"Doorway to Success?": Reconstructing African Careers in European Business from Company House Magazines and Oral History Interviews

Article excerpt


The largely literate African employees of European businesses during the colonial and postcolonial period have not been studied as a group, unlike miners, railway workers and colonial intermediaries.2 This group has nevertheless been of great importance. Many of its members became part of the core of the management of African-owned enterprises and organizations, others started their own businesses or became successful politicians.3 African employees of European business, alongside government employees, formed the basis of the rapidly growing middle classes during the period after the Second World War. They gave their children a Western-style education, often at well-respected schools. In many local communities the "manager" became a figure of respect. Many employees were elected to traditional office as chiefs. Such successes were not limited to those employees who made it into management. For example, a carpenter with a steady career with a European company could build and own several houses. These African employees domesticated capitalism in West Africa, mediated changes in consumption and the rise of a consumer society, and adopted European expectations of career progression and life cycle. Working for a European business, they also found themselves at important sites of contestation during colonial and postcolonial political struggles.4

To reconstruct the experiences of African employees, we have two main categories of sources: written company records, and oral history interviews with former employees. Unfortunately, when historians conducted their interviews on oral traditions for their now classic studies on precolonial African societies, they did not record the personal histories of the literate Africans whom they met and who provided many of their contacts.5 Most of these intermediaries have now passed away, and for information about their careers we depend largely on company records that are often incomplete or inaccessible. This article reflects on the use of these sources to reconstruct African careers. It is limited to one company, the United Africa Company (UAC) and its employees in Ghana. UAC was a large trading company with its head office in London. It was a wholly owned subsidiary of the multinational Unilever, but operated as a virtually independent business.6 UAC had extensive operations in Ghana and Nigeria, where it was highly visible, as well as in a number of other African countries, including Congo, Kenya, Côte d'Ivoire, and Sierra Leone. It occupied a dominant position in the import and export trades, and during the 1950s it employed over 40,000 Africans in Ghana and Nigeria alone, mainly as office clerks, storekeepers and laborers.7

The archive of the United Africa Company is held at the Unilever company archives in Port Sunlight, UK, where it forms the UAC collection.8 It contains the records created and kept at the Head Office in London ("UAC House"), as well as those records created in Africa (and elsewhere) that had been sent to London for reasons of day-to-day business or company governance. It is a very large collection, a substantial part of which was created by UAC's operations in Ghana. The Ghanaian material in the archive is nevertheless only a small selection of the total amount of documentation that was created there. More importantly, it is not a random sample. The files of the Personnel Department, for instance, include over a thousand staff cards detailing the careers of its African managers, but none for employees below the level of "management probationer;" presumably the cards relating to these lower-ranking staff never made it to London. The records of the Personnel Department include some files on particular projects, such as the revision of salaries, reorganisations of procedures for training and promotion of staff, recruitment drives, and the review of the pension fund. The staff cards mentioned provide basic biographical, career and salary information for a large number of employees. …