6 APRIL, 1917: Woodrow Who?

There is a book, published in 1930, called 1066 and All That.  It’s a very silly book, taking the piss out of British history with a bunch of childish jokes strung together by a couple of failed Oxford students, but it does come to a slightly sombre conclusion.  In 1917, it announces, America became ‘top nation’ and so history came to an end.  I mention this because, although nothing in the universe has a precise starting date and I guess history is still in progress, on 6 April 1917 the United States entered the First World War on the side of the Allies – and from that day to this nobody in the world has seriously doubted the USA’s position as the most powerful nation on Earth.

Once the USA had committed its economic clout and manpower to the First World War, it was a matter of when rather than if the Allies would overpower Germany and its increasingly feeble partners. Once the USA was part of the War, it couldn’t be kept out of any future peacemaking process, and once the USA had sent armed forces across the Atlantic it could never again claim or practice a disinterested separation from foreign affairs.  The ‘American century’ had begun and as it ticks past the hundred-year mark I’d say we’re still not sure how it’s going.

There’s obviously a lot more to say on the subject, and plenty to say about the Wilson administration’s final acceptance that war couldn’t be avoided, but it’s pretty well covered by the commemoration and heritage industries, not to mention a powerful posse of scholars and journalists. There’s no real excuse for any literate person from a first-world background not being aware that 6 April 1917 was a fundamental turning point in his or her modern history, and if you’re not aware of it consider yourself told.

On the other hand, as I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, modern history meant different things to different parts of the world in the early twentieth century.  Important changes were being forced on all sorts of people living outside the bubble of mass communication and mechanisation that defined the richest countries.  What mattered to their history was important, wasn’t necessarily in tune with our standard narrative and tends to be ignored by modern reproductions of that narrative.

April 1917 was, for instance, an important time in the history of the Gold Coast, but that had nothing much to do with the birth of American geopolitics and much more to do with an increasingly desperate British Empire giving up on its first big attempt to recruit native troops for fighting outside western Africa.  Explanation is in order, beginning with the basics.

The name Gold Coast was originally (and obviously) applied to the coastal region of West Africa that provided Europeans with gold. Like the Ivory Coast to the west and the Slave Coast to the east, it was easily accessible to 18th-century European shipping, and had attracted incursions from Portuguese, Danish, Swedish, Dutch, Prussian and British colonists by the early nineteenth.  By the mid-nineteenth century bribery and bullying had enabled the world’s undisputed ‘top nation’, Britain, to remove the competition, and establish a multinational (or in imperial terms multi-tribal) Gold Coast colony that stretched far inland and would eventually become modern Ghana.


The Gold Coast was hardly one nation in 1914, but the green, yellow and mauve bits were one British colony.

Colonial administration in the Gold Coast followed the pattern established in India and employed across much of Britain’s African empire, turning local rulers into clients and letting them get on with the traditional business of local government, but keeping them under very firm personal control.  This had the great advantage of saving the British lots of money and resources that would otherwise be expended in colonial policing, along with the useful side effect of leaving much of the native population unaware that colonisation was taking place, and therefore inclined to carry on blaming the same old leaders for their troubles.

Although the northern Gold Coast interior, home to the Asante people, remained troublesome and occasionally violent into the twentieth century – more a product of internal African tensions than any colonial pressure – the British were generally able to develop their colonial interests in peace, extracting metals, diamonds, ivory, pepper, timber, cocoa and grain, along with gold, and building a trading infrastructure of roads and railways from the interior to the ports.  By 1914 British administrators were referring to the ‘sheep-like docility’ of Gold Coast natives, and on the outbreak of war only some 3,000 imperial troops and police were deployed to administer a population of about 1.6 million.

The War had a generally, though not critically depressing effect on the Gold Coast economy, which enjoyed a minor surge in demand for cocoa but otherwise suffered from the conflict’s disruption of global sea trade and attendant price fluctuations – but economic uncertainties had little immediate social impact before 1917.  Local chiefs continued to give support to the colonial regime for a variety of internal reasons, usually involving their own security or territorial ambitions, and loyally provided troops for campaigns against German forces in neighbouring Togoland and Cameroon. Meanwhile the colony’s educated, largely urban African elite and its mouthpiece, the Aborigines’ Rights Protection Society, continued to profit from collaboration with the British and to exploit any opportunities for increased influence thrown up by wartime personnel shortages.

Broadly speaking, most local leaders and imperial administrators regarded the War as a faraway irrelevance, a view shared in spades by those natives aware that it was taking place – but the colonial government was nevertheless afraid that the inconveniences of an economic downturn could undermine popular acceptance of the white man’s invincibility.  Careful to avoid policies likely to trigger unrest, it ignored European demands for tighter quality control over cocoa exports, refused to expel immigrants from neighbouring French colonies, where natives were regarded as French citizens and conscripted accordingly, and rejected all attempts by an increasingly manpower-starved UK government to impose conscription on the colony.   Although some of the northern territories brought under largely military control in the previous couple of decades did see uprisings against chiefs seen as British agents, this Afro-centric approach kept most of the Gold Coast relatively peaceful during the War’s first two years.

Government policy couldn’t disguise the wartime reduction of imperial resources available for colonial work.  This forced the closure of fortresses in the northern hinterland, brought a 30 percent reduction in the number of troops and police available by early 1917, and did exactly what the colonists feared most, feeding a growing popular belief that the white empire’s days were numbered. Under the circumstances, the British Army recruitment campaign launched by the colonial government in January 1917 was a very bad idea.

Given the Empire’s desperate manpower needs after the carnage of 1916’s Western Front offensives (and a clamour in the British press for conscription of native populations that could be heard loud and clear in the colonial capital, Accra), the Gold Coast administration had little choice but to attempt the recruitment drive.  It went about the job in the only way it knew how.  Local rulers were told to provide recruits, and left to do so in any way they saw fit, while the rich folks of the Aborigines’ Rights Protection Society – which had previously been useful in encouraging contributions to various voluntary war funds – were allowed to spearhead attempts to attract volunteers by individual persuasion. The results were divisive and universally unsatisfactory.

Local chiefs and other rulers needed young men for their own communities and while some were slow to provide recruits, many more simply bribed or coerced their least useful subjects into joining the British Army.  Colonial administrators recognised that this amounted to conscription, or in some cases forced labour, and they bemoaned the low quality of recruits.  They also complained that many refused to fight or deserted during training, but they felt no need to interfere with what could be dismissed as local methods, particularly since they weren’t picking up recruits by any other means.  Details are scant, but the general picture seems to have been of a population that regarded going away to fight in a distant war as a ridiculous idea, and that wasn’t about to do anything recommended by the Aborigines’ Rights Protection Society.

The recruitment drive was abandoned as a failure in April, but would be repeated the following year with similarly unfortunate results. Although Gold Coast troops were recruited to take part in the British East African campaign, alongside greater numbers from other British West African colonies, and would be on the verge of deployment in Palestine when the War ended, the main effects of the drives were to dilute the authority of white rule and along with it the authority of local rulers.  Local chiefs, particularly in the largely autonomous countryside, lost support as the agents of recruitment, and lost status as recruitment fuelled popular belief that the British Empire was running out of resources.


Gold Coast troops in East Africa – a long, long way from home and hating it…

The primary wartime forces undermining the traditional rural power structures upon which Gold Coast colonial rule was built were economic instability and connected phenomena – like the concentration of wealth and labour resources in the main ports, and the 1916 issue of paper money to cover imperial cash flow problems – but the British Empire’s clumsy scramble for manpower served as an emblem for their decline.  As such it helped alter the mindset of an entire people, and helped hand the colony’s future to the educated elite represented by the Aborigines’ Rights Protection Society.

As political influence came to depend more and more on access to economic and population hubs, wealthy urban natives were sufficiently in touch with the wider world to be influenced by liberal talk of post-War self-determination.  By the time the War ended the Gold Coast educated elite and the press it controlled were expressing desires for equality of civil opportunity, increased native control over economic resources and political representation. The Aborigines’ Rights Protection Society was meanwhile reorganising to become a political organisation in pursuit of those desires.  It would evolve during the 1920s into the kernel of a nationalist movement dedicated largely to the interests of social elites and destined to grow steadily during the next four decades.

By then, of course, the presence of the USA at the post-War peace table seemed important to at least some future Ghanaians, but in April 1917 Woodrow Wilson really didn’t matter in West Africa.

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