From Sierra Leone Studies, No. 3, December, 1954
The Evolution of the Native Affairs Department

By J. D. Hargreaves

This paper, which was originally read to a meeting of the Sierra Leone Society on 8th June, 1954, is based on the records of the Aborigines and Native Affairs Departments in the Sierra Leone archives. There are eleven large copy-books of Lawson’s letters and memoranda (cited here as G(overnment) I(nterpreter’s) L(etter) B(ook); nine similar volumes consisting mainly of Parkes’ correspondence and minutes (these I cite as N(ative) A(ffairs) L(etter) B(ook), even for the years 1888—1890, when it was still, strictly speaking, the Aborigines Department); two separate Minute Books for 1890—1902; seven copy-books containing Governors’ letters to chiefs, etc., 1862—1889; nine Arabic letter-books; and a large collection of letters received and Minute Papers (M.P.), which are not in all cases sorted for use. I have examined this material selectively, reading perhaps 10 per cent of the whole. Once again I must acknowledge my debt to Mr. C. H. Fyfe, who from his unrivalled knowledge of the archives has supplied me with some valuable references.

It is perhaps anomalous to discuss the institutions through which the Colonial government conducted its relations with the interior in the later nineteenth century without examining the policy which those institutions were intended to carry out, for each helps to shape the other. But on the formulation and execution of that policy much research still needs to be done—in London even more than in Freetown. My more modest purpose here is to comment, on the basis of documentary evidence, on methods and machinery evolved for dealing with what, throughout the nineteenth century, remained essentially strange and unfamiliar problems.
We speak as if methods and machinery were freely evolved by governments. Yet often, in studying the early institutions of a tropical dependency, one feels that their general shape has been very largely predetermined. After taking into account the invariable shortage of revenue, the almost equally general ignorance of the colonizers about the way indigenous societies really work, and the sort of people available for recruitment as public servants—well, the historian may then conclude that the policy-makers were left with less freedom of action than they imagined. It may be in the working, rather than the planning, of a department that personalities are most important; certainly the one discussed here could illustrate the adage, “an institution is but the lengthened shadow of a man.”
   Before, as well as after, the British Parliamentary Committee of 1865, governmental policy in the interior of Sierra Leone had

pragmatic and limited purposes. The rights and wrongs of the interminable intertribal wars and raids were complex, unfamiliar, and in themselves of little direct interest to the Colony. Some Governors, of martial tendency, might be tempted to launch out and secure justice for the oppressed, territory for the Colony, or glory for themselves; but the general rule was of non-intervention and Olympian impartiality. “I cannot interfere in the disputes
between yourselves and the Soosoos,” wrote Governor Blackall to an unnamed Temne chief on 23rd May, 1864; “but,” he added, with a shrewdly-phrased benevolence, “I trust that God will give the Victory to the Right.”
But this aloofness had frequently to be modified if colonial interests in the interior were to be protected. First of these interests was the protection of the British subjects, trading on the lower reaches of every navigable river from the Nunez to the Mano, from the interference brought by tribal wars; and the desire to bolster the precarious colonial revenue by developing new trade- routes towards Kankan, Ségou, Timbuctou, and other great trading cities of the Soudan. Falaba, though too remote to be reached without a long organized expedition, had an especial importance as long as it seemed the key to the Soudan; though when the routes from Falaba to Kambia and Port Loko were closed by tribal war, as in 1876, attention was switched to the alternative route, from Timbo by way of Mellacourie. Very occasionally—as in Koya and the Sherbro in 1861, as might have happened in the Mellacourie in 18651—concern for established trade-routes might compel a reluctant extension of Imperial jurisdiction. But the normal answer of the Colonial Government to an outbreak of war in the interior was a letter of warning or admonition to the Chief concerned; an exchange of presents, with a guarded offer of “good offices”; sometimes a mission to the scene by the Governor or some  senior official, which might end with the signature of treaties of trade and friendship; in extreme cases, a naval expedition or the landing of a small military force. Even these restricted means could rarely be used more than a score of miles from the river-heads. To the commitment implied in any establishment of permanent residents in the interior, the climate of British opinion was strongly opposed.

1Chamberlayne to Cardwell, 66, 22nd June, 1865. Cardwell to Chamberlayne, 613, 22nd November, 1865.

There were also matters of a more specific nature to which the Colonial Government had to attend. British subjects up-country would claim the protection of the Crown in cases of damage inflicted on their property or their persons, or the imposition by chiefs of levies on trade; the chiefs in turn might complain of the lawless or unfriendly behaviour of British subjects. Such cases increased in mumber as the river trade passed more and more completely from the hands of European merchants, working on a moderately large scale and relatively amenable to the supervision of the government, into those of an increasing number of small-scale Creole traders; and as these latter mover moved further afield.1 Then there were allegations to be investigated that free persons had been enslaved on

British soil--balanced on the side of the chiefs by complaints that British subjects (not encouraged by the government 2) were encouraging domestic slaves to enter the Colony to claim their freedom.
   In addition to these problems, which could not in any case have been ignored, there had since 1836 at least (and probably earlier) been a deliberate policy of extending a degree of official hospitality to Mohammedan traders, or "caravans", coming to Freetown from the interior. The purpose seems to have been threefold; to encourage the traders to return, to build up a good reputation for the Colony among the Mohammedan peoples of the interior, and to obtain information about trade-routes, trade prospects, and the political situation generally, in these almost totally unknown regions.3 The success of this policy was reflected in the figures which were maintained about these "caravans"--figures, incidentally, which will be a valuable source to the brave man who tries

1 GILB. Lawson's report of a journey to Magbele and Rokel, 30th June, 1873.

2 GILB. Lawson to Bai Mauro, N. Bullom, 30th December, 1874 (cf. to Col. Sec., 6th December, 1873). "You know yourself that it is not the policy of this Government to induce or encourage any of the Chief's subjects to desert them and when any of such deserters incline to return themselves this Government never interfere, but by the Queen's law, as you know yourself, they or any other person are not to be forced or taken out of the Queen's territory against their will... Much precaution should be observed--but if that man and woman choose to return back to their country of their own will, nobody would prevent their doing so."

3 GILB. Lawson Memo., 9th October, 1873. This contains an interesting sidelight on the vagueness of contemporary knowledge of the interior; an Arab returning to Fez through Kankan and Timbuctou was asked to make careful inquiries for news of Dr Livingstone.

to write the internal history of West Africa in the nineteenth century.
   After 1852, the man on whom the conduct of such business centred was Thomas George Lawson, who in that year, after six years in temporary Government service, was appointed “Government Messenger and Interpreter” at an annual salary of £100. Lawson was horn in 1814, son of the chief

of Little Popo in modern Togoland (where he was for a time regarded as the legitimate chief2). About 1825 he was sent to Freetown for education in the care of Mr. John MacCormack, European merchant and member of Council, who during his fifty years in West Africa (1814—1864), travelled widely between the Senegal and the Volta, but especially in Temne country. Young Lawson frequently accompanied him as his servant.3 In Koya he seems to have married, for his son subsequently put forward claims to the chieftaincy and acted for a time as Regent. Lawson thus acquired a thorough knowledge of these territories and their people; and at the same time a fervent personal loyalty to the British Crown, and a conviction that an extension of British rule would be in the best interests of all Africans. With this went a fervent Protestantism; he succeeded MacCormack

1These returns were classified by tribes, and included only people from beyond Falaba. The bulk of those recorded in 1875 were Mandinka or Fula; they included six “Shereefs” and one native of Timbuctou. The following abstract of some of these returns illustrates the extent of the effects of outbreaks of tribal war at the crucial points :—
1874    1875    1876    1877    1878    1879    1880    1881
                                                                          (May—Dec.)    (Jan.—Mar.)
3110    2741    1200    8698    10095    1805    253    1556
Ab. Misc., 4;vii.78                       ] [   GILB.      ]

1882   1883   1884     1885   1886  1887
N.A.   6082   11000   5993   1699  5247

GILB.—reprinted R. Gazette, 31st January, 1888.
2 Hill to Ncwcastle, 74, 20th April, 1861; Lawson to Hill, 5th November, 1862 (encl. in Granville to Kennedy, 70, 19th May, 1869).
3MacCormack to Hill, 21st October, 1862, encl. in Granville to Kennedy, 70, 19th May, 1869; Memo. encl. in Rowe to Carnarvon, conf., 3rd October, 1877; Rowe to Hicks-Beach, 64, 3rd March 1879.
4See, for example, the letter to Hill of 5th November, 1862, cited above; the petition that the Crown should take over Little Popo, in Hill to Newcastle, 74, 20th April, 1861; GILB. to Bai Sherbro of Kaffu Bullom, 8th July, 1876: "... the English law under which I am, and under which I desire to be, has no respect of persons with the rich or poor, high or low (thank God for this).”

as lay pastor in charge of the Church of God in Circular Road, and also established a mission up-country. Underlying this faith was a moral integrity that won the highest praise from some Governors who were not easy to satisfy; but also that pugnacious stubbornness, common among the Elcct, which sometimes allowed his prejudices to affect his official judgments. (In 1876, for example, political and religious loyalties combined in a manner extremely embarrassing to the government, when he was instrumental in persuading the chiefs of Port Loko not to receive a French Roman Catholic mission.1)
Apart from oral interpretation, writing letters, and receiving strangers in Freetown, Lawson was

frequently called to travel into the interior as representative of the Government. Disputes and complaints would frequently arise to which neither the Governor nor any senior member of Council could attend personally—because of duties elsewhere, the rainy season, or simple disinclination for the rigours of hammock travel—and which were not of sufficient importance to justify any special appointment. On such missions, Lawson’s instructions might prescribe the conveyance of presents, as expressions of goodwill; the holding of assemblies of chiefs, often in order to try and compose their disputes; the investigation of charges of enslavement, and complaints by, or against, British subjects. He might also fulfill other incidental duties, such as reporting on the season’s trade prospects. As contacts with the. interior became wider and more permanent, these responsibilities clearly became too much for one man.
   In 1869 Winwood Reade, the brilliant but restless and erratic young English explorer, who once described himself as “the first young man about town to make a bona fide tour in Western Africa “,

   1 Lawson wrote to these chiefs on 15th November, 1876, advising them (not, he later explained, as a government officer, but as their countryman) not to grant land to the Catholic mission  “ . . . inasmuch as I know that what they would teach your children is contrary to the word of God contained in the Holy Bible placed in our hands by the British and Foreign Bible Society and the Church Missionary Society.” He was subsequently admonished by the Colonial Secretary for writing such a letter, and G. M. Macaulay was sent to Port Loko with an official letter of explanation. Actually, Lawson seems to have feared French political penetration at this vital centre even more than he distrusted Papist heresy (GILB. to Col. Sec., 17th November; to Governor, 2, 6th December); and it was fear of introducing French influence, and the methods by which they were said to have dealt with a chief in Rio Nunez, which caused the Port Loko chiefs to reject the Mission’s application. (GILB., Memo by Macaulay, 2nd December, 1876; cf. M.P. 750/1877.)

was encouraged by Governor Kennedy to travel to Falaba and beyond to try and open the road for direct trade with the peoples near the sources of the Niger. (He had come to Sierra Leone independently, but received financial aid from some Freetown merchants as well as from the Government.1) In his report, Reade submitted some interesting general recommendations about policy in the interior. The “stipend system “, he thought, offered a sound basis for relations with the tribes, provided the payments, and the contacts thereby entailed, were kept up. (The Limba chief

Sankelli had been entitled to a stipend for twenty years, but as the letter of entitlement was written in English, he had never drawn it.) Relations with the “caravans” in Freetown, a subject on which Lawson seems to have tended to be complacent, Reade found less satisfactory, for the itinerant traders, according to his information, were systematically exploited by their fellow-countrymen, resident in Freetown, who acted as their landlords, interpreters, and general intermediaries. Reade suggested the creation of an “Office of the Interior “, which would control a government lodging-house in Freetown and whose officers would include an “Inquisitor of Strangers” and an Arabic writer.2
  The two latter appointments were fairly quickly made. In January, 1871, Kennedy appointed G. M. Macaulay “Assistant Interpreter and Protector of Strangers”; besides looking after the welfare of caravans in Freetown he would sometimes deputize for Lawson on missions inland. Next year Governor Hennessy appointed as Arabic Writer an able young educated Mohammedan, Mohammed Sanusi, an appointment which he was to hold well into the twentieth century. But Reade’s faith in the stipend system was more debatable. In 1871 the famous West Indian scholar, Dr. E. W. Blyden, arrived in Sierra Leone and, gratuitously but eloquently, began to press upon the government the case for more active attempts to explore the Western Soudan and bring it under British influence. Kennedy was impressed by Blyden, and in January, 1872, appointed him to go to Falaba on a mission similar to Reade’s, with authority to press on, if possible, to the Niger sources. On return Blyden strongly urged that

1 C.0. 267/300 (Public Record Office, London). Kennedy to Granville, 209,
15th April, 1869.
2 C.O. 267/301. Kennedy to Granville, 133, 23rd June, 1869. (For Lawson’s complacency about treatment of "strangers” in Freetown, see M.P. 68/1886.)

Forward to Part 2...