From Sierra Leone Studies, No. 2, June, 1954
The Origins of Tribal Administration in Freetown,
 (part 1)

By Michael Banton

WHERE a number of Africans of one tribe are resident in a town outside their own territory they usually acknowledge one among their number as a Chief or Headman. He is their representative with the authorities of the district where they have settled, and to him they bring their affairs and disputes to be settled according to the customs of their people Such Headmen have been found in Freetown from the very earliest years, though the recognition given to them has varied.
   Towards the end of the nineteenth century the Government began to regularize the powers and duties of these Alimamies, as they were usually known. Governor Sir Samuel Rowe is said to have encouraged the election of such persons among the stranger tribes, to have received personally the successful candidates, and often to have used them for the purposes of administration. Then when Sir James Hay was Governor (1888—92) rules were drawn up under which the Alimamy was recognized as the proper medium of communication between the Government and his people, and certain duties were imposed upon him. Among other things, it was his duty " to advise the Government of any bad characters amongst his people, and aid in the detection of robbery and any other criminal offences by any such characters and to assist the Government in every way in bringing them to justice".1 Successive decisions led to the growth of a semi-official and unplanned structure which came under the supervision of the Superintendent of Native Affairs and the Government Interpreter. The reasons for this growth may be found in the need for three things: the provision of carriers, the better enforcement of law and order, and for some means of indirect administration to deal with matters outside the range of the everyday administrative machinery.
   At the end of the nineteenth century the government relied almost entirely upon the Mende for the provision of carriers and labourers. They often had difficulty in obtaining a sufficient number, and their

1 The full list of rules is given as an appendix to the Report on the Tribal Administration in Freetown, by A. B. Mathews (Government Sessional Paper No. 4 of 1940).

own attempts at organizing a proper system were never successful. They needed-the services of some suitable intermediary who would find the men for the job and would supervise their performance of it. An intermediary like this acquired considerable power over his fellow-countrymen and could elevate himself to a position of importance, even if his qualifications for office were negligible when judged according to the traditions of his people. Such a man was the Chief of the Mende in Freetown, who was usually known as “King George” but who sometimes styled himself “Alimamy Lamina” and whose official name was George Cummings. He found men for the Benin expedition, the 1895 Boundary Commission, the Karene expedition, and other operations during the 1898 rising. He was recognized by both Sir Francis Fleming and Sir Frederick Cardew as a labour contractor for the Mende. As a result King George claimed that all recruiting should be done through him; and several times wrote to the Governor protesting that his services were not being used and that the Government were recruiting men direct. In 1899 he wrote “Since my appointment as headman of the Mendes my people have always looked up to me for assistance and support in all cases of difficulty, and when out of

work are continually pouring into my residence requesting me to find work for them ". The Government, however, were unwilling to give King George a monopoly of the supply of labour. They objected “in principle” to his exacting a fee of four shillings from every man for whom he found work, and they found on occasion that the men he supplied did not make good workmen because they had to give up so much of their earnings to King George. It was not always easy to recruit men direct and the Officer Commanding the Army Service Corps had once to report that he had obtained 200 carriers himself for a trek but when they were about to start he found that all the rnen looked to King George to provide them with an advance of money to buy food for the journey. This particular difficulty was soon eliminated and the Government decided to avail themselves of King George’s services only when it suited their purposes. He was to have opportunities of supplying men but he was not to have a monopoly. Moreover, the Government started using Temne labour as well. As soon as the new Governor, Sir C. A. King-Harman, arrived King George sent in a new petition saying that the cessation of the use of his services was affecting him in reputation and pocket “the people who hitherto would listen to me have now refused to do so, and in

certain cases have declared that the Government has deposed me from my position as headman, among them ". He enclosed some of the glowing testimonials which he had been given in the past, but he did not succeed in persuading the Government to change their policy. In the early years of the new century this privilege of supplying the Government with labourers, when requested, was extended to the other Alimamies.
   In the late 1880s and ‘90s immigration from the interior was on the increase and there were many complaints about the thievish propensities of the newcomers. In 1896 a writer in a Freetown newspaper exclaimed “Look at our city of Freetown to-day. It is quite as full of aboriginal ‘sweepings ‘ as the forest is full of trees. These do nothing else but eat and drink and gamble all day long; and when night comes, they ply, life in hand, a most dangerous trade.... "1 These were the circumstances which led to the Alimamies or Chiefs acquiring their semi-official police functions. In the case of the Kru, the Chief was actually made a member of the Police Force. When Tom Peter succeeded to this office Governor Sir Samuel Rowe appointcd him Sergeant of Police as the only way of preserving order in Kroo Town Road, because no Kruman would willingly testify against a member of his own tribe. After Tom Peter, Jack Savage became Sergeant and Chief, but the next Chief came under the Ordinance of 1905 and the practice was not continued. Other Chiefs wanted police powers too. King George applied for the services of a Police Orderly to help him bring law breakers before the authorities, but the Superintendent of Police observed that King George had. never given him much assistance and the application failed.
   The third factor in the growth of this semi-official system was the usefulness of the Alimamies in dealing with matters outside the scope of normal government activities. Governor King-Harman was aware of this when he noted the policy to be followed in dealing with them. “All these Headmen or Kings as they like to style themselves,” he said, “should be kept in hand so as to be useful in cases of emergency. It is bad policy to ignore them.” (An example of such an emergency had been the 1898 rising; on the 4th May of that

1Weekly News, 15th  August, 1896. The word “sweepings” is used in reply to some remarks of Sir H. Johnston’s several years previously which were highly derogatory to the Creoles. See Proceedings of the Royal Colonial Institute,  VoL xx, p.97.

year a meeting of the Alimamies expressed willingness to pass on intelligence about the rising.)

   But the position of the Alimamies and Chiefs in Freetown at this time was becoming increasingly difficult, for their authority was not firmly based and the new immigrants could disregard thern with little fear of retribution. They had discovered that the most effective way of getting attention was to petition the Governor direct, and when Mr. Leslie Probyn arrived to assume that office in 1904 a small storm of petitions burst about his head. That of Oumaru Jamburia, who had been installed as Alimami of the Fula at a meeting attended by Governor King-Harman in 1902,1 explicitly pointed out that the Chief’s position was neither one thing nor the other. He wrote: “In the country when appointments of this kind were made, the person thus honoured was usually invested with the highest power in the community; and his word on any given subject became final. In Freetown where the several Alimamies are directly under the Central Government, their own power appears to be limited to nominal control over those who are placed under their charge. The people therefore take advantage of this situation and leave to the Alimamy alone all the responsibilities and troubles which they know very well they used to share.” With the petition he enclosed a typewritten copy of the minutes of a recent tribal meeting. A resolution had been passed “That as there is now an apparent disinterestedness among the Fula tribe generally, and as the condition of things under such situation is a menace to our common welfare, it is unanimously agreed, that unity of purpose be a fixed principle in the mind of each. and every individual, springing from, or bearing relation to the Fula Tribe ". At this meeting a most comprehensive set of rules had been drawn up which Alimamy Jamburia submitted, requesting that the Government assist him in enforcing both the rules and the attendance of school children at the Madrassa.
   Governor Probyn, an energetic man who was sympathetically inclined, received several of the Alimamies in audience and considered the whole problem. When the Colonial Secretary minuted “the heads of the several native clans in Freetown have, I believe, very little hold over the members of the tribes which they represent” Probyn replied “You are right. They have no power. The question is what power should be given them by law.” The Superintendent of

1 See “A Short Sketch of the Life and Work of the Late Alimamy Jamburia ", by Mohammed Suleiman Jal’lo, Sierra Leone Studies, xxii.

Police was unsympathetic, observing “I cannot help believing that their failure to be of much benefit to the Government is not due so much to want of power as to want of inclination ". Probyn took a longer view. He described his own attitude in a subsequent dispatch to the Secretary of State: 1 “At first I regarded the (headman) system as being most retrograde: I thought that every effort should be made to gradually abolish all distinctions, so that the population in Freetown might, from an administrative point of view, be treated as homogeneous. I found subsequently that in the Peninsula, Sherbro villages were existing close to Sierra Leone villages and that in spite of a lapse of 100 years there was no indication of the two classes merging: I next found that the most, if not the only effective way by which the effect of any municipal or other regulations could be explained to the aboriginal sections in the town was through the headmen. Ultimately, I arrived at the conclusion that the “headman” system, although apparently retrograde, was, in reality, the most practical way by which a general improvement in Freetown could be brought about as regards sanitation and in other directions, and it was the only means by which the perilously large emigration into Freetown could be checked.’’
   The result of Probyn’s deliberations was Ordinance No. 19 of 1905, entitled “An Ordinance to Promote a System of Administration by Tribal Authority Among the Tribes Settled in Freetown ". This Ordinance gave power to the Governor to recognize as “Tribal Ruler” any “Chief, Alimamy, or Headman, who with other Headmen or representatives of the sections of the tribe, endeavours to enforce a system of tribal administration for the well-being of members of the tribe, resident in, or temporarily staying in Freetown ". (Thus it was the tribe which had to approach the Governor to have its Ruler recognized, and the Tribal Ruler had legal powers only when acting with a council of principal men.) Tribal Rulers could make regulations covering specified matters (such as indebtedness and the pawning of property between members of the tribe) and the list of these items follows closely the suggestions which Jamburia had submitted. They could prescribe fines for their contravention but the rules and the rates of fining had to receive the Governor’s approval and be published in the Royal Gazette before they obtained the force of law. The Tribal Ruler could settle

1 Probyn to Elgin, 18th August, 1906.

disputes between members of the tribe and he had the same obligations as Chiefs in the Protectorate to return to their Chiefdoms men who had left without permission.
   Before the Ordinance was brought to the Legislative Council the Governor circulated copies of the proposals to all Alimamies and persons in authority. The Police Magistrate said that he thought the Ordinance would “materially aid the City Corporation towards maintaining the healthy condition of the town and improving the buildings usually occupied by the Native tribes. It will also help to promote education among the natives and assist the Police in the detection of crimes”. Elsewhere the proposals met with tacit approval, though Alimami Suleimani Johnson and Alfa Badamasi of the Akus or Freetown Yoruba, protested against what they thought was a plan to class them with “the Aborigines".
   The flexibility of the Ordinance was both its strength and its weakness. Legally, everything depended upon the Tribal Rulers making good sets of rules. In practice, everything depended upon the officers of the Administration and their bridging, by personal contact, the gap between the machinery of European-type government and the limited understanding of most of the tribal heads. Governor Probyn was satisfied with a measure which gave him legal authority to support the progressive elements in each tribal group and to help them exercise a beneficia1 influence over their fellows, but an arrangement suited to his plans was not bound to be a good one for the circumstances of a later regime.
   The intention of the Tribal Administration Ordinance was reinforced by two further Ordinances governing vagrancy and conditions of employment. The Chiefs in the Protectorate asked the Governor to regulate the migration to Freetown. On the 7th November, 1907, the District Commissioner, Karene, reporting a meeting of chiefs, writes as follows: “The Alikali of Port Loko stated, and he was unanimously supported, that what was exercising their minds most was the continual exodus of their domestics and young men to the Colony.... They stated that this was continuous and that they feared the result would be that they would not be able to obtain sufficient labour for the work in the country.” It was said, among other things, that soldiers stationed in the Protectorate were in the habit of seducing and bringing down to Freetown wives, domestics, and other persons, without reference to anyone. If representations were made and these persons were found in barracks,

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