In This Review

Empire of Rubber: Firestone’s Scramble for Land and Power in Liberia
Empire of Rubber: Firestone’s Scramble for Land and Power in Liberia
By Gregg Mitman
New Press, 2021, 336 pp

In 1926, the fledgling Firestone Tire and Rubber Company was looking for a way to reduce its dependence on British suppliers from Southeast Asia, as it tried to keep up with an explosion in the American appetite for car tires. That is how the company came to invest in a rubber plantation in Liberia. Over time, and with help from accommodating governments in the United States and Liberia, the company came to dominate the country’s economy and policymaking to a remarkable extent. Mitman peppers this history with a wealth of fascinating details and interesting characters. Most readers will be surprised to learn, for instance, that one of the early boosters of the venture was the American civil rights leader W. E. B. Du Bois, who would soon regret having believed that Fire-stone could hasten the emergence of an independent African bourgeoisie. Instead, as Mitman demonstrates, Firestone and its supporters in the U.S. government brought to relations with Liberia the attitudes and practices of Jim Crow—even long after World War II. A long succession of Liberian heads of state were willing to play along not least because, with the help of Firestone, they invested in very profitable rubber plantations of their own.