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Book Review: The "Empire" in the Tropics

British Imperialism in West Africa. by Elinor Burns (64 pp. Labour Research Department, 162, Buckingham Palace Road, S.W.l. Price 6d.)

The above pamphlet constitutes No. 4 of the Colonial Series of the L.R.D. It reviews in brief the various stages by which British capitalist interests have acquired a grip of the economic resources of West Africa, including the labour power of the natives. Broadly speaking, the process is similar to that in East Africa and other tropical countries illustrated from time to time in these columns. The main difference is that it commenced at an earlier date, and has reached a higher stage of development.

 In East Africa British influence had to contend from the first with the Arab slave-power. Its initial enterprises in that direction could conveniently assume the hypocritical guise of philanthropy, i.e., the suppression of the slave trade. In West Africa, however, British heroes from the time of Drake and Hawkins down to the latter end of the 18th century had indulged in the time-honoured practice of carrying off the comparatively defenceless inhabitants and selling them to the plantation-owners of the American colonies. This policy led to such a serious reduction in the population in these regions that the trading companies, which eventually sought profit there in other forms, actually had to bring back slaves liberated from America in order to provide themselves with a labour supply.

 These companies extended their influence from the coast to the interior by intrigues with native chiefs (ready to sell even the land and persons of their tribesmen for whisky and trousers) until the inevitable revolts arose, which necessitated falling back upon the support of the Imperial Government. This led, as in India and elsewhere, to the companies selling out to the Government, which henceforth assumed control and responsibility for the administration of the areas concerned.

 As a result of this change the native chiefs became, in practice, unofficial agents of the Crown. Those who proved refractory and independent were forcibly removed and replaced by others more amenable to "civilised” influences, who have been used to "collect taxes, recruit labour, supervise the native courts, and generally carry out British policy” (p. 12).

 These political changes reacted inevitably upon the economic organisation of native society. Instead of producing foodstuffs for themselves the inhabitants had perforce to produce articles for sale, such as palm oil, cocoa, rubber, etc., in order to obtain the money wherewith to pay the taxes; and as they found that, even by these means, their income was insufficient, numbers of them had recourse to the labour market and sold their energies for wages.

 Native chiefs and traders developed into small farmers, exploiting their own tribesmen. Tribal land became private property and the old communal organisation and customs fell into decay, and the population became simply a source of raw material for large-scale capitalist industry.

 Being dependent upon the wholesale buying concerns, the native producers find their position growing steadily worse. They have to meet the competition of large-scale plantations in other countries, which results in a lowering of their prices, while, on the other hand, the destruction of their old mode of life increases their wants, which tend to become more "civilised.”

 From this external and internal pressure there appears to be no escape short of a complete economic change the world over.
In addition to the soap and cocoa trusts, other capitalist interests have a finger in the pie of colonial development. The heavy iron industry finds room for expansion in the construction of railways, harbours, docks, etc., while behind them the financiers scoop up interest on loans for these enterprises, most of which are State owned. In fact State "Socialism” thrives to such an extent in the tropical Colonies that Mr. Ormsby-Gore (Under-Secretary for the Colonies) proposed in a recent Report that the Government itself should start plantations in order "to set an example ” to the natives in large-scale production. What effect this procedure would have on the already impoverished small-peasantry can readily be imagined. The State would conscript labour-power for its plantations as it does for its transport and other public works. The few native "large fish” would swallow up the "little fish” at a more rapid rate, and the outside trusts would gain the benefit of improved efficiency and organisation.

Eric Boden