Academic journal article The International Journal of African Historical Studies

"Freedom but Nothing Else": The Legacies of Slavery and Abolition in Post-Slavery Sierra Leone, 1928-1956 *

Academic journal article The International Journal of African Historical Studies

"Freedom but Nothing Else": The Legacies of Slavery and Abolition in Post-Slavery Sierra Leone, 1928-1956 *

Article excerpt

In 1955, as the British government began preparations to transfer power to local elites in Sierra Leone, a series of strikes and riots swept across the country, originating in the unionized workforce of Freetown and culminating in mob violence in the southern regions of the Protectorate. Rioters targeted the railway, official colonial residences, and the farms and houses of chiefs and headmen, all symbols of the forced labor demands of the colonial government and rural elites and chiefs. Colonial investigators concluded that the unrest was the direct result of a failure to re-shape economic and social relations after the legal abolition of slavery in 1928. This paper traces two particular resonances of post-slavery history in Sierra Leone, from the abolition of slavery in 1928 to the riots around decolonization in 1955-56. The first was the state-led efforts to engineer a transition to freedom for ex-slaves that would keep them engaged as willing workers. The second was the ways in which Sierra Leonean elites sought to control the labor of the ex-slave classes by relegating them to the position of a marginalized "youth."

Long-standing practices of exploitation of the labor of the "youth"-unmarried men, women, and children-as laborers, apprentices, and servants continued despite the legal abolition of so-called "domestic slavery" in 1928. The legislation was couched by a series of caveats allowing the colonial government, in collaboration with a small chiefly elite, to continue to coerce unpaid labor for infrastructure and development projects. The policy of indirect rule also allowed chiefs and other elites considerable latitude to profit from unpaid labor. This "communal labor" came under increasing criticism through the 1930s with a series of strikes and protest movements that challenged both the authority of Sierra Leonean elites to coerce labor as well as the British imperial notion that the African laboring classes needed to be forced to work. In the post-war period, "communal labor" was gradually replaced by "community development," a scheme that also relied on the coercion of labor.

In the interaction between the colonial government and Sierra Leonean workers and political activists discourses drawn from the slave trade abolition period were used to press home political agendas and explain social relations in Sierra Leone. The prejudices of Europeans, forged in the pro-slavery rhetoric of the eighteenth century, are evident in colonial racist assumptions and superstitions about the need to force Sierra Leoneans to work. The paternalistic logic of abolition, which held that ex-slave classes were in need of "human development" to become functioning workers, was carried over into these development schemes. In response to these schemes, the ex-slave classes and those who campaigned on their behalf frequently raised the connection between imperial labor policies and indirect rule, and the earlier depredations of slave traders. Resistance to these labor policies was framed as a transnational resistance of Africans and the African Diaspora against exploitation with the links between Africa and her Diasporas reaffirmed through memorialization of the slave trade.

The Logic of Abolition

Sierra Leone was chosen in 1787 as the location for a radical slave trade abolitionist plan to establish a settlement of free Black colonists in Africa. The colony's backers believed that the colony would demonstrate how the African Diaspora could be re-settled in Africa and effectively transfer ideals of free trade, civilization, and Christianity to indigenous communities. This "Province of Freedom" would serve as an example to the rest of the world of how Africa could be integrated into global trade systems, without recourse to the trade in slaves. Despite its hopeful, almost utopian origins, by the onset of the nineteenth century, the settlement was beset by disease, hunger, and hostility from its neighbors.1 At this point, Zachary Macaulay was appointed Governor and promoted a system of apprenticeship to "civilize" the ex-slaves who formed the majority of the new colonists. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.