Sierra Leone and New Labour Militarism

22 September 2005 at 23:14 | 734 views

Even though aspects of this historical analysis are dated, for example the reference to Robin Cook the late British Foreign Secretary, it is one of the most salient and surgical that have been written on Sierra Leone.

By Richard Gott

In Sierra Leone, as in Zimbabwe, Britain under New Labour has an irresistible urge to relive its colonial past. Maybe Robin Cook will soon be seeking to pay for his military adventure in West Africa by imposing a hut tax on its unfortunate inhabitants, just as the British did in 1898. That particular tax, a form of poll tax imposed on colonial territories, was to cause one of the great African rebellions of the 19th century. Two British military expeditions had to be sent to the colony, with soldiers brought from the West Indies. After a wave of fierce repression was unleashed on the population, nearly a hundred rebel leaders were hanged.

Britain is almost wholly responsible for the mess in Sierra Leone, as it is for that in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe. Since both countries were dreamed up and created by Britain, it is highly doubtful whether this is the right country to try to clear up their troubles. The weight of recent history is too heavy, as the government would do well to remember. The British created Sierra Leone and Rhodesia just over a century ago. They imposed a "protectorate" on the vast territory inland from Freetown in 1896, in the same year that they crushed the rebellion of the Ndebele and the Shona in Rhodesia. The native inhabitants of the new Sierra Leone "protectorate", the Temne and the Mende, immediately rebelled against colonial rule, slaughtering settlers and missionaries, policemen and "creoles", without stopping to differentiate between them. The "creole" population of Freetown had been cre! ated a hundred years earlier, in 1787, when the British imposed a "white settler colony" on the land around the town in 1787, although the settlers were mostly black. Former black slaves were sent there (and white prostitutes) because some Jack Straw of the time thought that the indigent squeegee merchants of London should be returned to their "parish of origin". A group of philanthropists at the time, New Labour avant la lettre, thought that spare blacks could be "sent back" from London to Africa.

The local Africans in West Africa had other ideas. Within a year they had rebelled against this imposed colony of foreign blacks and destroyed it. British reinforcements soon arrived, and former black "Empire Loyalists" were brought out to Freetown, men who had fought for Britain in the American war of independence, and then found an unhappy home in cold and racist Canada. These American blacks were joined a few years later by Jamaican Maroons, expelled from Jamaica after the British had fought them to a standstill with fighting dogs imported from Cuba. This new generation of black settlers, mostly Christian, found themselves endlessly fighting off the attacks of the indigenous inhabitants, who were mostly Moslem. British gunboats were sent upriver throughout the 19th century to crush the native rebellions.

Britain’s imposition of a hut tax sparked off two rebellions in the hinterland of Sierra Leone in 1898, by one by the Temne, led by Bai Bureh, the other by the Mende, led by Momoh Jah. To pay for the privilege of British administration, the military governor, Colonel Frederic Carthew, had decreed that the inhabitants of the new "protectorate" should be taxed on the size of their huts. The owner of a four-roomed hut would pay ten shillings a year, those with smaller huts would pay five shillings. Colonel Cardew was not an administrator, but a professional soldier who had spent years in India and South Africa. First imposed on January 1, 1898, the hut tax aroused immediate and intense opposition, led in the first instance by the sixty-year-old Bai Bureh. The operations against him, from February to November, involved "some of the most stubborn fighting that has been seen in! West Africa," wrote Colonel Marshal, the British commander. "No such continuity of opposition had at any previous time been experienced on this part of the coast."

According to an account by a Sierra Leone historian, "Bai Bureh made effective use of stockades built of palm logs and embedded in the ground, buttressed with laterite boulders and tied with creepers. The defenders lay protected in trenches behind the stockades, and fired through loopholes." Colonel Marshal’s columns were eventually able to tear down the stockades, and "they also burned towns and villages, destroyed rice fields and crops, and terrorised the inhabitants of the area." By the end of May 1898, they had destroyed some 97 towns and villages, and deprived Bai Bureh of his food supply.

"De war done done", Bai Bureh observed when captured in November 1898. The colonial authorities had hoped to put him on trial for treason, but the legal position was uncertain, so they deported him to Ghana. He was forbidden to return home until 1905, and he died in 1908. A second anti-British rebellion broke out among the Mende in April 1898, after the arrest of Momoh Jah. The rebels took their message of rebellion to distant parts of the protectorate by sending out runners carrying a burnt leaf. The Christian missionaries in the Mende country had made the mistake of preaching sermons in favour of the hut tax, and urged people to pay it. As a result of identifying themselves with the government in this way, they soon came under rebel attack.

"The insurgents killed not only white and black soldiers and every missionary they could put their hands on," wrote C L R James in his history of African revolts, "but also certain of the Europeanised blacks as well. They looked upon all of these as members of one exploiting, arrogant group." "The weight of evidence" reported the official enquiry into the insurrection, "very clearly points to the general and pervading motive to have been that the rioters, identifying all English-speaking people with the English government, and believing that in one way or other they had taken part with and aided the government in bringing the hut tax, with its concomitant grievances, upon them, were wrought up to the desire of taking vengeance upon them."

The rebellion needed two military expeditions to crush it. Colonel Cardew asked for troops to be sent from the recently-formed West African Frontier Force based in Nigeria, but his request was refused. The WAFF was too busy crushing rebellions in northern Nigeria at the time.

"The tribes completely wiped out some battalions of West Indian blacks who were sent against them," wrote C L R James, "and it is claimed...that certain white battalions were almost completely destroyed. The great massacres of government soldiers took place at Sherbro and Mofeno. The revolt was of course put down, many hundreds of natives being killed."

When the rebellions were over, British retribution was fierce. Of 158 people brought to trial and found guilty, ninety-six were executed, and hanged at Kwelu, Bonthe, and Bandajuma. A senior office then marched through the territory, with an army of a thousand soldiers, fifty officers, and five thousand carriers, "to show the flag",

Today Britain’s New Labour government is flying the flag once again, although its colonial reinforcements will now arrive in the uniform of the United Nations. Just as soldiers from the Indian Army used to be summoned to assist in Britain’s conquest of Africa and to help crush the subsequent rebellions, so today Robin Cook hopes that UN troops will be summoned up from the successor governments in Delhi and Dacca. Other troops may fly in from Jordan, another small country invented by Britain, also with an army once officered by the British. How strange it must be for an African to see this resurrection of the British Empire.

Everyone always knew, even before he was elected in 1997, that Tony Blair would eventually show a marked interest in foreign affairs. British prime ministers always do, though their success record has been patchy. Expertise has little to do with it. Neville Chamberlain, who knew nothing about the outside world, was a disaster. So too was Anthony Eden, who knew a lot. Harold Macmillan, who was an intelligent and knowledgable operator in the outside world presided wisely over the dismantling of empire, while John Major, who had little foreign expertise except a road accident in Nigeria, was also a notably safe pair of hands.

What most people failed to foresee in the warm glow of 1997 was that Blair would take Britain to war three times in as many years, reviving memories of conflicts in colonial arenas about which everyone previously had been happy to forget. For the Labour Party was once the guardian of the country’s liberal and pacifistic conscience (as indeed was the currently war-mongering Guardian). Labour was always reluctant to engage in colonial wars and gunboat diplomacy, and for years in opposition had been the patient advocate of peaceful diplomacy and collective security. Yet New Labour under Blair and Robin Cook has donned its flak jacket, to become the sponsor of armed intervention in different parts of the world. The posture is immediately reminiscent of Harold Wilson’s imperial policy in the 1960s, the scheme to maintain a military capacity "East of Suez", although the politic! al echoes come from much further back. For Tony Blair and his entourage now look increasingly like the Liberal Imperialists gathered around the prime minister in 1882. It was they who encouraged William Gladstone to invade and occupy Egypt, to rescue its foreign trading and banking community, to crush its nationalist revolution, and to force it to pay its debts. Nothing good came from that intervention; it led to endless conflict in Egypt, the Sudan, Uganda, and Somalia, that tied down British armies for nearly half a century.

Nothing positive will result from New Labour’s new militarism either. In Iraq, in Kosovo, and now in Sierra Leone, Tony Blair has intervened in the quarrels of other countries with no clear idea of the benefits and without the faintest notion where the eventual exit will be found. He has done so in the name of the doctrine of liberal imperialism, freshly minted for a new century, that has won warm plaudits from many of today’s liberals and social democrats in the press. All have expressed their delight at the possibility of a fresh global role for this arthritic imperial power. Some of them may soon be calling for military intervention in such continuing colonial troublespots as Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe.

Old hands would have been suspicious of events in Sierra Leone at the outset. Former colonial European powers who claim that their sole ambition in invading African countries is the humanitarian rescue of their nationals always have a second agenda. In the famous case of the Belgian parachute drop on Stanleyville/Kisangani in 1965, to which Harold Wilson gave a helping hand, the aerial invasion went in parallel with an advance on the city by South African white mercenaries fighting for Moises Tshombe and his army commander Joseph Mobutu. The subsequent defeat of the "rebels" of the time paved the way to Mobutu’s thirty year dictatorship. So in Sierra Leone today the British invasion had little to do with rescuing British nationals, most of whom, it was revealed later, would have been happy to stay. The initially undisclosed aim was to destroy the existing internal peace a! ccord signed last year, and to crush finally the nine year "rebel" insurrection of Foday Sankoh. The future General Mobutu of Sierra Leone has yet to reveal himself, but from all accounts there are plenty of candidates. The white mercenaries are also back, with Colonel Tim Spicer of Sandline on our screens giving advice, and a handful of South Africans from Executive Outline up in the air, firing from their helicopter gunship on rebel villages. One of the horrors of this war, much written about in the press, is the physical mutilation inflicted by the rebels, cutting off arms and hands and legs of some of those who fall into their clutches. To those in Europe or North America who lead lives rather remote from war zones, these true stories of apparently mindless cruelty have a nightmare quality, the embodiment of evil. Yet it is easy to forget that the basic inequality between the rich world and the poor world, such a remarked-upon feature of contemporary life, is nowhere more mar! ked than in the weapons people use. If you have no knives or guns, you scratch your enemy’s eyes out. If you have the money, you can pay someone to use a "smart" bomb.

The rebels of Sierra Leone do not have access to helicopter gunships, nor to cruise missiles, nor to any of the "sophisticated" weapons that western armies have at their disposal, and have been happy to spray over Serbia and Iraq. Many of the rebels are still forced to rely on the axe and the machete, the first gifts that all colonial powers presented to primitive peoples in exchange for their land and their labour.

The barbarity of African practices was a feature of all colonial narratives in the late nineteenth century, and was invariably wheeled out as a justification for invasion and occupation. By comparison, to European eyes at the time, the machine gun seemed a relatively civilised weapon, capable of wiping out armies of anonymous black individuals in a single afternoon. Only when the white Germans turned the gun on the white British at the battle of the Somme did people begin to have doubts about their splendid weapon. Today there is an almost total absence of protest about New Labour’s wars, for they take place during an era when people have no appetite for foreign affairs, and when few people know what is going on. Newspapers are told by their focus groups that there is no readership for political analysis of events beyond our shores, and not much for reportage either. The ! old expertise that was once present inside a newspaper has been gradually whittled away. The once liberal Observer and the Independent on Sunday, lacking any in-house African pundit, were both obliged last week to fall back for comment on Richard Dowden, the conservative African editor of the Economist. The Guardian and the Sunday Times were reduced to calling on the services of William Shawcross, a former sidekick of Kofi Annan and an ardent advocate of mercenary action.

Sometimes the newspapers do not even trouble to mention the action "our boys" are engaged in. At the beginning of April, British and United States planes attacked southern Iraq, hitting residential areas and killing 14 people. On the next day, France and Russia condemned the bombings, and the French foreign ministry described them as "pointless and deadly". Not a peep about any of this in Britain’s liberal press, nor any reminder that more than 160 Iraqi civilians have been killed since the end of 1968 by British and American bombing. This of course is an old imperial habit; Britain began bombing the Kurds as long ago as 1919, and deployed bombers from the Royal Air Force against Iraqi civilians throughout the 1920s. New Labour’s foreign wars have become a spectator sport that can be turned off the screen when people have had enough. Bosnia is boring, and Kosovo has almost disappeared, apart from a handful of articles marking the anniversary of the war, printed alongside those dealing with some other distant and forgotten war, the one in Vietnam that ended in 1975. British troops may still be involved, but the British newspaper reader is decidedly not.

Yet as in the colonial era, it is probable that financial reality will eventually overturn the forecasts of the New Labour strategists. Britain seized the immense rebel hinterland of Sierra Leone in 1896, establishing a "protectorate" with the stroke of a pen. Finding it was unable to finance the policing of its new acquisition, it imposed a hut tax on every African shanty.

Two years later, unwilling to pay the new tax, the inhabitants of the territory erupted in a a great rebellion, with the slaughter of every European and every Europeanised black they could get their hands on. The British were forced to send two military expeditions to crush the uprising, calling for reinforcements other parts of the empire who worked wonders with the machine gun. Today the colonial reinforcements wear the colours of the United Nations.

In those distant days, the "left", such as it was, opposed these displays of colonial violence. Today the "left, such as it is, seems strangely silent. As was the case with Kosovo,in Britain there is more opposition to liberal imperialism in the Tory camp than within the serried ranks of New Labour.

Photo: Robin Cook

Our thanks to Mr. A.C.Faulkner of Leonenet-Tamu for this article.