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Africa During the Scramble: The not so Free Towns

By Gary Oswald

Flag of Colonial Sierra Leone

As previously discussed, Sierra Leone began as a utopian private project wherein the black poor of Europe and North America could build their own city in Africa. In 1808, this project, struggling with money and food, was bought out by the British Empire and was run as a crown colony, with a white Governor in charge. Freetown, its capital, became the base of the British West African Squadron during the Blockade of Africa and so where over 50,000 slaves from captured ships were released. These Liberated Africans became loyal to Britain, they set up shops in the boom town of Freetown, converted to Christianity and served in the British militias and bureaucracy not just in Freetown but in Nigeria, Ghana and Gambia as well. Until the 1890s, Freetown educated men were the most prominent Africans in every area of British West Africa.

As Freetown was the base for British power in West Africa, this led to British conquest to secure Freetown's borders. From the 1810s onwards British forces pushed into Temne and Mende Kingdoms to protect Freetown traders, shut down slave traders and, increasingly, install friendly leaders. Moreover the British were active in forcing those leaders into signing treaties of protection, wherein they promised not to attack Freetown and follow British demands. British expansion was initially somewhat reluctant, with numerous villages, threatened by France, Monrovia and Samori Ture, asking to join Sierra Leone and being rejected. But it stepped up hugely in the 1880s and 1890s as the Scramble kicked into gear, with armed caravans of British diplomats signing up dozens of polities in a single tour, though, as ever, the treaties didn't really give the British the full powers they actually ended up using. The Army would then enforce peace throughout that area, in terms of punishing anybody that attacked a tribe that had signed a treaty with the British.

The result was modern-day Sierra Leone became divided into two very different polities, the Colony of Sierra Leone and the Protectorate of Sierra Leone. The colony, Freetown, Bonthe and their immediate neighbourhoods, were dominated by the liberated Africans and the descendants of the poor blacks. They had a westernised elite of prominent rich creoles who ran newspapers, organised unions, were educated in England and held political positions within the colony. For instance, Sir Samuel Lewis, the first Mayor of Freetown, was a black African who was knighted by Queen Victoria.

The protectorate did not have this westernised elite. It was still run by the traditional chiefs under British protection. And the two areas did not see themselves as having much in common as they had drastically different experiences.

The interior, the protectorate, is the majority of the modern day country and two conflicts, more than anything else, defined the history of the Protectorate under British Rule, the Hut Tax Revolt of 1898 and the Slave Revolt of 1926 and those are the subjects of this article.

The governor of Sierra Leone in 1898, Colonel Frederic Cardew was deeply unhappy with the situation on the ground. He clashed with Lewis and the other prominent leaders of the Colony, thinking that they were half savage blacks who shouldn't have been trusted with political power or freedom of press. But he also viewed the Protectorate as a money sink. He had to patrol it with his men to protect it and enforce the laws but it gave him very little in taxes to fund that compared to the more productive colony. He attempted to fix that by introducing a new Hut Tax. The owner of a four-roomed hut was to be taxed ten shillings a year; those with smaller huts would pay five shillings and any unoccupied dwellings would have to have their tax paid by the Chiefs. If money was not available, the tax could be paid with equivalent amounts of food or labour instead. Cardew also demanded that the chiefs organize their own residents to maintain the roads that his solders used.

This was greeted with outrage by the Chiefs, the tax was more than the dwellings were worth and the people of the protectorate relied on subsidence farming to survive, they neither had the spare food to pay the taxes or the time to maintain the roads. Moreover this kind of direct taxation had simply never happened before. There had never been a centralised government in Sierra Leone and not only had the chiefs not been conquered, the treaties they had signed with the UK had not included this tribute. Cardew was overstepping his authority.

Cardew was a soldier, not an administrator and it is possible he simply underestimated the disruptions this would cause. It is however more likely that he was deliberately pitching the tax too high in order to demand free labour, which was a tactic the British often used. In comparison Zululand had a hut tax of 14 shillings a year, though it was significantly richer.

When 22 Chiefs sent a petition to Cardew through Lewis pleading for the tax to be removed, Cardew identified one of their number, Bai Bureh, as the ring leader of this resistance, though Bureh was by all accounts a loyal ally of the British in other matters. Cardew moved to arrest Bureh, hoping that by making an example of him, he would force the other Chiefs to back down too.

Bai Bureh, Chief of the Timini when a prisoner at Sierra Leone in 1898. An original photograph by Lieutenant Arthur Greer

Instead it kickstarted months of bitter fighting, some of the most brutal the British would fight in West Africa. Bai Bureh would fight a guerrilla war in the North while in the South there was a mass uprising. The Creole residents of Freetown, viewed within the protectorate as the key to British power, were targeted and massacred by the rebels, something that poisoned relations between the Protectorate and the Colony.

The British resorted to scorched earth warfare in response, burning crops, killing cattle and in particular destroying the stockades and fortified walls that surrounded Temne and Mende villages. It was an expensive and bloody affair for the British, but they won. Bureh surrendered and the Hut Tax remained in law, after a bitter debate on the matter in Britain, though reduced to only 5 shillings for any hut at first. Ability to collect was however limited and huge areas of the country simply did not pay it.

The effects on the interior of this new tax led to the arrival of Lebanese traders in the 1890s. These new arrivals were banned from buying land but instead set up shops and conducted street trades. Their presence helped move the Africans into a cash economy, to pay for the Hut Tax, and encouraged a scaling up of agriculture to meet the new demands. With the Lebanese considered good credit risks by European banks where as Africans weren't, they were able to secure investments on behalf of African farmers at the price of tying them into an exclusive contract. The Lebanese were the principle source of credit and increasingly tied African farmers to them in a debt cycle, allowing their own shops to increase the mark up on goods though some of this money would be invested back in the country, A lot of the infrastructure credited to the British Empire in terms of roads and railways were actually funded by the Lebanese thus allowing the Chiefs to meet their responsibilities in terms of maintaining infrastructure.

The Hut Tax War also led to the empowerment of a new force, the Paramount Chiefs, which they appointed from the pre-existing headmen within the Protectorate to collect taxes and enforce laws and were fully supported by the British. This grouping was made essentially from those who hadn't rebelled against the Hut Tax and so were eager collaborators. These Chiefs came from the existing ruling families but had the existing balances of power on them, such as the ability of their underlings to appeal to neighbouring Kings adjudicators in conflict, removed. Instead the British made each Chief the highest authority in their land, both to simplify the legal system and to bind the Chiefs further to them. This also artificially froze the natural turnover of leaders and created a family aristocracy.

The British takeaway of the rebellion was a reluctance to further interfere with the Protectorate directly, so the expected emancipation of domestic slaves in the Protectorate never happened as a result of the resistance of Bureh and his compatriots.

By the 1920s however, that emancipation was only a matter of time. It was much discussed in the newspapers and on the council, with the main sticking point being what compensation would be offered to the slave owners. Weirdly to us the progressive view at the time, as represented by African Socialists like Herbert Bankole-Bright, was that compensation must be offered to prevent further poverty within the protectorate. In 1925, a law of gradual emancipation was passed. New slaves could no longer be taken but existing slaves would not be freed to avoid compensation needing to be paid. This probably would have been the new status quo if it wasn't for Kodogbo Sabu.

Sabu was the headman of a slave village near Karina. In 1926, upon hearing that he would likely die a slave, he rebelled. Freeing himself and a number of other slaves, he led a migration towards the Colony, hoping to escape the protectorate and thus be freed by default as a runaway slave. The Slaves' Owners gathered up their own posse of armed men. They captured the runaway slaves, killing many of them, and flogging the rest as punishment before returning them to their work.

The British restored order and in 1927, seven of the Slave owners were tried for assault and riot, while one of the slaves was charged with manslaughter. To the general shock of the British, the slave owners were all acquitted, while the slave was found guilty. This was a fair reflection of the laws at the time, where Slavery was not illegal within the protectorate and was relatively uncontroversial within Freetown, where public mood was still focused on the Railway Workers strike of 1926 and the British dissolution of the black dominated Freetown City Council after it supported the strikers. It was however a public relations disaster for Stanley Baldwin's government with Sydney Buxton of the Liberal party making much of it in Parliament.

On January 1st 1928, the slaves of Sierra Leone were finally freed and no compensation was to be paid, leading to fears, in the Colony, of Freetown being overrun by ex-slaves, something that was largely avoided. The slaves mostly stayed in the interior and indeed many still were forced by the chiefs to provide free labour in places of taxes or as prison labour.

In order to indirectly compensate the slave owning chiefs, a law was also passed which placed ultimate ownership of all land in the hands of the chiefs and which banned the sale of land to those born outside the region, allowing the chiefs to charge rent on the use of land for agriculture.

However a lot of previously rich slave owners had still lost a major part of their income, which pushed the economy of the Protectorate away from agriculture and towards mining. With their Lebanese middleman providing the credit, the chiefs began to find diamonds, which they smuggled out to the black market to avoid the Colony's export taxes while also charging surface rent from miners.

The Chiefs also took advantage of the corruption of the British administration to give themselves useless jobs within that administration. According to a 1948 report, 58% of the revenue of Sierra Leone was spent on a public works programme which was largely run by the Protectorate chiefs and to whom the money mostly went while the actual improvements to infrastructure were minimal. Against the increasingly active and politically rebellious Colony, who had no devolved local government since the dismissal of the Freetown City Council, the British openly favoured the Chiefs who benefited so obviously from British rule.

I. T. A. Wallace-Johnson, one of a number of increasingly radical politicians emerging from the Colony of Sierra Leone

When the path to independence began to be paved in 1949 the residents of the colony, primarily creoles, didn't want to be joined together with the protectorate. They knew they'd be outnumbered by the interior and felt their interests would never be represented in a united Sierra Leone. For a start Freetown was where most of the factories were, it had an educated workforce, all the tools needed and they were making things, beer cans, shoes, etc. that people in Freetown were buying. But they never managed to compete with imported goods, the majority of products bought at any point were European made. By the 70s most of the factories had shut down. This was because the Protectorate had huge diamond mines and so there was no effort to protect the factories with tariffs. Frictionless trade benefited the mine owners at the cost of the factories and thus hurt Freetown.

Thus the Creole party aimed for independence of the colony and the protectorate as different countries or at the very least as a federation. In the 1951 elections, the separatist forces won the majority of the elected seats within the colony but the pro unification People's party were kept into power by the unelected chiefs of the interior (the legislative council was set up so that there were votes only in the colony, thanks to a limited suffrage and the elected members from the colony were vastly outnumbered by appointed seats held by the British and their interior allies). This increasingly led to anger, the Creole members on the council attempted to block any legislation and stall out the legislature while protests, strikes, and riots were organised within the colony. But the British refused to budge and the protectorate united in support of the People's party out of a reaction to creole hostility to them (the desire for partition was often tinged with racist beliefs that the protectorate people were savages).

it is perhaps interesting to imagine what would have happened had the British blinked during the riots and agreed to the Colony and Protectorate gaining independence separately, but it is unlikely. British doctrine at the time was largely about making sure each country was large enough to stand alone when independent and they would have bene terrified at the, black and poor, Freetown instead voting for integration.

In the next election, 1957, many more seats were elected rather than appointed but the People's party dominated the interior, which held the majority of the seats, and even the colony seats voted instead for a pan African socialist party, the separatists got 0 seats. The People's party quickly drove Sierra Leone towards independence and, much as they had feared, the Creoles were side-lined by the Temne and the Mende.

Within the newly Independent Sierra Leone, the Chiefs were an important part of the People's party's coalition and so maintained their power on a local level, ruling largely as robber barons, gaining control of the justice and education system and impoverishing rivals through their ability to set taxes. This undemocratic structure drove the country on its path towards Dictatorship and Civil War.

There is a tendency to assume indirect rule was always a better fate for Africans than direct rule, but, even if one accepts the idealised view of pre colonial African power structures (and I don't), this ignores the way in which the nature of colonial control warps the existing structures regardless. It centralises power and removes the natural limits on it. A Chief in pre colonial Sierra Leone who acted tyrannically would be overthrown. But a Chief in colonial Sierra Leone could, and did, call on the British police to prevent that. What got you removed was not tyranny but disloyalty and resistance to collect taxes. Bai Bureh was overthrown but the Slave owners who killed Kodogbo Sabu were not and this natural selection had its effects.


Gary Oswald is the editor of the 'Grapeshot and Guillotines' Anthology.


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