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Meet Edward Roye, the First Igbo Lawyer Who Became Liberia’s 5th President in 1870

Edward James Roye, born on February 3, 1815 in Newark, Ohio, was a descendant of the Igbo people of present-day Nigeria who served as the fifth President of Liberia from 1870 to his overthrow in 1871 and subsequent violent death.

Roye had previously served as the 4th Chief Justice of Liberia from 1865 until 1868. He was the first member of Liberia’s True Whig Party to serve as President.

In 1846, attracted by the American Colonization Society’s promotion of the relocation of African Americans to the colony of Liberia in West Africa, Roye at the age of 31 emigrated to the colony with his family. There he set up business as a merchant. The next year, the colony gained independence. Within three years of his arrival, Roye became active in Liberian politics, serving as a representative and Speaker of the Liberian House of Representatives, and as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Liberia.

Roye was inaugurated as President of Liberia on January 3, 1870. In the decades after 1868, escalating economic difficulties weakened the state’s dominance over the coastal indigenous tribal peoples. Conditions worsened, the cost of imports was far greater than the income generated by exports of its commodity crops of coffee, rice, palm oil, sugarcane, and timber. Liberia tried desperately to modernize its largely agricultural economy.


A portrait of Edward James Roye. Pic credit: Scioto Historical

In 1871, Roye tasked the Speaker of the House of Representatives, William Spencer Anderson, with negotiating a new loan from British financiers. Anderson secured $500,000 under strict terms from the British consul-general, David Chinery, but was heavily criticised, and was eventually arrested. Anderson was apparently tried the following year for his part in securing the loan. He was found not guilty, but was shot to death while leaving the courthouse.

Roye was removed from the presidency on 26 October 1871. The circumstances surrounding his ouster remain imprecise, although historians believe that he was deposed in a coup d’état. It is not known who carried out the coup d’état. He was jailed for a few months afterward. His unpopular loans with Britain may have given his enemies the reasons to depose him.

No specific historical record is available about the date and circumstances of Roye’s death. Varying accounts indicate that he was killed on February 11 or February 12, 1872. Another account suggests that he drowned on February 12, 1872 while trying to reach a British ship in Monrovia harbor.

The portrait of President 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.

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