Magazine article New African

The Sex Trade in Colonial West Africa (Part 2): In the Second of Her Three-Part Series, Carina Ray Continues to Uncover the Racial Politics That Underpinned the Gold Coast Colony's Unusually Lenient Laws on Prostitution

Magazine article New African

The Sex Trade in Colonial West Africa (Part 2): In the Second of Her Three-Part Series, Carina Ray Continues to Uncover the Racial Politics That Underpinned the Gold Coast Colony's Unusually Lenient Laws on Prostitution

Article excerpt

In the first installment, 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. Namely, colonial authorities argued: (1) that the sex trade flourished because West African prostitutes "enjoyed the life" and (2) that Africans in general were so promiscuous that their sexual behaviour could not be regulated by law.

With the onset of World War II, a new dynamic to the colony's sex-trade problem quickly emerged: rampant prostitution between European military personnel and West African sex workers. Yet, as we shall soon find out, 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 crack down on prostitution.

In the months preceding the summer of 1941, there was an influx of European personnel belonging to the British military, especially the Royal Air Force (RAF), in the capital Accra and the coastal town of Takoradi. Takoradi's small airport was transformed into a major RAF base used to assemble aircraft for the British forces in North Africa and the Middle East. In addition to the European military personnel resident in Takoradi, there was also an American presence there. Yet, it was Accra that became the most significant base of operation for the Americans. In 1941, the US Army and Air Force opened a base in Accra; by July 1942 the US Air Transport Command was relocated from Cairo to Accra where it established its Africa-Middle East Wing.


The volume of the American operation in Accra is indicated by the fact that between 200 and 300 American planes landed daily in Accra for maintenance and refuelling throughout 1942 and early 1943.

The skyrocketing number of foreign military men was identified by the Gold Coast's commissioner of police, E.C. Nottingham, as the cause of an "increase in the number of women who earn their living by prostitution with Europeans".

Commensurate with the increase in inter-racial prostitution was an escalation in the number of European military personnel infected with venereal diseases, which according to Nottingham, was provoking disquiet amongst the medical authorities and provided "an additional reason why these women who are a danger to health should be removed from the immediate vicinity of the large camps housing European personnel".

Not surprisingly, Commissioner Nottingham singled out Accra and Takoradi, where the largest populations of foreign military personnel were to be found, as the towns in which "the conduct of these women is causing embarrassment". Typical of gendered discourses on prostitution, the men who hired prostitutes were not accused of constituting a public health threat or of causing embarrassment.

So openly practised was prostitution in Accra that Nottingham reported that "recognised 'stands' have become existent at which women nightly offer themselves for the purpose of prostitution".

The increased number of dances and other social functions to support wartime charities, like the highly lucrative Spitfires Fund, also became fertile places for prostitution; it was even alleged that sexual indecencies were occurring at the functions themselves.

Promoters of the dances, most likely Lebanese immigrants, who owned the majority of the colony's dancehalls, were blamed for encouraging the attendance of prostitutes by selling them "single ladies' tickets" at prices far reduced from the rate charged to single men and couples.


In explaining why the situation had gotten so out of control, Nottingham once again highlighted the way in which the colony's unsatisfactory anti-prostitution laws kept the hands of the police tied:

"In the Gold Coast, police have no power to control these women or to proceed against prostitutes--not being Europeans--who behave in such manner and I urge that legislation similar to that which exists in Nigeria may be enacted whereby some measure of control can be obtained over the movements of this class of person. …

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