Born in 1815 into a prosperous African-American family in Newark, Ohio, Roye was a descendant of the Igbo people of present-day Nigeria. His father, John Roye, managed a ferry across the Wabash River at Terre Haute, Indiana. He also acquired considerable land in Terre Haute, as well as Vandalia across the river in Illinois.
As a result of the family's financial standing, young Edward was able to attend Ohio University in neighboring Athens, Ohio. In 1836, upon the premature death of his father, Roye relocated to Terre Haute, where he established the community's largest barber shop, serving both whites and blacks. This was a respected trade as, before production of the safety razor, many men used a barber regularly for shaves as well as haircuts. His shop advertised by a 79-foot (24 m)-high barber pole, "the tallest in western Indiana".
Roye married here and had a family.
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. Before being elected as president, he served 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.
As Roye took office, the country was in the midst of political instability exacerbated by a fiscal crisis. He began a program of reconstruction with the goal of building new roads and schools. In order to raise the funds for these projects, Roye sailed to England to conduct negotiations for financing with London banks. The terms of the loans were severe; among other things, the interest rate on the loan was 7 percent. Roye hastily agreed to the loans without consulting the legislature. Liberia received approximately $90,000, while the state issued bonds for the amount of $400,000.
Because of increasing world competition from Brazilian coffee, European sugar beets, and steamers, Liberia was unable to generate sufficient export revenue. It defaulted on the loan negotiated by Roye with British banks. A recession forced Liberia to take on a series of ever larger loans. The decline of Liberia's exports and its inability to pay its debts resulted in a large measure of foreign interference.
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.