The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

British Colonies in West Africa

Category: 19th century

Britain also developed a series of colonies in West Africa: the Gambia, Sierra Leone, the Gold Coast (now Ghana), and Nigeria, by far the largest.

Profitable as the slave trade proved during the 18th century, its suppression in the 19th century was even more profitable. While slaves were the only im­portant export from West Africa, no attempts were made to penetrate the interior. Instead, the coastal African tribes were armed and encouraged to raid in­land and bring their captives to trading ports for sale and shipment.

The result was a never-ending series of tribal wars and the devastation of immense areas. While some 8,000,000 Africans were sold into America during the period of slave trade, it has been estimated that at least 40,000,000 more were killed in the wars and raids or died on the voyage.

The British government prohibited the slave trade which was ceasing to be economic for West Indies plan­tations in 1807, but it was only in 1834 that slavery was abolished in the Empire. The area chiefly affected was the West Indies where the sugar plantations em­ployed great quantities of slave labour. The planters received £20,000,000 in compensation for the loss of their slaves, but the production of sugar declined con­siderably. By a curious irony, the abolition of slavery here stimulated the African slave trade, because the production of sugar in Cuba and Brazil, where slavery still continued, developed rapidly and created a new demand for labour.

For several decades the British Navy was actively employed on the African coast, hunting down slavers of smaller nationalities, and it was in the course of these activities that the foundation of the British pow­er in West Africa was laid. It was soon discovered that this area could produce palm oil, cocoa and other valu­able foodstuffs and raw materials and an extensive trade grew up, spirits and raw materials being among the main articles of barter. The Ashanti country, forming the hinterland to the Gold Coast Colony, was found to be rich in gold and was accordingly conquered in a long series of wars that ended in 1900.

A little to the East, the much more important col­ony of Nigeria was extended from the settlement at Lagos, founded in 1862 for the suppression of the slave trade. The exploitation of the country was left to the Royal Niger Company that acted with the support of the British government. In 1900 the territory of the Royal Niger Company was put under the direct con­trol of London.

Because of its climate West Africa was unsuitable for the establishment of plantations under direct Eu­ropean control. A peculiar system of indirect exploita­tion was therefore evolved by which the native peas­ant cultivators sold their products to British merchants. The price paid to the cultivators was only a fraction of what their produce would fetch in Britain. At the same time very high prices were charged for the cotton cloth and other articles that were sold to the natives.

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