Arrogant Colonial Administrators in Sierra Leone Tax Fiasco

And it came to pass in that there went out an ordinance from Her Majesty the Queen of England that all the territories adjacent to the Colony of Sierra Leone should be taxed.

This tax, though similar to ones that had been successfully imposed in other imperial “protectorates,” was resisted, and led to a violent rebellion and then to a crackdown in which dozens of Hut Tax rebels were hanged and hopes for the independence of Sierra Leone from foreign rule were, for decades, frustrated.

Most of the summary I’m giving here today is based on the Report By Her Majesty’s Commissioner and Correspondence on the subject of the Insurrection in the Sierra Leone Protectorate, 1898, issued , which is very critical of the colonial administration, but which necessarily has a pro-imperialist bias (the Commissioner’s commission came from Her Imperial Highness after all).

The British coalesced the coastal African colony of Sierra Leone, and its adjoining inland “protectorate,” by negotiating with individual kings of the many small political groups native to the area. These negotiations usually culminated in a treaty signed by the local king and the colonial governor that ceded certain rights over territory to the British in return for protection (including mediation and sometimes military intervention in inter-group conflicts) and often a periodic payment by the empire to the native king.

The British also made some effort to combat the still-ongoing slave trade in the area. This, to the residents, was a mixed blessing depending on whether they had been prey or predator. The fortunes of some local elites had been made in the slave trade when it was still being encouraged by Britain, and slavery had also become a local institution — with a large percentage of the population of the protectorate being slaves. The British by this time were actively suppressing the slave trade, having had a change of heart about their own former pro-slavery policies about a century prior, but they didn’t try to abolish slavery in the protectorate or to free those currently enslaved there. However because the British legal system did not recognize the validity of slavery, it wouldn’t treat enslaved people as property to be reclaimed if they did manage to escape to a British-controlled area, and some of the kings complained that their slaves were taking advantage of this to escape.

The British used this half-hearted effort to combat slavery in Sierra Leone as a moral prop, much in the same way that modern American imperalists in the middle east will pretend to care about women’s education in Afghanistan or the rights of the Marsh Arabs in Iraq when the occasion calls for crocodile tears.

Sierra Leone’s importance to the British was in part because it was “the only suitable coaling station England possesses on the west coast of Africa.” It does not seem to have been otherwise a great source of benefit for England, not having known mineral resources of much use then, or agricultural exports worth getting excited about; but in the Monopoly game that was the imperialist scramble for Africa, it was better to have poor colonies than no colonies at all. Before the Hut Tax that was scheduled to go into effect in , the colony’s revenue came from customs duties.

The British colonial rulers had deputized some natives to be imperial “Frontier Police,” but in a classic imperial snafu, these more-or-less completely unsupervised police, because they had no particular investment in the British project or the reputation of the empire, tended to use their authority to settle old scores, shake people down, and take untoward sexual liberties with those they lorded over. There seemed also to be instances of gangs impersonating Frontier Police in order to assume these same advantages. Because they did all this as de facto representatives of The Queen of England, and often represented themselves as imperial judges and legislators as well as cops, their abuse or assumption of power reflected back on the Empire and made it harder for it to get respect.

In addition, the colonial government relied on the Frontier Police when it was trying to collect the tax or to take reprisals against tax-resisting groups or kings. Even worse, when the colonial government justified the tax to the people in the area harassed by the Frontier Police, it did so by saying the money was necessary in order to finance this largely unappreciated police force.

The Protectorate Ordinance that instituted the Hut Tax also gave the colonial administration greater powers than before — and by fiat, marking a striking change in attitude by the empire toward the kings that it had previously been negotiating with. Provisions of the new ordinance included “limiting the forensic jurisdiction of the Chiefs [kings]… enabling the Governor to unmake and make Chiefs, to banish persons from any part of the territories without any charge and without opportunity of a hearing or defence, and… imposing taxes.”

Almost immediately as word of the ordinance got out, petitions came in from a variety of groups asking that it be rescinded. The Hut Tax in particular was described as onerous and impossible for poor people and villages to pay, as well as an outrage against the institution of private property: “our own true fear is that paying for our huts naturally means no right to our country” (or, as another aboriginal political scientist patiently explained: “Paying for a thing in our country means that you had no original right to it; so it seems as if they had no right to their houses.”)

When the government, disregarding these complaints, began collecting the tax, perhaps because it had been forewarned by all of this petitioning it “came to the conclusion that the exercise of force, peremptory, rapid, and inflexible, was the element to be relied on in making the scheme of taxation a success.” This was because without “a good show of force in the shape of Police in each of the districts in which the collection is to take place, the natives may passively resist the authorities collecting the tax, and do all in their power to evade it.”

Colonial district commissioners would summon together the kings in a district, ask them to pay up, then arrest them and hold them hostage if they refused or were unable — imprisoning them until they or their subjects coughed up the tax as a ransom, or sentencing them to hard labor for their refusal. These acts, though done by colonial district commissioners and not by the even more arbitrary Frontier Police, were no less extra-legal (the law provided only for property levies against non-payers, not arrest or criminal prosecution, except in the case of fraud in which case the punishment was only to be a fine). The commissioner who wrote the report on the Hut Tax War says bluntly: “The arrests and imprisonments were not legal under the law of the Protectorate Ordinance, or any other law under which the District Commissioner was authorized to act.” Later, this became standard practice for the Frontier Police collectors: (“it seems indeed to have been taken as the proper practice to make the Chief or Headman of the town a prisoner in this way until the tax was paid”).

The humiliation of their kings, far from intimidating the populace, further infuriated them, and convinced them that the ultimate aim of the British was to destroy their own system of governance, take their land, and mine them for exorbitant taxes.

A king named Bai Bureh, in Kasseh, assembled an armed group, called “war-boys” in Chalmers’s report, which successfully defended him against an expected attempt to arrest him for refusing to pay the Hut Tax — an attempt that Chalmers labels “aggression pure and simple on the part of the authorities” — and thus the Hut Tax War began. Other angry kings and people, inspired by Bai Bureh’s successful action, rallied to his side. Chalmers is surprisingly sympathetic to the aims of the rebels at this stage, quoting a member of the colonial forces as saying of their own aims, “being unable to arrest him [Bai Bureh], we destroyed his country and that of other Chiefs also, whom we were unable to arrest,” while of the rebels:

The character of the war as on the side of the Native forces, except in two attacks upon Port Lokko and another upon Karene, was defensive, probably the only mode of fighting possible to them as against troops having European organisation. It is well to remember the fact that they waged no warfare except against the troops and Police. There were missionary and trading stations absolutely at their mercy; but there were no plundering raids, and not a trader or missionary was killed, with the exception of the missionary, Mr. Humphreys, who lost his life through persisting in pressing on upon a journey along a particular road against the warnings of the war-men, who told him that they could not permit him to pass, and it even appeared that in killing him the men acted of their own accord, and not by the order of any one in authority. Mr. Elba in narrating his interview with Bai Bureh said that he appeared to be sorry for the occurrence.

The actions of the Imperial troops, on the other hand, resulted in “the laying waste of a country of about thirty miles’ radius round Karene, and the destruction of 97 towns and villages, having an aggregate population of over 44,000.” Chalmers implies that Imperial troops and their Frontier Police allies cut a path of unprovoked and senseless destruction through the territories they passed through during a punitive expedition — murdering, kidnapping children, burning villages — and then falsified their reports to say that they had been responding to attacks by “war-boy” guerrillas.

Meanwhile, tax collectors even in more subdued areas were acting with brutality and impunity: “houses were broken down or burned when the tax was not paid… [or even] after the tax had been paid… Goods were distrained at under values. In many cases where the tax was paid, it was by means of money borrowed at high interest; the Police took whatever they wanted for their own use without payment; they used threats freely, even to use their rifles… it is impossible to do otherwise than conclude that there were very many examples of cruel and flagrant abuse of authority, utterly unsanctioned by the law.”

This in sum convinced many people in Sierra Leone that the British had determined to inflict an all-out, no-quarter-given war on them, and they decided to respond in kind. Over a few days “the male British subjects in Bandajuma, Kwallu, and Sulymah Districts, with few exceptions, were murdered. A number of women also were murdered, and after an order went forth from the leaders staying the killing of women, they were treated as captive slaves. All property belonging to British subjects was plundered…”

This included the English missionaries and missions, which had not before been the objects of hostility. Chalmers notes that “the missionaries at some of the Mendi stations had preached sermons shortly before the outbreak in support of the Hut Tax, and advising the people to pay the tax,” and suggests that possibly “the people considered [that] the missionaries showed by these sermons that they identified themselves with the Government, and had common purpose with the Government in the enforcement of the Hut Tax.”

An interesting section in Chalmers’s report concerns the anarchic instincts of the people of the area and how these were underestimated by the more thoroughly conquered British citizens who took taxation in stride. Excerpts:

[A] tax of the nature of the Hut Tax is unknown in native custom, and… it is highly obnoxious. With a great deal of prevailing loyalty to authority, the native African mind has a strong grasp of the idea of individual liberty, and a tax peremptorily imposed irrespective of the consent of the tax-payer is felt to be derogatory to liberty. Moreover no people has ever welcomed direct taxation or received it even with toleration unless they have become aware that the Government they are required to support brings to them reciprocal advantages worth paying for.

We must accept the fundamental fact that the Chiefs and people of the Hinterland of Sierra Leone have as yet only very slight knowledge of the English Government or its beneficent aims. It has been recognised by many of the Chiefs that the English rule is beneficial inasmuch as it has tended to allay and prevent inter-tribal raids, which are condemned by general native opinion. And they probably have some feeling of security from the hope of English protection if threatened by outside enemies. Beyond these advantages nothing tangible or intelligible has as yet accrued.

The advantages recognised scarcely suggest to the native benefits of a nature which ought to be paid for by compliance with a tax which they regard as oppressive and unjust in itself, and in the peculiar significance attributed to it, viz.: that it implied a taking away of the right of the people in their own country, and a taking away of the right of ownership in the houses, an implied meaning which spread widely and deeply.

It is said that those ideas can be got rid of by explanation. That of course depends on the patience, skill, and success of the officer who undertakes to explain; he would start with a strong prepossession against his arguments. It is true that Chiefs occasionally draw contributions from their people, but these are of the nature of free-will offerings for particular purposes known and approved of by the people, as in the characteristic instance mentioned by Captain Fairtlough — the coronation of a Paramount Chief, or other occasion for festivities. I have found no instance of a Chief attempting to raise anything of the nature of a regularly recurring revenue in this way.

  • Chief Henry Tucker, a loyal Chief of the Meudi country, said, “The people are not pleased in paying this tax; they do not know what tax is. The place is newly made Protectorate. I think the Government ought to have given them a little more time to get used to it. Their houses are hardly worth four shillings [the Hut Tax was five shillings]… To us to pay the Hut Tax is quite a strange thing. That discourages them altogether… I knew it would not work smoothly. My mother and father never knew what tax was. People said whoever paid the tax would be killed. That showed very very strong feeling… Chiefs ask their people for contributions. Suppose, for instance, I wanted to visit some other Chief; I would leave it to them. They would give what they could; but to say they must give the Chief so much each year — no!”
  • To nearly the like effect are some remarks of Colonel Gore, the Colonial Secretary: “I should have left them a little longer to see the results of civilisation. They are not enlightened enough yet to understand it. It might have been better to wait a little. We are taking all their power away from them now… I do not think they were given long enough to understand it. I do not think they have grasped it.”
  • Chief Hanna Modu: “This Hut Tax affair is very great. Our fathers did not know anything about it. If they wanted it, they should have sent a letter to us to meet in one place and say, ‘We wish you to do such a work for us.’ ”
  • Karene Chiefs: “If you come through the King we will do what we can, but not a yearly payment, for that would be the same as a tax… Our forefathers were good friends with the Government. What we hear now as to our own country where our forefathers lived, is that if we want to live in this country we must pay Hut Tax: we have only mud-houses covered with grass; if we want to sleep in that hut we must pay for it. Our forefathers did not sell their country to the Government, it was a friendship; what belongs to us belongs to you as a friend.”
  • “If asked for contributions occasionally, we would do what we could.”
  • “Government should say, We want you to help us with such an amount, but not to go and say, You must pay… Willing to give as a voluntary contribution; but it would be selling the country if the Government came and peremptorily demanded it.”
  • “If Government asks us to give some rice for the Frontier Police; we will do what we are able, but to compel us to pay the Hut Tax, we are not able; if we pay for the house it does not belong to us any more.”

Seems to me they “grasped the results of civilisation” pretty well.

David Chalmers’s report, which amounted to an indictment of the policy of the colonial government, and cast the blame for the war and the massacres that resulted on the ineptitude, clumsiness, brutality, and extralegal overreach of the Hut Tax and its enforcement, was not at all welcomed by the government that commissioned it. The story they wanted to hear was that the Hut Tax War was “the result of an inevitable conflict between ancient barbarism and advancing civilisation,” nobody’s fault but of the child-like natives who, unable to comprehend that the benefits of their colonization would have to be paid for, threw a tantrum in the classic manner of unchristian savages everywhere.

Chalmers died in , about a year after his report was presented to Parliament, at which time his report was already being savaged by anticipatory attacks from its targets and their defenders in the British government. The backlash reminded me of what happened more recently when General Antonio Taguba released his insufficiently-whitewashed report on the Abu Ghraib prison abuse.

Chalmers’s recommendations, which largely amounted to treating the people of Sierra Leone with respect to their human dignity — not in repudiation of the imperialist project, but in order to live up both to its oft-pretended ideals of extending the blessings of civilization and to its promise of financial and strategic rewards to the empire — were largely ignored, and the empire doubled-down on its “exterminate the brutes” policy.