Today it is considered impolite not to discreetly overlook the complicity of African peoples in the slave trade. However, it is highly unlikely that the slave trade would have flourished as it did without the widespread and enthusiastic participation of Africans. Tribes such as the Ashanti in what was then the Gold Coast (now Ghana) and the Temni in Sierra Leone owned and traded in slaves. Ironically, Sierra Leone had been chosen by the British abolitionist Granville Sharp when seeking a colony for freed slaves and this led to the founding of Sierra Leone’s capital Freetown in 1791. The Sierra Leone Company brought freed slaves from Nova Scotia and Jamaica to Sierra Leone and later, following the British abolition of the slave trade in 1808, the Royal Navy used Freetown as its base against slavers.
British relations with the native Temni people were generally amicable and trade flourished throughout much of the nineteenth century until an act of thoughtlessness and insensitivity by a governor, Sir Frederick Cardew, in 1893. Cardew received little or no money from London for the administration of the colony and needed to raise revenue, which he tried to do by means of a 5 shilling property tax. The tribal leaders took up arms at the indignity and the rising which followed in 1898 has become known as the Hut Tax War.
Afterwards, the Scottish barrister Sir David Chalmers QC was sent to investigate both the cause of the war and its conduct by the British. He found that Cardew was to blame. The Hut Tax was “obnoxious to the customs and feelings of the people” and was correctly perceived by tribal leaders as “taking away their rights in their country and in their property”. Moreover, it had been pitched too high and defaulters had been treated in a harsh and degrading manner. In short, the tax was unworkable, the people had a genuine grievance and the British now had their work cut out to rebuild not just the country and its infrastructure but also the confidence of the people. Unfortunately, Chalmers died shortly after submitting his report, the Colonial Office did not feel obliged to accept his findings and in 1900 the Hut Tax was re-imposed, albeit at a lower rate.
Click on the image below, which shows Sir David P Chalmers at the top of the passenger list of the Angola, dated 3rd July 1898, about to set sail from Liverpool to Sierra Leone. It is tempting to think that one or more of his four fellow travellers to Sierra Leone were accompanying him as part of a legal and secretarial support team but it is not possible to know this at this date.