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The Negro in the British Empire

ISSUE:  Winter 1934

The year 1933 is the centenary of the year in which the British Parliament passed its famous Act abolishing slavery in the colonies. It is curious to reflect that, had the United States not fought for and won their independence fifty years before, they would certainly have fought for and won it in 1833. In that case, they might have prolonged the life of slavery in the West Indies and Africa. As things were, victory went to the humanitarian spirit; and that victory, so the historians tell us, influenced the whole temper of an age. It lay at the root of Victorian optimism. “Mankind,” says Professor G. M. Trevelyan, “had been successfully lifted on to a higher plane by the energy of good men, and the world breathed a more kindly air.” To the England of the period it seemed an omen of thrilling significance that the first instance of the Christian conscience playing a decisive part in British politics should coincide with the country’s first tentative step in the direction of parliamentary democracy (the first Reform Bill became law in 1832). Given free expression, the people’s will, it seemed, could be relied upon to implement the moral law and to identify itself with the will of God. Right might be worsted for a while, but that wrong should finally triumph was unthinkable. The spirit of the time was flood-lighted with a new hope—a hope we can observe still burning brightly when Robert Browning was at the height of his career.

In general, that hope has obviously been falsified. The power of the idealist over “practical” men swayed by their collective egoisms is not noticeably more extensive today than at any previous stage of history. The effective force in politics is still what it has always been—the crude self-interest of the stronger. The millennium is still as far off as ever. The Romantic Spirit itself, of which the movement for the abolition of slavery was a specialisation, has passed by and been succeeded in the mind of man by a kind of cynical bewilderment. Our own day has seen democracy and freedom violently challenged over wide districts of the earth, not merely as working bases of government, but as ultimate objectives. To the moderns, on the whole, the divine voice of the people is a notion hardly less obsolete than the divine right of kings. But, all this being admitted, it may yet be of interest to inquire how far the black members of the British Empire have managed to preserve, to justify, and to enjoy the freedom won for them by the dour struggle of the Emancipators.

Emancipation chiefly affected the West Indies, to which the slaves had been delivered, and Africa, from which they had been drawn. Let us look at each region in turn.


There is a common idea that the British West Indian colonies consist chiefly of worked-out sugar plantations and are inhabited by an idle and degenerate population representing all degrees of racial impurity. It is an inaccurate picture. The economic importance of the islands, both in relation to the Empire and the world at large, has, of course, greatly declined since the eighteenth century, when they were regarded as the brightest jewels of the British Crown, the sheet anchor of the imperial system. But the decline is relative, not absolute; and they are in fact more populous and more productive today than ever before. Their loss of ground has been due simply to the general world-expansion of the nineteenth century—to the opening up of other sources of supply of their once exclusive products, and to the consequent compulsion on them to fight for a place in the world’s markets against competitors who often turned out to be more favourably placed. Europeans are no more than three per cent of the population. Of the ninety-seven per cent of coloured people, it is estimated that between one-seventh and one-fifth have white blood in their veins; the proportion does not seem to be increasing. Sociologists are welcome to draw from these figures what conclusions they can as to the sexual relations of the white and black communities. The central fact is that the West Indian colonies represent much less a problem in race relations than a problem of Negro political education. Moreover, the educational process cannot build on any foundation of traditional African customs or institutions. The years of slavery blasted a gulf between the Negro and his African past too deep for the race memory to bridge. Thus the administrative method known as “indirect rule,” which the British have used with success in some parts of Africa, has no possibility of application in the West Indies. West Indian culture is now merely European in type; and West Indian self-government, when it comes, has no choice but to follow broadly European lines.

Anyone who visits the islands today will find the economic and social system tending more and more to base itself on a peasant proprietorship that seems genuinely congenial to the Negro mind. He will see the masses at a humble standard of living and badly housed; but he will see little serious poverty or distress, little unemployment, and no direct or indirect compulsion to work for wages. He will notice that the authorities are beginning to wake up to the value of tourist traffic, and that a rabble of touts and souvenir hawkers at the ports and places of resort springs up more readily than first-class hotels. The population as a whole will strike him as easy-going and contented, with political consciousness under-developed, but with an irrational loyalty to the British connection and an equally irrational aversion from closer relations with the United States; for these reasons it is perhaps more orderly and law-abiding than it ought to be. Nevertheless, a wholesome element of critical, reforming discontent is beginning to make itself felt, and to demand, not indeed political independence, but a more responsible voice in the counsels of government. Education is backward but improving, and there is a coloured intelligentsia of real cultivation. The public services are stuffed to the extent of ninety per cent by men of colour, and even in the business world, the plums of which the white man is apt to reserve jealously for himself, coloured men not seldom occupy high positions. An ex-Governor has stated of the West Indian Negroes in general that “there is no department of Government, executive, administrative, or judicial, in which they have not held the highest office with distinction, no profession of which they are not honoured members, no branch of commerce or industry in which they have not succeeded.”

At the time when slavery was abolished most of the West Indian colonies possessed constitutions very similar in form to those of the American colonies before the War of Independence. As soon as abolition became a live issue the system of local representation without local responsibility broke down, and for the first half of the nineteenth century the West Indian colonies floundered in political and administrative chaos. Accompanied by fruitless efforts at reform, the old machinery creaked intolerably on its way until 1865, when the shock of the Jamaica rebellion suddenly convinced everyone of the urgent need for that strong government which the Assembly system had so long proved itself incapable of providing. The Governor in desperation invited the Assembly to give the Crown a free hand in rebuilding the constitution. After much bickering and with ill grace the Assembly at length assented, thereby voting its own suicide.

The Crown’s choice fell upon what until recently was known as Crown Colony government, a constitutional form consisting of the Governor, an Executive Council composed of officials, and a single-chamber legislature composed partly of officials holding their seats ex officio and partly of unofficial members nominated by the Governor. In Jamaica the new constitution came into force in 1866. Most of the other colonies, in tacit acknowledgment of Jamaica’s primacy, followed her lead. By 1875, in Barbados and the Bahamas alone of the twelve islands which had once prided themselves on their elected Assemblies, did these historic bodies still exist.

The process of political development usual in British colonies, from Crown autocracy to representative government and from representative government to responsible government, was thus reversed in the West Indies by the gradual elimination of elected Assemblies—and, in spite of all the fumbling, the indecision, and the searching of heart, deliberately reversed. In the last fifty years have been taken the first steps of a return to it at a level less incongruous with the colonies’ general social growth. In a number of colonies elected representatives have been re-introduced into the legislatures, in such a way as to temper bureaucratic control without nullifying the Crown’s executive authority. For example, the Legislative Council in Jamaica today consists of six official, ten nominated, and fourteen elected, members; and in Trinidad of thirteen official, six nominated, and seven elected, members. Corresponding changes have been made in various islands of the Leeward and Windward groups. They are ostensibly the lower rungs of the ladder that leads eventually to self-government. Enlarged political responsibility is, so the understanding runs, to be doled out to the colonies in such instalments as the British Government considers them capable of profiting by.

It is hardly open to question that the apparently retrograde step of confiscating the old political liberties of most of the islands was actually their salvation. Of the two possible ways of escape from the chronic state of political deadlock into which they had sunk, it alone was in any degree appropriate to the general social and economic context. It conferred an immense benefit by the mere provision of comparatively effective governments with the power of consistently pursuing comparatively sane policies. Most important of all, it represented a decisive stand by the British authorities against the exploitation and oppression of the Negroes by the planter class—a precedent which, as we shall see, has too often been neglected in Africa, to Africa’s heavy cost. It released at once a prolonged outburst of legislative reform, directed first to the removal of many kinds of racial discrimination under which the Negroes were labouring, and later to the expropriation of derelict estates with a view to establishing the system of Negro peasant proprietorship. Within a few years the attitude of the governed to their rulers fundamentally changed. The Negroes came to regard them with loyalty as on the whole reliable trustees, while the obvious advantages of orderly administration gradually softened the bitter hostility of the white electorate. The fierce race antagonism of half a century cooled off into the mild and manageable race prejudice which is all that exists today or has existed during the present century. It is here worth noting that the two colonies where the colour line is still relatively sharply drawn are Barbados and the Bahamas, which alone retain the old representative Assemblies. An American philosopher, Josiah Royce, could say of Jamaica in 1908, “Our own southern race problem in the forms which we know best simply does not exist. There is no public controversy about social race equality or superiority. Neither a white man nor a white woman feels insecure in moving about freely amongst the black population anywhere on the island.” Only with the establishment of Crown Colony government did the Negroes really begin to taste the proper fruits of emancipation. Today the Negroes of the West Indies are probably nearer to the possession of personal and political liberty than any other group of black-skinned people in any part of the world. The Crown Colony system has thus been an invaluable phase in West Indian development. But its day is now over. The solutions of yesterday themselves pose the problems of today, and if new solutions are delayed, become the main 1 obstacles to advance tomorrow. The inherent defect of Crown Colony government is that it is politically a blind alley. Its utility depends on the potential electorate being ignorant and uninterested; with the inertia common to all institutional forms, it therefore tends to keep that electorate in that condition in order to prolong its own apparent utility. As a system, it is only defensible as a stop-gap and on the condition that it is accompanied throughout by specific and methodical attempts to evoke and train the political aptitudes of its subjects and to give them ever-widening room for real responsibility. Such attempts have not been made. The elected members of the legislatures are mere vents for the airing of opinion and criticism. Their whole behaviour is coloured by the knowledge that whatever they may urge or promise or threaten, they will never be called upon to assume executive responsibility. They thus resemble a weak parliamentary Opposition, with no prospect of ever being anything but an Opposition. Nor does local government provide a more effective training. Except in Jamaica, Barbados, and Port-of-Spain, the capital of Trinidad, the local government system is rudimentary and the hand of centralised authority lies heavy on it. It cannot by any stretch of imagination be regarded as a school of responsible citizenship.

These facts place the West Indies in a double dilemma. It is anomalous that communities at the level of European culture reached by these colonies should not be self-governing; and if Hie period since 1875 had been devoted to educating them in self-government they would now be ready for it. As things are, from the Government side, to grant even partial self-government would be to put the inhabitants in charge of complex machinery whose workings and manipulation they very imperfectly understand; while to maintain the status quo is to prolong the discouragement of all political development. “Self-government when fit for it” has always been the promise held out by the British authorities; but so long as it remains true that no determined steps are being taken to produce the fitness, those authorities are in the invidious position of having to reply to every request for self-government by citing the consequences of their own neglect. There is a corresponding dilemma on the side of the inhabitants. Every man with sufficient sensitiveness, culture, and independence to feel the deadening effect of the system on the political consciousness of his community is obliged by those very qualities and merits to rebel inwardly against it. He quite rightly sees it as a complex of patronage and privilege which chokes the natural growth of the people, perpetuates their apathy, negates the best aspirations of their potential leaders, and encourages nothing but sycophancy, place-hunting, and the cheap snobbery of the social climber. Affording no adequate scope for the energies of colonial intellect and character, the Government is fatally apt to see in their struggles for expression only faction, agitation, and perverse discontent. It inevitably turns the minds of the elite towards autonomy, yet forbids that general advance of the rank and file which is the best practicable ground for claiming it. That the rank and file are little conscious of the defects of the system is really its severest condemnation, the proof of the torpor it produces or fails to dispel. The so-called agitators are the vitamins or hormones indispensable to the proper development of the organism. Their emergence is itself the sign of the Crown Colony system’s obsolescence, since the system’s nature is to neutralise their function.

A position has now been reached in the West Indies where the present political stagnation has to be broken in upon, and effective steps taken in the direction of self-government. The longer the present system is retained, the more will it degenerate from an accepted paternal autocracy into an imposed tyranny. But British policy has placed grave difficulties in the path of those local men of talent who may soon emerge as pioneers of popular leadership and political responsibility. Consequently, self-government, when it comes, must for some time be less vivifying than it would have been if the ground had been properly prepared. The change-over, though bound to take place, now seems equally bound to involve a very awkward period of transition. British policy, so far from exhibiting foresight calculated to minimise that awkwardness, appears to cling to the notion that tutelage and dependence are desirable in themselves and meet to be prolonged until the clamour against them becomes irresistible.


The detailed history of the West Indian colonies is more chequered even than the foregoing sketch suggests. Nevertheless it is perhaps possible to claim that the intention to provide the Negro with a chance of developing as a free man in a free country has on the whole predominated over other competing motives during the last century. In the African dependencies, on the other hand, the humanitarian spirit has been less successful. The strange feature of British rule in Africa is that it has applied two mutually contradictory policies in different parts of the continent. In spite of the impossibility of believing that both are equally successful or even equally promising experiments in their respective spheres, the British have never managed to bring themselves to choose between the two. The irresolution has yielded some sorry results. In every area where the settlement of some Europeans has assumed considerable proportions the slave trade and slavery have indeed been suppressed, but only to make room for new forms of native helotry hardly less devastating to African society than the “open sore” itself.

Of these two conflicting policies the one, which is followed generally in British West Africa, in the mandatory territory of Tanganyika on the east coast, and in parts of Uganda, aims at securing to the natives the use of the land for their own profit and at developing the administrative, health, educational, and technical services in native interests. The other, which is followed generally in Kenya and in southern Africa, aims at reducing the native populations to a landless, floating proletariat capable only of performing servile offices for immigrant European plantation owners, industrialists, and traders. This is the old West Indian slave policy of the eighteenth century, with the difference and the aggravation that, instead of importing slaves into European-owned territory, it exports Europeans to native territory, from which it first ousts the native owners and to which it later recalls them in the capacity of wage-earners or “labour tenants” dependent on their white masters.

The land question is a fundamental one for government in Africa. It is fundamental economically, because the Africans are normally an agricultural and pastoral people. But in a deeper sense it is fundamental also to the moral and social order of the tribes. In tribal life the authority of the chief derives mainly from three things—his position as custodian (not owner) of the tribal land, as rain-maker, and as vital link between the tribe’s dead, living, and unborn members. The tribe does not consist of its living representatives alone, but includes as integral parts their ancestors and their posterity. With the ancestral dead the tribesmen believe themselves to be in constant touch; for those dead are tenants of the places where their bodies lie buried. On the approval and disapproval of the ancestors are based the sanctions which preserve both the moral structure of the individual and the social structure of the community. And in order to benefit fully from the guidance and control of the great departed, the tribe must needs have access to their burial places or at least to shrines in the lands they occupied. So strong is this sense of what one may call the inherence of the dead in the land that some conquering tribes, for example the Yao and the Wachagga of Tanganyika, are at pains to propitiate the spirits of defeated chiefs of other tribes from whom the land was taken centuries ago. To evict members of a tribe from the lands of their fathers is thus not merely to deprive them of their customary livelihood, but to excommunicate them from their church, to isolate them from the only intimate spiritual influences that they know, to rip out the meaning from the field of thought and feeling in which they move, and to undermine the whole social fabric that supports them. These consequences are naturally minimised if the whole tribe shifts as a unit; conversely, they are felt at their sharpest among small groups or individuals who find themselves cut off from the main body. This piecemeal cutting-off has been one of the commonest effects of European settlement and exploitation in Africa.

A. B. Keith, an acknowledged authority on the subject, has declared that “it is a fundamental principle that British political sovereignty or protection does not mean the confiscation of native land interests.” However that may be, British annexations and the establishment of British protectorates seem often to have had the legal effect of confiscation. The legal position as regards native lands in the various territories of British Africa is complicated and confused, but it appears that only in southern Nigeria, the Gold Coast, and possibly Basutoland, is the Crown under any legal obligation to respect native communal rights in land. In most, if not the whole, of the rest of British Africa neither the tribes nor, in some places, individual natives have any legally enforceable title to any land whatever; their status is that of tenants-at-will of the Crown, which enjoys the right of extinguishing their interests by an act of State without compensation and without right of appeal to the courts. Such at least appears to be the upshot of a series of Privy Council judgments.

The letter of the law has not everywhere been taken full advantage of. In West Africa the practice has been to refuse to expropriate native lands for immigrant settlers. Not that there has been an embargo on European enterprise and capital. Leases are issued to Europeans for cultivation and for mining, but not without the consent of the native communities affected. Broadly speaking, the endeavour has been to keep European economic penetration under reasonable control, to subordinate it to the interests of native society, and to retain native production as the main foundation on which economic development shall be built. This comparatively successful resistance to the thrust of capitalist imperialism is traceable partly to the fact that Britain was carried to her official responsibilities in West Africa on the crest of the wave of humanitarian sentiment during the first quarter of the nineteenth century, and that the policy of concern for native welfare inaugurated under that influence had acquired a certain inertia by the last quarter of the century, when capitalist imperialism first became dangerous; partly to the fact that the West African climate was unattractive to settlers; and partly to the fact that native opposition to the cruder forms of European exploitation was sufficiently powerful to suggest the advisability of scrupulous dealing.

On the other hand, the two Rhodesias, Nyasaland, Kenya, and Uganda were all seized in the five years from 1890 to 1895. It was the time when the nations of Europe were drunk with the afflatus of imperialism, that strange compound of commercial greed and martial and agressive ideals, —when even America descended from her isolationist pedestal to drink of the same potent waters, as the war with Spain was soon to testify. Not to join in the universal game of grab for national enrichment then no longer seemed, as in Gladstone’s prime, an abstention enjoined by simple honesty, but a mean-spirited refusal to carry the cross divinely reserved for the European races—the cross of the civilisation of the world, le fardeau de l’homme blanc. This spirit has determined the history of all these territories during the last forty years. When the white man starts carrying crosses, he shows very little consideration for anyone who gets in the way. The appeal to the baser passions in the name of an ideal makes men curiously idealistic—and, it may be added, curiously passionate and curiously base. So the white man’s civilising crusade in Africa between the Limpopo and the Nile began in bloodshed and continued in fraud. The dignity and pomp of the governments of great Christian nations did not disdain to take a hand in the game. The British Government, among the rest, threw the cloak of law over the claims of concession-hunting felons who had “bought” whole Kingdoms from native chiefs for a case of gin; in its own name it made treaties with the tribes and cynically broke them; and generally it lent its sanction to the abuses and atrocities which are the invariable accompaniments of colonisation. These things were done sometimes with hesitation, sometimes under protest; but they were done. In result, the natives in most of British Africa have now no legal control over the natural resources of the country to which they belong, and which, before the white man stepped in to save their souls, belonged to them.

In extenuation of these crimes the plea that the British were of necessity experimenting and feeling their way among unfamiliar problems can have only a restricted validity. They had the whole history of the West Indies to guide them. At the very time when the East African policy was being put into execution they were following in West Africa a directly opposite policy whose merits were confirmed by sixty years of experience. They had at their disposal a manual for the treatment of native races in Africa which had been prepared as early as 1837, by a Parliamentary Committee of which Fowell Buxton, the Emancipator, was chairman and Gladstone a member. This document laid down a number of basic principles, of which the following are the most important:

1. So far as the lands of the Aborigines are within any territories over which the dominion of the Crown extends, the acquisition of them by Her Majesty’s subjects, upon any title of purchase, grant, or otherwise, from their present proprietors, should be declared illegal and void.

2. The protection of natives is not a trust which could conveniently be confided to colonial legislatures. . . . The settlers in almost every colony having either disputes to adjust with the native tribes or claims to urge against them, the representative body is virtually a party, and therefore ought not to be the judge in such controversies.

These two principles may be said to embody the major lessons of West African and West Indian experiences respectively. Both have been methodically flouted in southern and eastern Africa. To that fact, before all else, is due the chaos towards which native society is drifting in those regions.

In consequence of alienating much of the best land to European immigrants and of herding the tribes into reservations which are inadequate to maintain them on the basis of their customary farming methods, a rapidly increasing class is springing up of natives permanently uprooted from their tribal connections, no longer in enjoyment of rights to land in the tribal areas, and lacking the means and often the right to acquire land elsewhere. With no other choice before them, they troop to the white man’s towns and there form reservoirs of the cheap, docile, and unorganised wage labour without which the white man in Africa believes himself to be unable to exist. Their life is, as a rule, one of unexampled squalor, poverty, and hardship, wholly meaningless and unnatural. Their numbers, however, are as yet insufficient to satisfy the demands of the labour market, so the required balance is driven out from the reserves by various forms of indirect compulsion, among which are taxation, recruiting, and the “encouragement” of European administrators. In many parts, as much as fifty per cent of the able-bodied males of the reserves are at any one time working in European employment, often hundreds of miles away from their homes. They are continually being relieved by the other fifty per cent, so that life for the men of the reserves tends to consist of endless migration to and fro between various centres of employment, with occasional short holidays at home. They cannot take their families with them; the cost of travel is prohibitive, and there is no accommodation for them at the other end; also there is a risk of losing their status in the tribe and their claim to the use of tribal land, if their plots are left unoccupied and unworked. They cannot stay at home, because their holdings are not productive enough to keep themselves and their families, as well as provide for taxation and the various necessities for which cash is essential. Faced with this dilemma, the breadwinners are obliged to go out alone into exile from their households, often for a year at a time and in the aggregate for half their active lives. The consequences of such large-scale migration are increasingly disastrous to family life, to tribal economy and culture, and even to the survival rate of the tribes.

The Emancipators’ warning about allowing minorities of immigrant whites to obtain legislative control over vast majorities of politically defenceless blacks has passed just as unheeded as their warning about the alienation of native lands. The Cape of Good Hope was granted responsible government as early as 1872, Natal in 1893, the Transvaal and the Orange Free State in 1907, and Southern Rhodesia in 1923. In Kenya, during the last ten years, a small group of whites, well under twenty thousand in number, has been permitted by extra-legal means to dominate policy to the great detriment of two and a half million blacks. In none of these cases, except that of the Cape, was any serious endeavour made by British statesmanship to safeguard native interests. In the Cape the method adopted was to enfranchise certain classes of natives, and at one time there were, it was believed, as many as sixteen thousand native voters in that province. Such liberalism, however, could not be expected to commend itself to the Union of South Africa into which the four colonies of the Cape, Natal, Orange Free State, and Transvaal amalgamated in 1910; and the Union Parliament has lately altered the law in such a way as to render the Cape native vote politically negligible. In all the territories mentioned, therefore, society is now ordered on a basis of impregnable political and economic privilege for the white minority and of all-pervasive racial discrimination against the black majority. The black man is valued by his overlords for his unskilled labour alone. If he offers more of it than the market can absorb, the “surplus” is chased away anywhere out of the white man’s sight; if, as more often happens, the demand exceeds the supply, every device —short of slavery itself—that greed and cunning can invent is used to force the potential labourer, however unwilling, into employment. At the same time, the greatest care is taken to ensure that no skilled or well paid occupations shall be open to the black man, except when the whites are too few to fill them. Any injustice is regarded as permissible, and indeed desirable, so long as it apparently serves to uphold the social and economic barriers between white and black.

Such are the mixed societies of British Africa, when the white settler holds the reins of government. They will last until the black man’s resentment empowers him to force some kind of industrial stalemate—no longer. Meanwhile, they steer an erratic passage, impelled by squalls of hatred, misery, and contempt, towards the ultimate rocks of wrath and bloodshed. Not by such seamanship will the white man fulfil any civilising mission in the Dark Continent.


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