Published this month, West African Soldiers in Britain’s Colonial Army, 1860-1960 by Timothy Stapleton, explores the history of Britain’s colonial army in West Africa, especially the experiences of ordinary soldiers recruited in the region. Professor Stapleton shares fascinating insights into why he wrote this book and how he did his research.
Why did I write this book?
I am fascinated by the ambiguous experience of colonial era African soldiers who were both enforcers and subjects of an exploitative and racist system. By “experience,” I don’t just mean the role of these troops in warfare but topics such as their regular lives in the barracks including with their families, their evolving military identities, their interactions with the colonial military health and disciplinary systems, and their relations with colonized civilians.
I began looking at this theme when researching the history of black security force personnel who maintained white-minority rule in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). The resultant book, African Police and Soldiers in Colonial Zimbabwe (1923-1980) was published a decade ago by Rochester University Press. Since then, I had wanted to examine this theme outside the context of Southern Africa’s settler colonialism which attempted to minimize black military service by looking at an example where African soldiers were employed more widely and over a longer period. Strongly influenced by books such as Myron Echenberg’s Colonial Conscripts on French West Africa and Tim Parsons’ African Rank-and-File on British East Africa, I noticed that no recent historian had looked comprehensively at Britain’s locally recruited West African army comprising a regional structure called the West African Frontier Force (WAFF). Some fine academic studies existed but they mostly focused on specific territories like the Gold Coast (now Ghana) or Nigeria, and most of these works had been completed decades ago before the advent of conceptual approaches like military culture and the release of critical British military records related to the West African military of the 1920s and 1930s.
Given that I had spent the previous 20 years working on aspects of Southern African History, it seemed a daunting task to take on an ambitious research project in a new region, but I leaned heavily on my memories of Dalhousie graduate school mentorship by pioneering West African historians J.E. Flint and J.B. Webster which had always informed my teaching of African History. The encouragement and friendship of many other historians of West Africa was also important in making the transition. Another personal motivation for writing this book revolved around continued engagement with African military history which has emerged over the past couple of decades as a distinct scholarly sub-field expressed by the launching of the Journal of African Military History in 2017.
When I started graduate school at the end of the 1980s, the ethos of African History seemed uncomfortable with topics related to the military and warfare perhaps because they appeared to confirm negative stereotypes of the continent, and the field of Military History was mostly preoccupied with western Europe and the United States. Some historians now work confidently in both fields though some of the old attitudes still exist. Events such as the 2020 shooting of civilian protesters at Lekki Toll Gate in Lagos State by the Nigerian Army and a resurgence of coup culture in some African countries reinforces the need for sustained and new research on the historical context of African militaries.
How did I research this book?
I was extremely fortunate that an Insight Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) supported the research which involved working in nine archives located in five countries. Teaching full-time at the University of Calgary in Canada, I visited these archives during spring and summer research trips to Britain, Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone and the Gambia over six years. I worked in a wide range of archival settings reflecting the local economic context. On one end of the spectrum the UK National Archives at Kew provided efficient digital search facilities and quickly delivered well-preserved historic documents while on the other, the Sierra Leone National Archives in Freetown lacked any catalogue and researchers rummaged through disorganized stacks of cardboard boxes full of deteriorating paper. While the Freetown archives represented an extreme example and the only one without a referencing system, the other West African archives suffered from lack of resources as they all utilized paper catalogues typed in the 1960s and many of their documents were on the verge of falling apart or were missing.
These challenges made the professional service of some West African archivists in places like the Kaduna branch of the Nigeria National Archives and the Accra branch of the Public Records and Archives Administration Department (PRAAD) in Ghana even more impressive. Although I had conducted some oral history work for my book on black police and soldiers in colonial Zimbabwe, a study with a narrow geographic scope and a temporal span up to 1980, the broad regional orientation and older timeline for the West African colonial army (c.1860-1960) meant that I realized it was not feasible to conduct interviews for this book. It was a difficult decision, but I concluded that struggling to find a very small number of veterans of the last years of the West African colony army in the 1950s would not contribute enough to the research to justify using limited time and funds better devoted to archival work yielding many thousands of pages of detailed documents from across the colonial era. In addition, I accessed several collections of previously recorded oral history accounts dating to the Second World War era including many British but also some West African narratives.
Luckily, I finished the archival research just before the pandemic lockdowns hit North America in March 2020 and I spent the next year sitting at home teaching online courses and writing the manuscript. Going forward, I hope that this regional study of West African soldiers in Britain’s colonial army will prompt a new wave of investigations on the relationship of the colonial and post-colonial military to specific local communities in West Africa.
This guest post was written by TIMOTHY STAPLETON, professor in the Department of History at the University of Calgary.