The Sex Trade in Colonial West Africa: In the Final of Her Three-Part Series, Carina Ray Looks at the Last Stage of the Protracted Struggle to Bring an End to the Traffic in Women and Children for the Purposes of Prostitution in Colonial British West Africa

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In the first installment of this three part series, we explored the deeply racist assumptions about the sexuality of Africans that underpinned the long-standing refusal, on the part of colonial administrators, to introduce stricter anti-prostitution measures in the Gold Coast, as Ghana was then known. The colonial authorities argued: (1) that the sex trade flourished because West African sex workers "enjoyed the life" and (2) that Africans in general were so promiscuous that their sexual behavior could not be regulated by the law.

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The second installment focused on the unprecedented rise in prostitution between European military personnel and West African sex workers brought about by the deployment of thousands of European and American troops to the Gold Coast during World War II. What we discovered was that not even the costly effects of escalating rates of venereal disease amongst military men and the public embarrassment caused by the open trade in sex in the colony's main towns, could trump the racist ideologies that undergirded the government's continued unwillingness to crackdown on prostitution.

By late March 1941, however, the Colonial Office in London was forced to request its wayward government in the Gold Coast to devise measures to combat the traffic and reduce prostitution.

Always keen to avoid public criticism, or at the very least, to be seen as responsive to it, the Colonial Office's request followed the appearance, two weeks earlier in West Africa magazine, of an expose entitled The Social Question: A Startling Disclosure on the sex trade.

Subsequent press reports appearing both in Britain and West Africa continued to highlight the severity of the problem and offered an important impetus for Britain and Nigeria to actively address the traffic. The Gold Coast government, however, responded to the Colonial Office in a pessimistic fashion and seemed little concerned by the negative press attention. Not surprisingly, this obstinate attitude was rooted in racist ideas about African sexualities.

Attorney-General Blackall, the leading opponent of introducing stricter anti-prostitution legislation in the Gold Coast, argued that it would be futile to enact laws to prohibit the traffic of women and children from Nigeria into the Gold Coast.

According to him, these women, especially those from Calabar in Nigeria, often simultaneously inhabited licit and illicit social worlds, thereby rendering it near impossible for authorities to distinguish between women desiring to enter the Gold Coast for legitimate purposes, such as traders, and those entering for prostitution.

Blackall further argued, by way of contrast, that it was possible to keep foreign prostitutes from entering the UK not only because it already had a passport system, but more specifically because it was visibly possible to distinguish between immoral and moral European women in a way that was not possible with African women:

"It does not take a Sherlock Holmes to spot a French lady of easy virtue when she arrives at Dover. But I doubt whether even the eagle eye of Capt. Nottingham [commissioner of police in the Gold Coast] could discern the difference between a Calabar petty trader and a Calabar prostitute," argued Blackall. Such a remark obviously reveals more about his racist attitudes and assumptions, than it does about the women he presumed to so authoritatively speak about.

While increased numbers of female sex workers is a widely acknowledged correlate of significant increases in the number of single or unattached male labourers in a given area, there is also substantial evidence which points to the sustained and widespread economic activity of Nigerian female traders in the Gold Coast. Thus, while there were large numbers of Nigerian women involved in sex work in the Gold Coast, it was simply not true that all Nigerian women in the colony were sex workers. …