Arthur Porter’s Creoledom – A review




Paul Conton





This text, long out of print, deserves to be read by newer generations of Sierra Leoneans. Published in 1962, the book is an interesting counterpoint to Fyfe’s A History of Sierra Leone, published in 1961. Porter surprises in this book. One infers from the title a defense of all things Krio. The first hint this might not be the case occurs in the preface, when he describes “A History of Sierra Leone”, the seminal work by Christopher Fyfe, as the “apologia” and “apotheosis” of Krios. Hm…m…m, what have we here? Professional disagreement, even rivalry? With the English writer taking the side of the Krio and the Krio writer in opposition?


 Fyfe is the doyen of Sierra Leone historians, and most later ones cite him extensively. A large part of historians’ work involves the interpretation of numerous bits of evidence available to them. The major facts of the history are not in dispute. What could be questioned is the conclusions that are drawn from these facts and from the numerous other small pieces of evidence. There is a certain amount of subjectivity involved. Fyfe had unparalleled access to Sierra Leone Government archives and additionally spent massive amounts of time researching British government and institutional records. There is a danger in this situation that Fyfe’s conclusions have in effect become the conclusions of all subsequent historians and accepted fact, even though the original interpretations and conclusions might have been in error. Porter, working contemporaneously but independently, provides valuable reinforcement for Fyfe’s work. When, for instance, Porter says ( p 13) that the period from 1870 to the First World War was the heyday of the Krios in Sierra Leone and West Africa, he is coming to the same conclusion, independently, as Fyfe.


Porter’s principal concern is with the structure and social stratification of Freetown over the years, but in order to analyze this he delves extensively into the history. In discussing the early Settlers, Porter appears to come down against the Nova Scotians in their long-running feud with the Sierra Leone Company. He quotes the view from the directors in London quite lengthily, while giving short shrift to the complaints of the Nova Scotians, the failure to provide them with the land that had been promised and the imposition of quit rents. Where Fyfe showed sympathy, even admiration, Porter appears to downplay the achievements of the ex-slaves who made the first crossing from Canada. In describing their encounter with a slave ship traveling in the opposite direction, Porter writes, “This simple reference underlines the peril of those days and the courage and faith of those who had dared to take others (my emphasis) to the shores of Africa…”


The main focus of Porter’s book, though, is the social stratification of Krio society, and he finds in the early years of Freetown that status was based on ‘ascribed, not achieved” criteria, on what group you came from; he concludes that the Nova Scotians were the main beneficiaries (and promoters) of this. After the Settler groups (the Black Poor, Nova Scotians and Maroons), the landing of the Recaptives, or Liberated Africans, began in 1808, and this profoundly altered the social mix of Freetown. Porter judges the Settlers quite harshly relative to the Liberated Africans. The Settlers are portrayed as members of a privileged, exclusive group, determined to cling on to status and power, whilst the Liberated Africans are viewed as hardworking and excluded people who rise by dint of hard work and perseverance. The portrayal of the Nova Scotians could be contested quite vigorously, but perhaps not in a book review. Suffice it to say that bcause of their shared life experiences, the Settlers had developed a self image and identity, a consciousness, that the recaptives had not.


Porter concludes that Settlers (Nova Scotians and Maroons, as opposed to Recaptives) achieved ‘status crystallization’ (a situation where class, status and political power are all held by the same individuals or groups) in the period up to 1830, before being challenged by the Recaptives. He further concludes that by 1870 the Settlers and Recaptives had essentially merged into one group, the Krio, and this group made remarkable strides in a very wide range of endeavours, up to the turn of the century. Porter arrives at the same conclusion as Fyfe that after the declaration of the Protectorate (1896), the British began a deliberate policy to separate Provincials from Krio influence and to reserve top administrative positions for whites rather than Krios – Fyfe reports a significant drop in the number of Krios holding top civil service positions after the 1890s. Porter views the period of Krio dominance, in class, status and power, as coming to an end around the period of the Second World War. Up to this time Krios were unquestioningly at the top of the black social strata in Freetown (interestingly Porter never questions the whites’ position, at the very top, in the overall social strata), with the ‘Tribal Africans’, as he calls them, (ie Sierra Leoneans from the Provinces) at the bottom of the social ladder.


Porter details the slow but steady increase in social and political inclusiveness in Freetown after the declaration of the Protectorate in 1896. A new constitution was promulgated in 1924, with direct Colony (ie Freetown) election of a minority of the Legislative Council – the majority of members were still appointed by the Governor, including Paramount Chiefs from the Provinces. And then in 1951 another new constitution provided for the direct election on a national basis of a majority of the members of the Legislative Council. Slowly power and wealth in Freetown slipped from the dominance of the Krios. Porter is in general positive about these developments. He spends considerable time and detail analyzing the effects of Provincial migration to Freetown, with the attendant transition from a closed social system to an open one. Writing around the time of Independence, Porter, like a good number of his generation and social class, was optimistic about the future of the new nation. He was hopeful that with the transfer of political power from Krio to Provincial, completed at Independence, a new unified society would be built. He foresaw development and industrialization creating a new basis for wealth and the emergence of a new and large middle class, superceding the ‘elitism’ of the past. He foresaw a time in Freetown when “all its inhabitants would have been brought into the one social system”.


Fifty plus years on from Porter’s writing it is difficult to find similar optimism. The fatal flaw in Porter’s projections was that he looked only at what was happening in Freetown. He spends no time at all examining social structures in the Provinces and their effect on Freetown. Perhaps reflecting the narrowness of the book title and committing the same sin he accuses early Settler society of, he was too introspective, concerned with social stratification in Freetown among the Krio to the exclusion of all else. If one agrees that in a healthy society status should be ‘achieved’ rather than ‘ascribed’, then this principle must be applied to the entire society, not just to parts of it. In a unitary state, with a common language and freedom of movement (which did not apply to the present day Sierra Leone before 1900), there is substantial interaction and population movement between the different parts of the nation. Porter hails the possibilities of “industrialization and its twin process, urbanization”; the reality is, the one is ongoing at a hectic pace, whilst the other has eluded us. We need a new, modern-day sociologist to analyze social structures throughout the territory of Sierra Leone.