"Sing a song of prices, |
A marketful of gum;
At Kaka in the crisis
Things began to hum.
When the markets opened
There wasn't much perhaps;
Now there's several thousand 'kant'
To set before the chaps.
D.C.E.J. Eastern Jebels (Sudan) Monthly Report
Trade was, of course, a major reason for the European nations to take over the administration of Africa. In many places the potential was mouth watering. The land looked so rich it was hard to credit. Sir Harry Johnston GCMG, KCB in his ravishingly illustrated book "The Uganda Protectorate" wrote enormously enthusiastically of the commercial possibilities in 1902.
"Amongst the extensive collections of rocks and minerals which were made by my expedition, or on its behalf by officials of the Uganda Protectorate, only one amongst all the specimens of quartz shows any signs of gold. On the other hand, specimens of rocks from Unyoro...would seem to indicate a formation in that district analogous to the gold-reef rocks of the Transvaal. The country abounds in haematite iron, and in ordinary iron ore; there are graphite or plumbago mines, and there is perhaps a little copper. Some of the rock specimens collected by Mr. F.W. Isaac in the Baringo District* indicate the possibility of precious stones existing in these formations. Salt of very good quality is obtained from the salt lakes. Whether this salt would be worth exportation is a matter of doubt, but it circulates throughout a good deal of Central Africa as a valuable article of barter"
He then went on to list ivory of the very best quality, "so long as the British Government can determinedly enforce the Game Regulations" and the "vast marshes and leagues of forest for the shelter of [the elephant]"; zebra "in countless swarms" and "fine large asses...might ...be an article of export." Giraffes and antelopes for sale and transmission to zoos. Ostriches with their fine white plumes and honey bees.
The troublesome tsetse fly was only touched upon: "Either there is no true tsetse fly anywhere in the Uganda Protectorate or it is not able to obtain and introduce into the bodies of domestic animals the malarial germs which cause tsetse fever. Therefore, theoretically there is no part of the Uganda Protectorate in which cattle, sheep, goats, and horses cannot be kept." But he went on to admit to the existence of pleuropneumonia which came down from the "Dinka countries in the Egyptian Sudan" and which caused devastation to the cattle of East Africa.
*Baringo District is in Kenya today but in 1902 the area known as Uganda stretched as far into present day Kenya as the bottom of the Rift Valley escarpment.
On the subject of produce from the soil he was even more enthusiastic. "Turning to vegetable productions, we have, in the first place, coffee. Whether originally introduced or not from Abyssinia, coffee is at any rate native now in a semi-wild form to the better forested regions of the Uganda Protectorate, its berries producing coffee of excellent flavour. Not only might the wild coffee be gathered and sold by the natives, but it would seem as though this country was singularly well adapted for coffee plantations, as the forested regions have a regular and ample rainfall, the soil is very rich and abundance of shade trees exist. Coffee could be grown on the lake shore all round the northern half of the Victoria Nyanza. Steamers could carry the coffee to the railway terminus on Kavirondo bay, and it is probable that by steamer and rail, and steamer again from Mombasa, coffee could be landed at the European markets charged with a freight of not more that £2 10s a ton....
Regarding the soil of Uganda proper and the adjoining Districts of Busoga and Toro, Mr Alexander Whyte says: 'Generally speaking this soil is a reddish loam on a subsoil of rich red or chocolate clay, sometimes of a great depth. At times patches of poor, gravelly soil crop up, more especially on the hilltops....The question generally put is, What will not grow and flourish in Uganda? The furze and the broom grow so well that we are making hedges of them. Tomatoes grow quite wild. One plant was left by the boys when weeding my compound. It flourished so amazingly that I determined to keep tally of the fruits picked from it. The yield in two months has been 3,000. It still goes on bearing clusters of lovely fruits, and covers a space of twenty feet square.'"
Debate, however, was raging on the ethics of commercial exploitation. Johnson had no doubts that all would benefit. He said that critics such as "the editor of Truth ... are asking now with renewed force whether the statesmen of both parties between 1885 and 1894 did not gravely blunder when they yielded to public sentiment and assumed for Great Britain heavy responsibilities in tropical and unhealthy Africa. These critics point to the wars which have occurred between British forces and the natives as a proof that our protection was not desired and had to be imposed by force. They single out an individual atrocity as a sample of the white man's daily conduct, and having thus shown the fallacy from the philanthropical point of view of our expensive efforts to administer an area in tropical Africa which equals the united extent of Europe without Russia, they brush aside the question of commercial gain either by declaring it non-existant and not likely to come to pass, or by alleging that it is no justification for that shedding of blood which seems to have been inevitable in the founding of these Protectorates."
He countered that argument by saying that in Uganda:
"If one reads the works of Speke, of Stanley, of the Rev. W.P. Ashe, of Lugard, and Colville, one realises what a bloody country was the Kingdom of Uganda before it came under British control. The flow of human blood must have been such a common sight as to render the Baganda singularly callous. Speke gives a pathetic account of Mutesa's wives being hurried off to a cruel execution for most trivial reasons, raising their wailing cries of 'O my lord, O my master.' as they passed him on the way. Sometimes the reasons for these death sentences were that a wife had failed to close the door as she passed out of a courtyard or she had pulled the door to, when to do so was a breach of native etiquette."
"...If every adult male native in these Protectorates paid 8s a year in taxation, there would be little, if any, need to resort to the Treasury of the United Kingdom for funds to supplement the cost of administration. There would also be no cause for the British taxpayer to complain if coffee or rubber, gold or ivory, or all these substances combined, failed to provide a lucrative commerce for the British market. The Protectorate would then be administered purely in the interest of the black man. He at least, in the climate of the country wherein he was born, does not suffer from the diseases which afflict the European who attempts to settle in parts of tropical Africa; he at least is happy and content if he can maintain flocks and herds of cattle, sheep, and goats, and grow food-stuffs suited to his country and his palate. He can only earn money by working, say, for a month, or by collecting and selling rubber, coffee, or some other saleable substance, which he can acquire without robbing other people; or he may breed cattle for the provision market, or collect oil which is sufficiently valuable to meet the cost of transport to the European markets."
Johnston goes on to propose that Africans who are "by no means wanting in enterprise" should be encouraged to give their services "at good rates of pay" to working for European enterprises.
"I know at first sight that certain people in England, keenly interested in the welfare of the Negro, and whose interest may sometimes border on sentimentality, will exclaim that the theory I am propounding of turning Central African labour into undeveloped South Africa, and South African money into unhealthy Central Africa, is but a disguised revival of slavery. A little reflection, however, will convince the really honest Negrophils that this is not the case. A class of missionary now nearly extinct was bitterly opposed to the enterprise of non-missionary Europeans in Central Africa, and to any steps which might result in the Central Africans* leaving their homes to go far afield for employment. This type of thinker, narrow if earnest, would have preferred that the Central African native should remain in modified savagery, without any wants or tastes than those which could be met by the simple instruction and pleasures of the mission station."
Sir Harry emphasised that no compulsion should be exercised to oblige people to go far afield for employment but in retrospect it is, perhaps, fortunate that his proposal did not come about, although people south of Tanganyika were often attracted to the South African mining industry.
But the question of reverting to slavery was a very real concern. On the 18th of August 1909, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote a passionate letter to The Times about the exploitation of Africans in the Belgian Congo:
"Sir, We live in the presence of the greatest crime which has ever been committed in the history of the world, and yet we who not only could stop it but who are bound by our sworn oath to stop it do nothing? The thing has been going on for 20 years. What are we waiting for? Our guilt of national acquiescence is only second to that of the gang of cosmopolitan scoundrels who have been actively concerned in turning all Central Africa* into a high slave State, with such attendant horrors as even the dark story of the slave trade has never shown. In the slave trade the victim was of a market value, and to that extent was protected from death or mutilation. In this case the State is the owner of all, so that if one be dismembered or shot another is always available...
*By 1909 Uganda was considered to be in East Africa, while the Congo was in Central Africa
Every day that passes fresh crimes are committed. The rubber has been coming faster than ever to Europe this year, and the rubber can only come through the system and the system can only be enforced by terror. Consul Thesiger, in his report published this year shows that the screw is ever tightening, that new tribes are being drawn into the slavery, that they are worked in such a fashion that they have no time to plant their crops, and that a great famine is threatned in the future." Conan Doyle points an accusing finger at the Belgian Colonial Minister who had financial interests in the Congo.
How did it all turn out then? "One of the main tasks of the British administration" wrote a biographer of a distinguished administrator in Uganda "was to develop crops to take the place of the trade in slaves and ivory. The local diet rested on bananas, particularly the plantain which could be turned into banana flour called matoke. This with grain crops and live stock supplied a subsistence agriculture in the fertile and well watered southern half of Uganda; but the twentieth-century protectorate needed more from its agriculture than subsistence farming. ...The extensive lakes made cheap water transport available elsewhere for the movement of agricultural produce; and the railway through Kenya linked Uganda with the sea. The Lancashire extile mills needed cotton, and cotton was a product which Uganda was ideally fitted to supply and it soon became the leading export crop." [Enigmatic Proconsul by Richard Frost]
It became a matter for concern that the economy relied so heavily upon cotton, though coffee and sugar were also produced by Ugandans.
Further East in Kenya much of the export agriculture was in the hands of the European settlers who produced tea and arabica coffee, beef, wheat, barley, oats and pyrethrum, mutton and wool. The exceptional quality of dairy and pork products competed successfully against the best Danish produce: top quality producers in this field during the colonial period.
Africans provided the labour on these farms which was always a thorny issue. Some Africans enjoyed getting away from stultifying customs or nagging wives and earning some cash but others resented the need for money and the breakdown of the tribal unit. European farmers were worried by the lack of good labour and the petty crime which went on and over which DC's seemed unable to exert sufficient control. And those looking on from Britain were often shocked by the low wages paid to farm labourers in Kenya.
A very real concern for the officials was the soil erosion and environmental damage which many African farming practices caused.
"The sad fact is" wrote Sir Phillip Mitchell, "that with few distinguished exceptions, among whom pride of place must go to the Chagga of Kilimanjaro and the Kara of Ukara, as soon as a population reaches a certain density in East Africa and Central Africa it destroys the soil with a devastating ruthlessness... Compared to it the relatively trifling areas of land in occupation by Europeans and Indians are of negligible importance..." (About 13% of all land in Kenya was farmed by Europeans. [Farson])
West Africa did not allow European settlement but it was a powerhouse of commerce. Writing in 1945 Rex Niven describes West Africa as being:
"divided into the Grain Coast (Nigeria), Ivory Coast, Gold Coast and Slave Coast (Dahomey). The grain was pepper."
Nigeria covers an area bigger than Belgium, France, Switzerland and Italy and in 1945 had a population of 22,000,000 which produced huge quantities of palm oil, cocoa, ground nuts, pepper and minerals.
After the Second World War responsibility for the marketing of Nigeria's principal agricultural products was handed over to a number of marketing boards. They paid a fixed price each year which was lower than the world market price, thus building up reserves which were used to cushion the farmers when world prices fell. And by appointing selected commercial firms as their buying agents, the marketing boards began to use their reserves for the development of their agricultural industries.
"Thus in 1949, three quarters of a million pounds had been spent in the North on introducing mechanized cultivation, on artificial fertilizers, and on access roads to underdeveloped areas. The political significance of the new policy was even greater than its economic advantages. A quota of Nigerians was appointed to each board and to its advisory committee and to the marketing company in London... The same policy applied also in other sectors of Nigeria's industrial framework. One by one the Government run coal fields, the electricity undertakings, the Nigerian railway, and the administration of the ports and docks were removed from the control of government departments and handed over to public corporations. Here Nigerians and Britons served side by side under expert chairmanship.
The genius behind this economic revolution was the late Sir Sidney Phillipson, formerly Financial Secretary to the Nigerian Government. Small in stature, sandy-haired, sparsely built, his self-effacing manner gave little outward indication of the inner fires that drove him. The importance of "Sir Sid's" personal share in the peaceful transfer of responsibility over the whole field of the country's economy from British to Nigerian hands cannot be overrated." [Sharwood Smith]
Prior to the implementation of this imaginative system, the produce was bought by a Licensed Buying Agent, or LBA, on behalf of the trading companies. A.F.B. Bridges, a D.O. in Onitsha in the twenties provides a snapshot of the old style LBA:
"On the 6th March I was sent down to Atani on the river below Onitsha to go into a complaint from the Niger Company that the local people were trespassing on the company land.... The agent gave me lunch. He was a young man of about my own age and [one of] several agencies up and down the river. Some managed to stick it - others did not and, not long after, one at another station committed suicide. Not only were the stations lonely, they were hemmed in by thick bush on the land side and the muddy river on the other, swarming with mosquitos and other biting insects, hot and depressing. Further, the firms then had a system of fixed prices for trade goods and if the agent could find buyers at a higher price he was allowed to keep the balance. In this way the lucky or astute ones were able to make quite a lot of money and it was a fairly common experience to be standing talking to an agent on the riverbank at Onitsha and seeing a sternwheeler passing downriver, to be told "There goes so-and-so - he's made his pile" In the circumstances one can hardly grudge them their success, though it was a ubiquitous system and was later abolished."
Angus Ferguson CBE was a highly respected lawyer in Nigeria during the colonial period and he continued to practice there until illness forced his retirement in 1988. He provides a rather whimsical flavour of the commercial scene in the fifties, sixties and later:
"Productivity of the ordinary man - the man on the Onitsha mammy-wagon - was not very high. The Nigerian way of life was generally attuned to a leisurely tempo. In the rural areas this was the pace required for subsistence farming which is what most of life was about. With increasing exposure to the Western way of life and the need for cash, and therefore for cash crops, the pace probably increased a little.
Increasing urbanisation provided a market for local consumption and the rapidly expanding market in export produce (groundnuts, cocoa, cotton, rubber, palm oil, oilseeds, timber) with guaranteed prices for primary produce provided an incentive to higher productivity. It is noteworthy that while guaranteed prices were fair there was high productivity; when prices ceased to be fair (after independence) productivity dropped off.
You will know, of course, that Nigeria was self-sufficient in food under the colonial yoke and depended on the export of agricultural produce for its foreign exchange. Thanks to the Produce Marketing Boards which had the export monopoly the farmers were paid a fair price, Nigeria fared well in the world markets and agriculture flourished. For example, a million tons of groundnuts in one season.
Licensed Buying Agents (LBAs) were appointed by the Produce Marketing Boards to go into the bush and buy the produce for cash. LBA's were mainly, but not wholly, foreign or expatriate companies such as Levantis, Lever Brothers etc. and they needed finance.
The British banks at the beginning of each produce season would lend out millions of pounds (when pounds meant something) knowing that their money would not come back until the produce had been bought, tested as to export quality, shipped and sold.
Branch managers did this every year without a qualm. Would that we had such managers today. What Bank Manager today would cheerfully watch a kit- car rumble off into the bush over-laden with bags of shillings (the only payment the farmers would accept)? Those were the days!"
In the Sudan where cotton was a major export, A.G. McCall B.Sc (Agric)NDA and K.L. Lea-Wilson B.A. (Agric) A.I.C.T.A. began a project in Zandeland in 1945 to try to persuade the Zande people to grow some cash crops. It was a pilot project which, if successful, was hoped would pave the way for the social and economic development of southern Sudan. The instigator of the project, Dr. Tothill, hoped that "in the course of some 30 years a happy, civilised, prosperous, even if not wealthy peasantry would be built up, economically self sufficient and taking an ever increasing part in the management of its own affairs..."v
Zandeland was chosen for this experiment because the area had good soils, a comparatively large and concentrated population and a people amenable to organisation and noted as knowledgeable and industrious cultivators. But it involved a fundamental change in their way of life.
"We had deliberately to introduce the Azande to the heretical idea of a permanent homestead, to replace shifting cultivation by a settled form of agriculture providing for cash crops in rotations that would preserve the soils, to replace barter by a cash economy, to establish new levels of education and health, to direct a small fraction of the tribe into the even more revolutionary worlds of industry and town..."
The idea was to grow cotton, citrus, guava, custard apples, paw paws and limes on a commercial basis. But the experiment was not a great success. The attractions of cash, as opposed to barter, did not appeal. Chronic sicknesses and subservience to a feudal heirarchy, magic, witchcraft and tribal custom "sapped their energy and dulled their minds" and once the initial novelty wore off the people lost interest. A certain amount of coercion was exerted to persuade the tribe to set aside a proportion of land to cash crops. Bonuses were suggested "springing from complaints in every sub-division, in the provision of a prize for the women. This may sound far-fetched but they, after all, do a great deal of the work and it would not cost a lot to issue say a cheap aluminium bowl or plate as a women's prize."
However the lasting benefit to the area was the establishment of weekly produce markets at village centres all over the district. These flourished and became an essential of normal life. Prior to these, "the bush-shops were the only countryside marketing agency, albeit untrustworthy and inefficient, and they are still the main channel for the disposal of farms' grain, oil seeds, chillies, honey and beeswax."
Because Agricultural Officers were very active and deeply involved in the administration of the British colonies and Protectorates, commerce was not a major part of the administrative officer's working life. It is important to realise, however, that the colonies thrived. And a great deal of enthusiasm went into the enterprises to try to enrich all who took part. There was for example, in Asijiri, a small village in Nigeria in the late forties a "Welsh crusader" called Mr Price, who was not an administrative officer but who flung himself into the task of improving commercial practices and "Who with all the fervour, eloquence and fanaticism of his race...embraced the cause of co-operative societies. Largely at his instigation, the cocoa-growers [were] organized into thirteen Co-operative Marketing Unions, which between them [had] produced 180,000 bags of cocoa [in a] year" [The Mottled Lizard, Huxley]
Wherever it was in British administered Africa, great energy, ingenuity and fairness went into this immense commercial enterprise - this glimpse does it no justice. Not everyone was successful but countless people - Africans, Indians, Lebanese, British and other Europeans - prospered and there is no doubt that the foundation stones were laid for the countries under British rule to go forward and grasp the opportunities for themselves.
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