Brief History of Tarpeh and Tappita City
By: Sonkarley Tiatun Beaie
One recent example was an article published in the Liberian LISERV/media by Dr. Rabbi Joe Gbaba, who argues that “there were Krus in the Tappita region during the early 20th century and Tappita was named for and established by a Kru man and Liberian foot soldier named Tarpeh who lived in that region of Nimba County. ” He is not alone, for instance, Dr. Joseph Saye Guannu, had earlier made similar assertion in our casual conversation. This historical information given without evidence had continued to circulate among Liberians for years. As such, the main objective of this article is to refute and clarify the doubt. Specifically, this article focuses on the followings:
The meaning of Tarpeh in Dan
Parents and place of birth of Tarpeh
How the city of Tappita got its name
How Tarpeh died
The Meaning of Tarpeh in Dan
According to the Dan ethnic group, the word tarpeh means to be gashed all over the body by razor grass or some small sharp objects such as sticks, thorns or thorny bush, etc. or generally, an impact on the bare body after passing through a thorny bush or in razor grass.
It was customary in the past for infertile woman to seek medication from traditional herbalists or soothsayers. Some of these herbalists may request the woman to perform a tarpeh ritual, that is, to barely go through a thorny bush or in razor grass and collect a bark or leaf of a tree standing somewhere in the middle of such a difficult terrain in order to prepare herbs to treat the infertility. Fortunately, after conceiving and the child is born, name such as Tarpeh is given to the child to indicate the level of sufferings and long struggles endured before having the child.
Symbolically, tarpeh then, refers to hard struggle and extreme difficulty a barren woman may go through in search for a child. Practically however, it may not always refer to passing through a thorny bush or razor grass, but any form of struggles (i.e., from one doctor to another, one place or country to another, walking in the sunshine or rain, ill-treatment from the husband or some members of the families because of infertility, etc.) such woman encounters before God’s grace shines on her face.
The late King Tarpeh of Tappita was not the only person with that name from Nimba County. There are others from the Dan ethnic group with that name but with no South-east relationship, for instance, the Tarpeh’s families from Loyee, Saclepea Mahn District, David Tarpeh of Firestone Plantation, John Tarpeh (former employee of LAMCO in the 1970s), etc.
Apart from the reason above, naming of child in the Tappita region may not always be directly linked to the child’s ethnic group or origin of the family. Sometimes names are given after someone the family cherishes or since the Bassa and Krahn ethnic groups have closed tie to the Dan group, they have some names in common. One example is Toweh, which is a Krahn’s name and means, the war is over or finished. Yet, Speaker Toweh, after whom Toweh-town in the modern day Boe and Qulla was named, is a typical Dan.
Another undeniable fact that Tarpeh was not a Kru is that cognizant of the rampant tribal differences in those days, it was impossible for a typical Kru-man to establish his rule in a central Dan’s region and become a successful renowned tribal chief.
Parents and place of birth of Tarpeh
Tarpeh was born into the union of Mr. Taiwo and Mrs. Sansouh Taiwo somewhere in the late 1800s. Taiwo was a citizen of Gbaleu or Gweenpea, which is presently called Tarpehpleu or Tappita. Also, Mrs. Sansouh Tarpeh was a citizen originating from Kpeatuo, a small town in Doe Clan, located about 3 miles from Ziah #1.
Gbaleu/Gweenpea was established by a group of migrants who were believed to have migrated from Central Africa via a modern day Ivory Coast. Tribal differences caused them to further move from Ivory Coast to Gbloyi/Gblogueh, a town located about 5 miles east of Tappita city. They were embraced by their hosts, but later relocated to build their settlement along the bank of Gween creek to enjoy their freedom of choice to eat in an attempt to avoid conflict of mixed cultures and traditions.
Notably, the people of Gbloyi/Gblogueh had a taboo, in which they were forbidden by traditional custom and law to eat antelope or black deer as commonly known in the Liberian parlance. Because the new settlers could not adhere to the habit of killing the wild antelopes for meat, which at the time were found in abundance anywhere in the community, they were asked to move from the town to build their settlement somewhere along the bank of the Gween creek to have their freedom. And while there in the new location, their Gblogueh hosts began to joke by referring to them as antelope or black deer eaters, which in the Dan dialect means Gba-yea-leau or in short, Gbaleau. They also called their settlement, Gweenpea, meaning, people along the bank of Gween creek. And as time went on, these two names, Gweenpea and Gbaleau concurrently became the original name of the town where Tarpeh was born.
Presently, some elderly people in the Tappita District still continue to refer to Tappita with the ancient name, Gweenpea or Gbaleau.
How the city of Tappita got its name
During the time Tarpeh rose to the chieftaincy of his area, the central Government based in Monrovia did not have full control of all the hinterland regions. One common example was the Kru’s rebellion in Sinoe, where President Daniel E. Howard in a message delivered on December 6, 1915 to the National Legislature said: “For several years and past a state of unrest has characterized the Kru Coast in Sinoe County, occasionally manifesting itself in sporadic outbreaks” .
Similar resistance occurred in the Tappita region. On one of Tarpeh’s visits to Buchanan, perhaps to buy salt or generally transact business, he came across some friendly government officials. Following their fruitful discussion and dialogue, he got convinced and subsequently asked them to expand the central Government control in the area now called Tappita region. Unfortunately, upon the arrival of the Liberian foot soldiers to fulfill the term of the agreement, they were met by strong resistance from other tribal leaders who opposed the unilateral negotiation made by Tarpeh. A resistant war broke out, but the natives without weapons to fight were defeated after one of their chief warriors, Baweeh from Zuolay was shot and killed in a war called the Battle for Gbaleu. Tarpeh persuaded his fellow tribal leaders and they surrendered to the Liberian foot soldiers around 1903. Thereafter, the soldiers expanded their authorities in the entire Tappita region and further established the second military barrack in a town called Nuopea, located in the modern day central Doe Clan.
Tarpeh being considered the chief negotiator, and coupled with his popularity among the tribal leaders, the original name of his home town (Gbaleu or Gweenpea) was over shadowed and people began to refer to the town as Tarpehpleu. The suffix, “PLEU” which in Dan means “a town of” was later replaced with “TA”, a Kpelle word which has the same meaning thereby calling the city, Tappita.
The reason for the change was ease of communication. The majority of the Liberian foot soldiers sent to Tarpeh region were Kpelle, who mostly used the Kpelle dialect as a form of communication with the Dan and Mano ethnic groups, the inhabitants of the area. The name, Tappita, was then officially proclaimed by the central Government and Tappita later became the Headquarters of the Amalgamated Gio Chiefdom. However, despite the official proclamation, Tappita was only an official name, but in the native tongue of the Dan ethnic group, Tarpehpleu is still being maintained, while the Manos too refer to it as Tarpehpa.
How Tarpeh died
Tarpeh’s death was a misery. After the defeat of the natives in the battle for Gbaleau, most of his kinsmen particularly from around Gbaleu plotted against him. The foot soldiers had committed series of atrocities including rapes against the natives and Tarpeh was accused, saying his alliance with the central Government had caused them the mayhems.
However, his upright assassination was seemed somehow impossible. It would have had serious negative repercussions and another untold suffering; for Tarpeh was still being favored by the foot soldiers, who had already established two bases in the region (the military barrack in Tarpehpleu itself and the second in Nuopea). To implement the plan, they accused him for involvement in witchcraft; apparently knowing that he would not escape from the judgment which is executed through the administration of a poisonous sasswood. They forced him to drink the sasswood substance produced from the Erythrophleum suavolens (a tropical African tree of the legume family, having a poisonous bark). He was ruled guilty according to the etiquette of the sasswood, and the penalty was death, but his freedom was negotiated by Speaker Toweh of Toweh-town. Regrettably, the effect of the poisonous substance deteriorated his body system and died about a year later. He then cursed his kinsmen and accusers for the cruelty meted upon him before his death, and subsequently turned over his traditional royal robe decorated with special style and designs to Speaker Vonleh, a trusted friend and colleague from Doe Clan.