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Becoming 'European': West Indian officers in British West Africa were categorised as "Europeans" by the colonial governments and given better salaries and working conditions than the "Natives". This is part one of a two part series exploring the fraught history of West Indian "European" colonial officers in British West Africa.

If asked to quickly draw an image of a colonial officer in Africa, most of us would sketch a white man dressed in a stiff khaki uniform with a pith helmet shading him from the tropical sun. While our imaginary officer's size, shape, and apparel would vary from person to person, one attribute would almost surely remain the same regardless of who was doing the drawing: the officer would be white. To be sure, the vast majority of colonial officers were white, and more specifically white men. In British West Africa, however, thousands of West Indian men were also employed as colonial officers. Strikingly, regardless of their racial backgrounds, these officers were categorised as European by the colonial administration's system of official racial classification. This system organised officers into the category of either "European" or "Native" (indigenous African), with job postings and attendant salary and benefits determined by this classification.


In her fascinating study entitled "West Indians in West Africa, 1808-1880: The African Diaspora in Reverse", Nemata Blyden explains that the impetus for hiring West Indians in the latter part of the early 19th century was to counteract the shortage of European officials employed in British West Africa, and more specifically in Sierra Leone's colonial administration. An 1839 fever epidemic that killed several European colonists heightened concerns about European mortality and further reduced the willingness of Europeans to apply for positions in Sierra Leone. As of 1840, when the colony's government began recruiting West Indians, it specifically targeted West Indians of African descent.

In part, the Colonial Office saw this recruitment effort as an important means of cooling political agitation on the part of West Indians who were increasingly dissatisfied with the limited opportunities for career advancement available to them at home because of the colour bar on the holding of public office.

The idea that West Indians could satisfy their career ambitions abroad in Sierra Leone and thereby ease domestic political tensions was complemented by the erroneous perception that they were more resistant to tropical illnesses and better suited to the climate than Europeans. While the administration viewed West Indians and Africans as sharing a common racial/biological heritage, it saw West Indians as culturally distinct (read superior) and hoped that they would favourably influence Africans to adopt Western education and values. According to Blyden, many West Indians appear to have held similar ideas, particularly as these related to spreading the "benefits" of Western education and Christianity amongst African communities. Having envisioned themselves as "sons of Africa", they were now returning to do their part in the "civilising mission."

Given the prominence of these racial considerations in the recruitment of West Indians, it is paradoxical then that they were officially classified by the colonial administration as "Europeans".

During the 1840s and 1850s, West Indians occupied various high-ranking posts in the colonial administration in Sierra Leone-serving with distinction and honour, as doctors, council members, chief justices, queen's advocates, and significantly three of the colony's governors were West Indians.

Yet, according to Blyden, by the late 1850s the presence of West Indians in the Sierra Leonean administration began to provoke discontent amongst both Europeans and the colony's "black settlers" and their creole descendents. While many Europeans resented holding positions subordinate to non-white West Indians, some black settlers and creoles felt excluded from government posts, which they believed educated members of their community could fill just as successfully as West Indians.

Colonial officials also increasingly argued that settlers and creoles were less likely to agitate for political reforms than were West Indians. This changing tide signalled the end of the era of West Indians in government office in Sierra Leone, although a few were still to be found in non-administrative posts.

In bringing an end to the recruitment of West Indians in the late 1850s, colonial administrators argued that Africans would more readily accept the authority of Europeans over them. Non-white West Indian administrators were accordingly replaced by Europeans who were now viewed as being more capable of efficiently carrying out the "civilising mission".

Here we see a clear example of the way "negative" racial thought, which claimed that Africans needed to be "civilised" and that this could only be accomplished under European tutelage, was used to justify not only the imposition of formal colonial rule in Sierra Leone, but also the exclusion of West Indians of African descent from administrative positions. In short, a shift had taken place by the late 1850s from a "positive" rhetoric of race used to incorporate West Indians into the Sierra Leonean service to a "negative" one used to exclude them. This underscores how shifting discourses on race were used in the service of Empire. Of course what remained constant in the equation was the racist idea that Africans needed to be "civilised" in the first place.


My own research in the national archives of Ghana and London has revealed that the downhill course of the West Indian experiment in Sierra Leone did not deter the British colonial government in the Gold Coast (now Ghana) from pursuing its own policy of recruitment from the West Indies. By the early 20th century, large numbers of West Indians were brought to the Gold Coast to work as technicians and train guards on the newly opened railways; they also filled junior and executive posts in the public service--many were to be found in the colony's Customs and Police Departments. In contrast to Sierra Leone during the 1840s and 1850s, West Indians were, however, rarely found in the uppermost reaches of the Gold Coast's administration during the early 20th century when their employment was at its peak.

The exclusion of West Indians from the highest ranks of the Gold Coast's administration reflected the completion of a larger shift in Western racial thought, most powerfully typified by the development of scientific racism, which was steadily underway by the second half of the 19th century. It also reflected advances in tropical medicine, which made it possible for greater numbers of European officials to serve in the West African colonies with minimised risks to their health.

Combined, these shifts made it physically possible and ideologically necessary to exclude West Indians of African decent, as well as Gold Coasters, from high office. What did remain consistent, however, was the system of racial classification that categorised West Indians as Europeans. As a result of this system West Indians were entitled to the same pay and benefits as Europeans.

Why this classification system persisted despite the profound changes that had occurred in how the relationship between race and the right to rule was conceived and practised, is difficult to ascertain. Perhaps the most convincing reason is that there still remained a need for skilled officers that surpassed the number of white British officers available. By its own admission, the colonial administration looked to the West Indies to effectively meet this need. It is unlikely that West Indians would have been persuaded to take up posts in West Africa on the terms and conditions given to "native" officers. However, this does not adequately explain why the government did not place them in a category of their own.

While West Indian officers serving in Sierra Leone were rarely "white", evidence for the Gold Coast suggests that in addition to West Indians of African descent, there were a considerable number of apparently "white" West Indians. The latter are referred to in the archival sources as "white", while "mulatto" and "coloured", are often used to describe mixed-race West Indians; and the terms "negroe" and "pure negroe" refer to West Indians of "full" African descent.

Given that a fair number of the West Indians hired were apparently white, it would seem that by the turn of the century, when the practice of employing men from the West Indies gained ground in the Gold Coast, the perceived benefits and problems of racial proximity to Africans were less important than more practical considerations, such as the need for trained officers and skilled labourers. For instance, in 1897 the Gold Coast Police vigorously recruited superintendents from the British Guiana Police Force, irrespective of their racial backgrounds. The same was the case in 1901 when Governor Nathan proposed to reorganise the Gold Coast Police Force using sergeants from the West Indies.

While some administrators, like Governor Nathan, vigorously supported the recruitment of West Indians, others were less keen on hiring them and it is from this group that an explicitly negative racial rhetoric emerged about West Indians.

In the second instalment of this series, we will examine the first all out attack against West Indian officers in the Gold Coast, which occurred in 1904 and employed a racial rhetoric that positioned West Indians of African descent as a problematic interstitial group between European and native officers. Similar to what had previously occurred in Sierra Leone, at the heart of the attack against them was the idea that they threatened the racial dichotomy that underpinned colonial rule.
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Title Annotation:Lest We Forget
Author:Ray, Carina
Publication:New African
Geographic Code:60AFR
Date:Jul 1, 2008
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