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The role of the Creoles in Sierra Leone’s Hut Tax War: Victims or inciters?

21 August 2020 at 00:28 | 2326 views


The role of the Creoles in Sierra Leone’s Hut Tax War: Victims or inciters?

By Kortor Kamara, USA

In the treatise below I have sought to provide a glimpse, largely through the prism of the protectorate leaders and inhabitants, into the role of the Sierra Leone Creole community in the events and activities that led to the hut tax war of 1898. Moreover, of greater significance and far reaching consequences was how their perceived inciting activities in the protectorate, resulted in Governor Frederic Cardew effectively foiling Creole regional expansionist ambitions along British colonial territories in West Africa.

Despite having advocated and supported the establishment of the protectorate, with designs on administrative, mercantile and religious positions, Governor Cardew was adamant in refusing Creoles any significant role in the administration of the protectorate. The reason for such refusal was grounded on the fact that Cardew personally viewed some Creole civil servants in the colony unfavorably, due to corruption and other financial discrepancies.

This effort at shutting out Creoles in the administration of the protectorate had much more devastating effects, as the burgeoning Creole administrative cadre’s presence in places like Nigeria, Ghana and Gambia were greatly reduced, if not totally replaced with Europeans.

The three pillars
By analyzing the role and activities of the three pillars below of that community, namely - the Freetown based Creole Press, the Creole traders and mercantile community in the protectorate; Creole protectorate residents and missionaries in the protectorate - it is hoped that a clearer understanding can be brought to bear on the historical record of this period, as we proffer reasons for actions undertaken by the varied participants, especially the natives.

Arguably, one of the first Sierra Leonean historians to identify and highlight the apparent dichotomy in the role of the Creoles, as both victims and inciters during the hut tax war, my FBC History professor, AJG Wyse, aptly observed in his book - “HC Bankole Bright and Colonial Politics in Sierra Leone: 1919 -1958”, that the view of Creoles as solely victims was not entirely tenable, as even contemporaneously, the Creoles were being viewed as inciters by the colonial administration.

The role of the press
Creole public opinion in the colony was largely articulated by two main newspapers in Freetown - The Sierra Leone Weekly News (1884- 1951), edited by Cornelius May and The Sierra Leone Times (1892-1812), edited by James Augustus Fitzjohn. The Weekly News would later merge with the Times to form the Daily Mail in 1951.

Both of these editors provided extensive testimony before the Chalmers Commission and were squeezed for articles deemed seditious and inciting by the colonial administration.

The Creole newspapers had for long advocated annexation of hinterland territory, designed as not only a security measure against Koya and Yoni Temnes on the border of the colony but more so to facilitate the increasing lucrative trade, which the colony’s mercantile community depended on for prosperity and survival.

Such was the state of affairs with the 1861 annexation of the Sherbro regions and the Yoni expedition of Sir Francis de Winton in 1887, which were supported by the Freetown press. The Yoni had attacked and plundered Songo in 1885 and again in 1887 had mounted another attack, which resulted in the ensuing 1887 expedition which finally subdued and defeated them.

However, at the start of the 1898 conflict, the Creole Press, though supportive of the protectorate expansionism, was largely opposed to the hut tax being imposed with the proclamation of the protectorate ordinance and sympathized and even lionized the exploits of Bai Bureh. They also criticized the heavy handedness of the Frontier Police and published their atrocities, much to the chagrin of the colonial governor.

These actions led the Governor, Sir Frederic Cardew, to hold the firm belief that the above newspapers incited the peoples of the protectorate to resist payment of the hut tax.

As an example, during his testimony to the Chalmers Commission, Governor Cardew opined that “ I will not particularize the passages in these papers which I consider to be offensive to the government and subversive of its authority. But, inasmuch as they threw contempt on and vilified the Governor, as they showed a marked sympathy for the insurgents and eulogized the rebel chief Bai Bureh and held him up to admiration as a hero, their tendency has been to incite the natives of the protectorate not to pay the house tax, and to encourage them in their resistance to the forces of the government."

Such was the position held by the colonial British government that in instructions to the Royal Commissioner Sir David Chalmers, the Under Secretary of State for the Colonies, Edward Wingfield wrote “It has been stated to a great extent that the insurrection was caused by articles in the Sierra Leone (Creole) Press and by traders and others in Sierra Leone (Freetown) who incited or encouraged the natives to refuse to pay the hut tax, and you should inquire fully into the truth of these allegations“.

The press turns against the rebellion
Beginning in April, 1898, the ferocious nature of the Mendi uprising caused a radical change in perception and attitude of the Creoles and the Creole Press against the rebellion.

The same press that earlier lionized the gentle nature of Bai Bureh’s guerrilla type warfare denounced the “barbarity of the Mende uprising.”

A Creole writing in the Sierra Leone Weekly News lamented that “the history of the world will have to be referred back to the dark ages in order to discover an event parallel to what has now happened in Sierra Leone “.

The role of the Creole traders
It is instructive to study the role and activities of Creole traders residing in the protectorate and why they engendered such resentment among the local population during the period leading up to the hut tax war.

While the historical records, including eye-witness testimonies documented in the Chalmers Report, are replete with individual and collective acts of victimization, including gruesome killings of Creole traders and missionaries in the protectorate, what is however largely ignored is an examination of the conduct and activities of the Creoles against the protectorate peoples.

The presence of a large number of Creole traders and merchants in the hinterland of Sierra Leone was a phenomenon predating both the establishment of the colony and protectorate. In fact, since the establishment of the settlement at Freetown in 1792, Creoles had traded and lived mostly amicably amongst the natives.

According to the Chalmers Report, the colony’s trade and revenue depended almost entirely on the hinterland. “The colony, as I have already stated, produces scarcely any exportable articles, and apart from commodities brought from the hinterland, its trade would be almost confined to supplying the military garrison and the officers of the civil government in Freetown, and the revenue thence derived would not of course nearly suffice even to pay official salaries, let alone other items of colonial expenditure.” ( Wrote Sir David Chalmers).

The atrocities against the Creoles by especially Mende and Sherbro war boys however were not aimless and indiscriminate violence, as most modern commentators contend, but were rather deliberate and calculated attempts at inflicting punishment to those who had aggrieved the natives.

The testimony of Governor Cardew, notes “ that Sierra Leone (Creole) traders in following their calling in the protectorate have often behaved towards the natives in a domineering, oppressive and extortionate manner, particularly in the Mendi districts, has long been known to the District Commissioners and Police Officers, and there is a body of oral evidence on the subject “.

Grievances against Creole traders/settlers: Interference in land tenure system
The grievances of the natives, accumulated over several decades, revolved around such issues as disrespect by the Creole traders of their cultural norms, usurpation and ownership of tribal lands, physical abuse, interference in tribal governance and palavers or meetings, predatory and unfair business practices, and seduction of wives of chiefs and natives.

Since time immemorial, the land tenure and landlord/tenancy relationship and system operating in the hinterland of Sierra Leone revolved around communal ownership, with lands entrusted to the Chiefs as trustees.

According to VR Dorjahn and Christopher Fyfe, in their paper titled “Landlord and Stranger”, a very complex relationship existed regarding a landlord and tenant in the protectorate. Traditionally, land occupied by strangers was never permanent and ownership always remained in communal hands.

This previous landlord/tenancy system had served as the basis of the relationship between the early Europeans and the indigenous Chiefs, which however the Creoles sought to upend, through activities such as engaging in land cultivation without permission from traditional landlords and chiefs.

Also, they started claiming ownership of tribal lands and refused to pay rents. For example, in 1895, the Loko chief of Rotifunk, Suri Kasebeh complained to Governor Cardew about Creoles occupying communal lands without payment. The chief of Mafwe also lodged complaints in 1896 “that the Creoles there took and occupied land for cultivation without either reference to him or any acknowledgement in the shape of rent.” Moreover, the Chief of Lungi in January 1898 also complained that Creoles had settled on lands without permission.

Further, the Creoles started solving trade disputes themselves and imposing punishment, without alluding to the chiefs. For example, it became a rampant practice for Creole traders to detain natives for debts and have them tied up as punishment. According to Captain Carr, a European official reportedly witnessed a Creole trader who tied up a native debtor and gave him four lashes every day, burned his beard off and subjected him to other gross indignities.

Governor Cardew also reported that at a meeting he held with chiefs at Sulima on November 8, 1894, complaints about Creole traders forcing Mendes to trade with them, which often leads to disturbances must be stopped.

The role of Creole missionaries
The Creoles, like their brethren in Liberia, the Americo - Liberians, believed in their “superiority“ over the natives and saw their destiny in the “civilizing mission” of the natives. As missionaries, they were allowed to build churches and factories. However, they soon began interfering and asserting their wealth and dominance.

The Sierra Leone Weekly News of May 8, 1898 reported on a sermon by the Rev. W.H Maude in which he attributed several causes for the uprising in the protectorate including the hut tax, but that he thinks the conduct of the Sierra Leoneans
(Creoles) was largely the cause due to “the treatment they meted out to the country people.”

Finally, as noted from the above brief expose, the Creoles and especially the Freetown press can be said to have served as initial sympathizers of the refusal of the protectorate chiefs to pay the hut tax, but however withdrew their support when the rebellion sought to also punish the Creole traders and missionaries for wrongs done, as highlighted in the article.