If asked to quickly draw an image of a colonial officer in Africa, most of us would sketch a white man dressed in a stiff khaki uniform with a pith helmet shading him from the tropical sun. While our imaginary officer's size, shape, and apparel would vary from person to person, one attribute would almost surely remain the same regardless of who was doing the drawing: the officer would be white. To be sure, the vast majority of colonial officers were white, and more specifically white men. In British West Africa, however, thousands of West Indian men were also employed as colonial officers. Strikingly, regardless of their racial backgrounds, these officers were categorised as European by the colonial administration's system of official racial classification. This system organised officers into the category of either "European" or "Native" (indigenous African), with job postings and attendant salary and benefits determined by this classification.
In her fascinating study entitled "West Indians in West Africa, 1808-1880: The African Diaspora in Reverse", Nemata Blyden explains that the impetus for hiring West Indians in the latter part of the early 19th century was to counteract the shortage of European officials employed in British West Africa, and more specifically in Sierra Leone's colonial administration. An 1839 fever epidemic that killed several European colonists heightened concerns about European mortality and further reduced the willingness of Europeans to apply for positions in Sierra Leone. As of 1840, when the colony's government began recruiting West Indians, it specifically targeted West Indians of African descent.
In part, the Colonial Office saw this recruitment effort as an important means of cooling political agitation on the part of West Indians who were increasingly dissatisfied with the limited opportunities for career advancement available to them at home because of the colour bar on the holding of public office.
The idea that West Indians could satisfy their career ambitions abroad in Sierra Leone and thereby ease domestic political tensions was complemented by the erroneous perception that they were more resistant to tropical illnesses and better suited to the climate than Europeans. While the administration viewed West Indians and Africans as sharing a common racial/biological heritage, it saw West Indians as culturally distinct (read superior) and hoped that they would favourably influence Africans to adopt Western education and values. According to Blyden, many West Indians appear to have held similar ideas, particularly as these related to spreading the "benefits" of Western education and Christianity amongst African communities. Having envisioned themselves as "sons of Africa", they were now returning to do their part in the "civilising mission."
Given the prominence of these racial considerations in the recruitment of West Indians, it is paradoxical then that they were officially classified by the colonial administration as "Europeans".
During the 1840s and 1850s, West Indians occupied various high-ranking posts in the colonial administration in Sierra Leone-serving with distinction and honour, as doctors, council members, chief justices, queen's advocates, and significantly three of the colony's governors were West Indians.
Yet, according to Blyden, by the late 1850s the presence of West Indians in the Sierra Leonean administration began to provoke discontent amongst both Europeans and the colony's "black settlers" and their creole descendents. While many Europeans resented holding positions subordinate to non-white West Indians, some black settlers and creoles felt excluded from government posts, which they believed educated members of their community could fill just as successfully as West Indians.
Colonial officials also increasingly argued that settlers and creoles were less likely to agitate for political reforms than were West Indians. …