The British Empire Library

Gold Coast Diaries: Chronicles of Political Officers in West Africa

by Thora Williamson

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Michael Ensor (Gold Cost/Ghana Administrative Sendee 1940-58)
In 1913 the newly arrived Governor of the Gold Coast, Sir Hugh Clifford, laid down that Chief and Provincial Commissioners were to keep, and send to him, informal diaries. These officers in turn, called for such diaries to be kept by District Commissioners. Ghana's National Archives inherited many of these from which a generous selection forms the main element of this book. Here we have the nitty-gritty of colonial administration, an invaluable source for practising historians. The diaries, some kept by Chief Commissioners, some by newly arrived officers, some composed of tersely factual entries, others more discursive on local customs, make wonderful reading for anyone who served in the Gold Coast.

The book results from a mammoth task undertaken by the late Thora Williamson during several visits to Ghana where she copied in longhand, from often disintegrating paper, the extant diaries. Then, while working in the Oxford Colonial Records Project, she prepared them for readers. She was led to do this, having come to know a longretired District Commissioner, by the fascination of his reminiscences. Anthony Kirk- Greene has done a fine job in editing the result for publication. There is a first chapter on the appointment of DC's and their role. Among the appendixes are biographical notes on the diarists for the years up to 1919, which is the span of the book. Some pre-1913 diary entries have also been included. Near the start, in 1901, the news arrives that the Governor and his wife are besieged in Kumasi fort. But most of the coverage is of the years of World War I when the never generously staffed administration was depleted by wartime losses and the need to staff the western half of captured German Togo. Nearly half the entries are by officers acting in higher ranks. And we read of districts having for periods to be administered by doctors, usually in addition to their medical work, while at other times administrative officers are treating the injured and coping with outbreaks of infectious diseases, especially the 1918 influenza pandemic. There is sadness when colleagues succumb to tropical diseases. One effect of the war in frontier districts was to make for good relations with French officials in neighbouring territories.

While the full Lugardian concept of Indirect Rule was not applied in the Gold Coast a thinly spread administration was inevitably greatly dependent on chiefs of varying grades for the smooth running of the country. So the diaries deal extensively with relations with the chiefs and the headmen of villages and immigrant groups. Developments in this period included the spread of cocoa cultivation, which resulted in new settlements whose layout and sanitation were of concern to several diarists. The help of DC's was sometimes needed to persuade people to accept coins in replacement of cowries that were still preferred in distant markets as late as 1919. Communications had to be improved: there was no professional help for constructing the roads needed not yet for motor vehicles but for travellers riding bicycles or carried in hammocks and for the rolling of casks filled with agricultural produce. The few telephone links to districts worked only intermittently and most inland mail travelled with district administration carriers.

I have only one small stricture: it is a pity that the great care devoted to preparing the texts was not also applied to the maps.

British Empire Book
Thora Williamson
Anthony Kirk-Greene
I.B. Tauris


Armed Forces | Art and Culture | Articles | Biographies | Colonies | Discussion | Glossary | Home | Library | Links | Map Room | Sources and Media | Science and Technology | Search | Student Zone | Timelines | TV & Film | Wargames

by Stephen Luscombe