EXCERPTS from Leo Spitzer, The Creoles of Sierra Leone
The Syrians Arrive in Sierra Leone



The success of Syrians in Sierra Leone had long been an extremely sensitive issue with Creoles. The first Syrians had arrived in the colony in the 1890s, singly or in pairs, as common peddlers who went about Freetown carrying their few sale articles on a board which they strapped around the neck. Because their main stock was imitation coral beads made from celluloid, they were called “Corals.” Many who came to Sierra Leone were Shi’ite Muslims who originated from the same or closely related communities in the Levant and who, when successful in business, sponsored others of their group to come to Africa. Their maxim, according to one observer, was “Never return to Lebanon with poverty; they have enough of it there.”

Syrians found up-country Africans, especially the chiefs, enthusiastic customers for the coral beads. Whereas in the past a single coral bead had cost 2 or 3, and as much as 50 for a string, imitations could be purchased for mere pence. With success breeding success, Syrians soon stocked other inexpensive items such as mirrors, pocket knives, and hair pomade. The profit margin on their sales was low but their overhead expenses were lower still. They lived communally, several families often crowding into rooms designed for no more than two or three persons, doing without even the slightest luxury such as soap, eating African foods, and wearing simple, inexpensive clothing. To the disgust and dismay of the Creoles, to whom many of these practices seemed unsanitary if not uncivilized, the Corals thus were able to save a good deal of their profit. By the first decade of the twentieth century, Syrian competition gradually began to eliminate Creoles from retail business in the colony and protectorate.
 
The Syrians were ultimately successful because they pooled their profits, much the same as the Liberated African ancestors of the Creoles had done in the nineteenth century, in order to buy wholesale goods in bulk and, therefore, at lower cost. Creoles, having grown away from the memories of common enslavement which had once unified Liberated African groups and stimulated economic communalism, were unable to meet the Syrian challenge by combining in turn. Nor were they able to return at this point in their history to the low living standards which had been commonly acceptable among Liberated Africans. Moreover, the children and grandchildren of Creole merchants preferred the higher status conferred by professions such as law and medicine to the less prestigious profits from trading and selling.

Syrian traders soon began to import directly through buying agents in England and continental Europe who were frequently their fellow nationals. In this way they were able to take advantage of inexpensive second quality and end-of-season goods, as well as job lots, and pass some of their savings on to their customers. The result was obvious: the Syrians bought textiles, haberdashery, and many other goods that Creole traders had once handled and were able to sell their items at a much lower cost than their Sierra Leone competitors.

By 1914 the situation had become so serious that some Freetown newspapers talked about a “Syrian Peril” in an obvious attempt to link the Near Easterners with their Turkish coreligionists and to gain British official support for their expulsion from Sierra Leone....

Tension between the Creole and Syrian communities was heightened by the great influenza epidemic of 1918--an event for which no one could be blamed had logic prevailed... The epidemic began in August when vessels arriving from Europe, where the disease had been raging for some time, infected the port area. It spread through the colony and protectorate with deadly rapidity...If one accepts the 1911 census figures, which put the population of Freetown at 34,000, the number of persons affected thus numbered a startling 24,000. And as the disease took its toll, Creoles increasingly accused the Syrians for having brought this wretchedness on Sierra Leone with their unsanitary living conditions. The ironic parallel that immediately suggests itself, of course, is the European contention that Africans were lacking adequate sanitation--the rationale, at least in part, for segregation schemes like Hill Station.


The tension mounted...By the middle of 1919 the colony was in a state of incipient famine. Rice imports, which under normal circumstances would have been destined for Freetown's population, filtered out to the protectorate. There, outside the bounds of colony price controls, it was sold for sixty-four shillings or more per bushel, instead of the Government established price of twenty-eight shillings per bushel. The belief became ever more prevalent that Syrians were hoarding not only rice but also foo-foo and palm oil to drive prices up...With the strike continuing, while the acting governor and a party of guests were sitting down to a leisurely game of bridge after dinner on the eve of the Peace Day celebrations, the anti-Syrian riots began...Three companies of the West India regiment, aided by the police and by the Creole mayor of Freetown, S. J. Barlatt, and other Creole gentlemen who offered their services as special constables, restored order in Freetown. Two hundred and forty five arrests were made. Up-country the situation was never as severe, and, although many Syrian shops were looted, troops quickly re-established control...Syrians from the colony, and those who arrived from the protectorate--a total of 242--were all housed and supplied with rations in Wilberforce Memorial Hall, which the City Council had placed at the disposal of the government, and in two other buildings...

The British government, in fact, seemed especially anxious to thwart the Creoles on this matter, contributing further to their sense of disappointment and frustration. In August of 1919 fifty-four persons were convicted in Supreme Court after having pleaded guilty in connection with the July riots and were sentenced to imprisonment for terms ranging from one-and-a-half to four-and-a-half years....Using the special powers granted to the governor under the wartime "Defence of the Realm Act," the government proceeded to issue proclamation no. 28--the "Colonial Defence Regulations, 1919." With this law, the authorities not only sought to protect Syrians against further harm and to reinstate them into the colony and protectorate, but also desired to curb what they believed were the aroused passions of the Creoles. Thus the regulations required that colonial newspapers be registered with the government under a 250 bond, that penalties for the publication of seditious or libelous materials be extracted, that oral and written "incitements to violence" be forbidden, and that any conspiracy to exclude Syrians from renting Creole houses or to bring about economic pressures against them be prohibited...

The consensus among Creoles was that the government had long contemplated imposing these regulations but was waiting for an excuse. The Syrian riots had provided it... British "white men " would support even alien "white men" rather than coming to the defense of British subjects who happened to be "black."

Not long after the riots, Gold Coast soldiers from Kumasi who had been called to Sierra Leone arrived in the colony...The authorities ignored Creole indignation. A bill entitled "An Ordinance to Provide for the Payment of Compensation for Damage Done During Certain Riots in the Colony and Protectorate" received its first reading in the Legislative Council in September 1919. An amount totaling 36,635 was sought in damages from Freetown ratepayers for the Syrians affected by the looting and destruction. Creoles were enraged. The governor, for his part,...was sure that it would have the beneficial effect of creating a sense of collective responsibility... By any standards, the entire concept of riot compensation reeked of paternalism. No teacher could better have disciplined his naughty pupils; for Creoles, compensation represented yet another betrayal.

Leo Spitzer, The Creoles of Sierra Leone, 1974, The University of Wisconsin Press, ISBN 0-299-06590-1

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