state that the cost of imports was far greater than the income generated by exports of its commodity crops such as rice, timber, palm oil, and coffee
Liberia, thus, defaulted on the loan negotiated by Roye and recession moved Liberia into a series of even larger loans. The economic difficulties brought Liberia under foreign interference and on October 26, 1871, Roye was removed from office in what the University says was the first coup d’état in Africa’s oldest Republic.
It is, however, unclear who was behind the coup d’état as circumstances surrounding the removal of Roye are still sketchy. Roye was jailed a few months after his ouster before he passed away in 1872
The exact date, and how he died after his imprisonment, are also unclear, as sources give varying accounts. The first account is that he escaped from prison and was drowned while attempting to escape to a British ship.
“One author reports that the canoe in which Roye tried to make his escape capsized after which he drowned. The English money, which he had tied around his waist – thought to be the proceeds from the 1870 Loan – was taken from his body and stolen after his body was brought ashore (Huberich). Another author writes that the weight of the money around his waist was the cause of his drowning when he was swimming to a British ship (Banks Henries),” writes the Liberiapastandpresent.org.
Other sources say that Roye died in prison, after being dragged half-naked through the streets of Monrovia following his attempt to escape prison (Karnga, Cassell). That account also states that Roye carried money in a belt when he tried to escape. He was “savagely beaten” after being robbed of the money he carried.
Roye is further believed by other sources to have been dragged to a spot in Ashmun Street where he died. This caused President William Tubman to erect the new building of the True Whig Party (Roye’s party) on the spot he died, said Liberiapastandpresent.org.
Meanwhile, the portrait of Roye in the gallery of the Presidential Mansion in Monrovia notes his date of death as February 11, 1872. Roye was succeeded by his vice president, James Skivring Smith, who governed from 1871 to 1872.