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Introducing British West Africa

Colonial Administration is defined as an imposition of a more developed culture over a less developed one, backed up by expansionists and economic adventurism.

Introducing British West Africa

British West Africa was the collective name for British colonies in West Africa during the colonial period, either in the general geographical sense or the formal colonial administrative entity. The United Kingdom held varying parts of these territories or the whole throughout the 19th century. From west to east, the colonies became the independent countries of The Gambia, Sierra Leone, Ghana and Nigeria. Until independence, Ghana was referred to as Gold Coast.

Flag of British West Africa Settlements

Historical Jurisdiction

British West Africa as a colonial entity was originally known as Colony of Sierra Leone and its Dependencies, then British West African Territories and finally British West African Settlements. It constituted during two periods (17 October 1821, until its first dissolution on 13 January 1850, and again 19 February 1866, until its final demise on 28 November 1888) as an administrative entity under a governor-in-chief (comparable in rank to a governor-general), an office vested in the governor of Sierra Leone (at Freetown).

The other colonies originally included in the jurisdiction were the Gambia and the British Gold Coast (modern Ghana). Also western Nigeria, eastern Nigeria and northern Nigeria were included.

Location of British West Africa. From left to right: The Gambia, Sierra Leone, Gold Coast and Nigeria.

Social and Cultural Development

British West Africa’s present makeup includes Ghana, Sierra Leone, Gambia, Western Nigeria, Eastern Nigeria and Northern Nigeria. Each of these countries and areas are a post-colonial period, or what the Ghanaian writer Kwame Appiah dubs neo-colonialism.

British West Africa’s development was solely based on modernization, and autonomous educational systems were the first step to modernising indigenous culture. Cultures and interests of indigenous peoples were ignored. A new social order, as well as European influences within schools and local traditions, helped mould British West Africa’s culture. Significant was the British West African colonial school curriculum. Local elites developed, with new values and philosophies, who changed the overall cultural development.

In terms of social issues with British West Africa; sex and race usually conflicted each other (Carina E. Ray called it the “White Wife Problem”). During British West Africa’s history, interracial relations were frowned upon, and couples might be discriminated against. There were even certain policies that deported the wives of these relationships back to Britain and denied them access to any of these colonies.

Economic Development

Colonial banks might develop monopolies to control competition, at the expense of British West African citizens. There were only two major banks that operated in British West Africa: Barclays and the Bank of British West Africa. They had major economic and financial influence in British West Africa from about 1916 to 1960. From a dependency theory view point, these banks took advantage through price fixing and certain unfair regulations.

Coverage of West African economics by historians, mostly British, has left a legacy of controversy. Three historians, in particular, were accused by Adu Boahen for inaccurate reportage, mainly of Gold Coast and Ghana: William Walton Claridge, in A History of the Gold Coast and Ashanti (1915, reprint by Frank Cass in 1964); William Ernest Frank Ward in History of the Gold Coast (1940, published 1948, as A History of Ghana in 1958); and John Donnelly Fage in Ghana: A Historical Interpretation.

Economic development was mostly attributed to each region’s agricultural developments. Development of the financial markets through colonial banking often disadvantaged the colonies as producers of commodities.


Even after its final dissolution, a single currency, the British West African pound, was in effect throughout the region—including Nigeria—from 1907 to 1962. Nigeria gained independence in 1960. Sierra Leone was self-governing by 1958 and gained independence in 1961. Gambia gained independence in 1965. In 1954, the British Gold Coast was allowed by Britain to self-govern and in 1957, the Gold Coast was given independence from Britain, under the name Ghana.

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