In the process of completing my postgraduate dissertation, “Colonial Conservationism: a Study of the Sierra Leone Forestry Department,” I endeavoured to explore the relationships between man and forests underpinned by the colonial attitudes of the time. Contemporary opinions were rife in assuming that indigenous forest uses were backward and destructive and that colonial stewardship of the forests was required to ensure the longevity of Sierra Leone primary forest. In the process of my research, I have come to the conclusion that colonial conservationism and the stigmatisation of ‘the profligate native’ was but a ruse, providing justification for whole scale mechanisation, standardisation and monetisation of the forests under colonial jurisdiction. The requirements for completing this mammoth undertaking involved extensive study in both the UK and Sierra Leone National Archives.
I will give further account of the research trip that I embarked upon in Sierra Leone. Once I was in receipt of my Hatfield Trust Research Award, I was able to purchase flights to Freetown, Sierra Leone residing within the country from 1st – 10th June 2011. Despite the time constraints and physical effort involved, I was able to conduct successful research concerning both colonial forest policy and the Sierra Leone Forestry Department itself.
Upon arrival in Freetown, I secured lodgings at the YMCA guesthouse on 32 Fort Street. It was from here that I set up operations and schedules for the ten days ahead; preparing in advance the exact documents I would require on those days by perusing the Forestry Department catalogues and ensuring that I had adequate resources to remain at Mount Aureol (where the archive is located in Freetown) for the duration of each day’s work. I also arranged a meeting with key stakeholders within the National Archives and the heads of a commission campaigning to restore the reservation zones covering the Western Peninsular Forest extending into the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary. It was with such individuals that I was able to understand better the contemporary attitudes presiding over forest policy.
The Sierra Leone National Archives themselves are based at Fourah Bay College (FBC), a constituent college of the University of Sierra Leone, which sits atop of Mount Aureol in Freetown. Aside from the actual difficulties of getting to the archives (cost of flights, logistics, time constraints etc.) there was the additional complication concerning the condition of the historical material housed within the archive itself. Even as early as 1966, there were major concerns about the cataloguing and preservation of documents; “[t]he records themselves should be boxed or wrapped for protection” (http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0000/000078/007833eb.pdf). Once coined the ‘Athens of West Africa’, FBC succumbed to the terrific onslaught of the ten year civil war, culminating in the 1999 takeover of Freetown entirely by the forces of the rebellion Revolutionary Front. Buildings were torched, computers smashed and lecturers and students killed. With the war over in 2002 and peace established, the effects were plain to see. Without 24hr electricity, airtight and secure document storage and an organised cataloguing system, the archives have been subjected to severe degradation and disorder (Image 1).
Image 1; Historical documents have been subjected to mould, mishandling and, in some cases, actual theft.
Despite the obvious limitations of conducting such research in a hot and humid environment with sufficiently degraded material, there was a wealth of information contained within (Image 2). With the assistance of archivist, Mr. Alie Bayoh, and the Head of the National Archives, Mr. Albert Moore (Image 3), I was able to collect a substantial body of information that has remained underutilised in histories written of the period and has been relatively overlooked in the overall literature concerning ecology, environmentalism, conservationism and Sierra Leonean forestry. I have been able to ascertain certain colonial attitudes to indigenous land usages which would fluctuate and contradict one another as the social condition developed. There is ample evidence, I believe, to argue that there existed certain prejudices against indigenous logging enterprises, considering them “careless” and “un-ambitious.” With the development of a colonial conservationist ethos, these attitudes changed, supposing indigenous enterprises virulent and destructive. It is these same contradictions that have formulated colonial forest policy, in every case the ‘ignorant and wasteful native’ is at the forefront of Western criticism which provided the impetus for colonial stewardship and expansion.
Image 2; The Sierra Leonean National Archives based at University House, Fourah Bay College, The University of Sierra Leone.
The wealth of historical sources I found in Freetown, Sierra Leone far surpassed the material that I managed to find in the UK National Archives at Kew Gardens. It provided me with an enlightening new interpretation of colonial forest policy, not least in Sierra Leone, for the attitudes inherent within such discourse may still provide further evidence of an ethos of Eurocentric, racist and ultimately contradictory environmentalism spanning across the breadth of the British Empire. There are many opportunities, therefore, to utilise this rich and valuable material in academic pursuits for generations of historians to come.
Image 3; Meeting with Mr. Albert Moore, the Head Archivist of the Sierra Leonean National Archives.