Academic journal article African Economic History

Religious Plurality and Economic Sustainability: Muslim Merchants in the Colonial Economy of Nineteenth Century Freetown

Academic journal article African Economic History

Religious Plurality and Economic Sustainability: Muslim Merchants in the Colonial Economy of Nineteenth Century Freetown

Article excerpt

The relationship between Islam and commerce in Sierra Leone predated the establishment of formal colonial rule by Britain in 1808. Muslims had established trading centers from the savannah region of West Africa to the fringes of the forest dating back to the medieval period, when merchants known as Dyula (Juula) and Wangara began establishing trading communities linking the empires of Ghana, Mali and Songhay with societies outside of the jurisdiction and regions of the respective political units. Muslim merchants created a "commercial diaspora," with Islam serving as the anchor and providing a common legal system for trade. To Muslim merchants, the Shari'a provided a legal code that ensured an atmosphere of general trustworthiness among merchants. Thus, those who wished to participate in the commerce of West Africa often found it necessary to convert to Islam, thereby becoming a part of the regional commercial network.1

This article examines the role of Islam and Islamic values in the development of trade relations between the British colony of Freetown and the interior Muslim states in the nineteenth century. The focus is the social interactions between Krio merchants and their trade counterparts in the interior and the points of negotiation and contestation between groups representing diverse cultural and religious worldviews. The Islamic faith not only facilitated the successful expansion of Krio commercial influences into the interior, but Islam also ensured the survival and viability of the colonial economy as a result of the development of fraternal networks among Muslim Krio and their coreligionists in the hinterland.

The extant literature on the Krio has privileged the successful evangelizing effort of European Christian missionaries among the manumitted slaves and slave trade "recaptives" settled on the Sierra Leone peninsula in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. In secular matters, the historiography has concentrated on Krio hegemony in the professions, particularly the legal and medical fields, as well as on their roles in the colonial bureaucracies of the European imperial powers in West Africa during this period.2 Although Christopher Fyfe documented economic relations between the colony and the hinterland, based on colonial documents, his work did not examine the role of Muslim merchants in detail. This article attempts to fill that lacuna.

By the late eighteenth century, when a settlement for manumitted slaves was founded in the Sierra Leone peninsula, the territories in the hinterland were already under the control of Muslim rulers who subsequently played a crucial role in trade between the interior and the coastal community. Indeed after 1 787, the officials of the Sierra Leone Company were well aware of the importance of the interior Muslim states to the economy of the coastal settlement.3 Mande or Mandinka trading and clerical families, who were Muslims, were in control of the interior and had already usurped the power of local ruling houses in the vicinity of the "Province of Freedom" before 1787. The Sierra Leone Company maintained cordial relations with these dominant social groups, including the Soso, Sarakoule, and Jakhanke.4 Company officials reported a flourishing long distance commercial system involving the distribution of agricultural and mineral resources and relying on the pivotal role of Islamic institutions. As David Skinner has observed, the Sierra Leone government developed a growing interest in the northern rivers because of regional and long distance trade associated with Islamic education and missionary activity.5 According to Skinner, the region produced substantial quantities of rice, salt, palm oil, poultry, camwood, groundnuts, and benni seed, as well as other sundry items including tobacco, cotton, coffee, and cloth. These items were usually exchanged for gold, ivory, slaves, and cattle.

The regional trade in slaves continued even after the promulgation of the British Abolition Act of 1807. …

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