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Cross-Boundary Traders in the Era of High Imperialism: Changing Structures and Strategies in the Sierra Leone-Guinea Region

Allen M. Howard


This article examines exchange across the Sierra Leone-Guinea boundary line in three different periods during the era of high imperialism. My main arguments can be summarized as follows. First, boundary crossings are best understood through a spatial analysis that combines action and structure and that emphasizes network building, power, and struggle, all shaping dynamic functional regions. Second, a multi-level analysis is needed, one that moves back and forth between the local, regional, and global, looking at how the larger forces are expressed locally in ways that influence traders’ cross-boundary strategies and at how traders helped shape structures. Third, comparing traders’ boundary crossing strategies in different time periods helps to locate the structural forces that have enhanced or reduced their adaptability - giving rise to new opportunities, or curtailing businesses. These arguments, in sum, raise questions about the relationships of traders’ actions to boundaries and to functional regions. I conclude by looking at the value of historical studies for interpreting contemporary cross-boundary trade.

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  • 1 I wish to thank Olivier Walther and the two anonymous readers for their valuable comments. Here I c (...)

1This article examines exchange across the Sierra Leone-Guinea boundary line in three different periods during the era of high imperialism. My main arguments can be summarized as follows. First, boundary crossings are best understood through a spatial analysis that combines action and structure and that emphasizes network building, power, and struggle, all shaping dynamic functional regions. Second, a multi-level analysis is needed, one that moves back and forth between the local, regional, and global, looking at how the larger forces are expressed locally in ways that influence traders’ cross-boundary strategies and at how traders helped shape structures. Third, comparing traders’ boundary crossing strategies in different time periods helps to locate the structural forces that have enhanced or reduced their adaptability – giving rise to new opportunities, or curtailing businesses. These arguments, in sum, raise questions about the relationships of traders’ actions to boundaries and to functional regions. I conclude by looking at the value of historical studies for interpreting contemporary cross-boundary trade.

  • 2 To focus on boundaries, I am ignoring merchants and middle-scale traders who invested in shops, fac (...)

2The main cases here involve two types of traders, out of the many kinds of traders, in the Sierra Leone-Guinea macro-region during a period from 1870 to 19202. One type were the professional traders (juula), who moved commodities over long-distances and served to integrate the various sub-regions. Juula (or dyula/dyuula) were professional, inter-regional traders, typically Muslims. They have been widespread in West Africa since the time of the Mali Empire. Usually the term refers to Mande speakers, but it also has been applied to Pular-speaking (Fula) professional traders and those of mixed linguistic backgrounds, and in some instances has become an “ethnic” identity (see Amselle 1971, Griffeth 1971, Curtin 1975: 68-75). The other type comprised a diverse body of small- and medium-scale traders who moved goods within one of those sub-regions, the Sierra Leone-Guinea plain. Juula dealt in kola, cattle, cloth, gold and other high value items, as well as a few heavier goods, particularly hides and rubber. They also handled imports, including some of high value, such as guns. An important part of their traffic involved taking African-consumed commodities across ecological zones, in particular, moving kola from wet coastal areas inland and cattle from dry interior uplands to the wetter lowlands and to important cities, especially to Freetown, the capital of the small British enclave of Sierra Leone and a major Atlantic port.

3The second type mainly handled bulky agricultural exports, such as peanuts and palm kernels, and also manufactured imports that were consumed widely. Most such traders were concentrated in the coastal area. Until it was prohibited, some juula and coastal traders also dealt in enslaved people as part of both the Atlantic and internal slave trades (for slaving and also abolition see Howard 2006). Exchange was mediated in households, shops, merchants’ factories, and other sites in towns and lesser centers; trade was not situated in market places, as such, except for cattle and food in Freetown and a few other centers.

4Changing global forces influenced the decisions of both types of traders. Those forces included the spread of Islam, the establishment of regular steamship and telegraph service along the west coast, the rise of multi-national firms, and, the main focus here, the imperial expansion and rivalry of Britain and France. All of those forces were expressed in particular ways in the Sierra Leone-Guinea plain and the other regions that comprised the great macro-region.

5Imperial expansion went on in overlapping phases: setting down coastal customs spheres, conquering the interior, planting a boundary line between the two newly formed colonies, establishing colonial administrative and transport infrastructures. The first phase of British and French boundary expansion – which took the form of extending their customs spheres along the coast – occurred when the Sierra Leone-Guinea system was highly integrated and at its commercial zenith. Long-distance, trans-regional juula were then little affected, but African traders who moved goods back and forth between the spheres within the coastal region were heavily impacted and reacted strongly.

6By the late 1860s, the Sierra Leone-Guinea macro-region had become well integrated into a system in which people, goods, and information about prices and conditions flowed along the roads (see Map 1). The system stretched approximately 500 kilometers east-west (actually northeast-southwest) and up to 250 kilometers north-south (actually northwest-southeast). That system was inter-connected with other West African commercial systems and with Atlantic commercial systems. Roughly parallel roads constituted two major east-west corridors (The Falaba Road Corridor and the Futa-Scarcies Corridor), while a major north-south corridor (The Coastal Corridor) involved movement on the sea, along the Atlantic shore, and through mangrove swamps. The well integrated system of the late 1800s meant that inter-regional traders had many options. Juula could sit in a town on the upper Niger River and gather information on prices at different exchange sites for their cattle or other goods and for the kola and imports they planned to obtain. Likewise, they could learn about warfare, brigandage, and overall road conditions, and could consider such factors as their relations with exchange partners (Howard in preparation). With such knowledge, juula could assess which of various alternative roads to take and where to buy and sell. At major junctions along the way they could make re-evaluations, and their return trips had similar alternatives. The strategies of juula were constrained, however, by their own prior investments in social ties and by the investments of settled “friends” who assisted them or traded with them; the networks which gave them flexibility also had limits and constraints.

Map 1. Commercial Corridors and Sierra Leone-Guinea Region, 1870s-1880s

Map 1. Commercial Corridors and Sierra Leone-Guinea Region, 1870s-1880s

Source: author. Cartography: Rutgers University.

  • 3 It is not possible here to examine how other major states affected the history of inter-regional tr (...)

7Inter-regional trade in the 1860s through 1890s depended to a considerable degree on the demand generated in the Atlantic and in the great inland almamates (Islamic states), but the major polities did not direct trade in the system3. The governors of Sierra Leone, in Freetown, did at times launch armed attacks in the coastal waterways and occasionally beyond, but exercised their inland commercial policies mainly through emissaries and connections with African networks. The great almamates intervened politically and militarily in the uplands, but affected the plain only indirectly. Their main commercial influence was by sponsoring caravans, sometimes numbering in the thousands; headed by official emissaries, such caravans carried state goods and provided protection for independent traders. The majority of inter-regional trade in the late nineteenth century, however, was in the hands of professional juula, who trafficked goods back and forth; invested in commercial, social, and political networks; and facilitated the flow of information. Generally speaking, boundaries, where they existed at all, were weak; traders built whatever fees and duties they were charged into their costs and avoided, wherever possible, power holders or authorities who exacted larger tolls or forced payments.

8In the plain, titled authorities, big men, traders, and others exercised social and political power; they accumulated and invested resources to promote the towns and roads that comprised the main corridors. They used their alliances and, when needed, armed force to advance their interests against rivals in other towns and to counter those who were opposed to trade or saw it as threatening. In the latter 1800s, broad alliances maintained key roads that integrated the plain, linked it with the interior, and promoted flows between important towns. The space-organizing efforts of commercially oriented actors facilitated both regional and inter-regional commerce, and some exchange centers and roads in the plain served both kinds of commerce. In various ways, regional commerce synergistically boosted inter-regional commerce – and vice versa.

9While the broad patterns of the plain – corridors and high ranking towns – remained fairly stable during the last decades of the century, it also was spatially dynamic. People continued to struggle politically and commercially over particular routes and towns, which rose and declined in importance. Because of the redundancies in exchange sites and the competition among traders fixed in place, experienced mobile traders typically had more than one commercial “friend.” Both regional and inter-regional traders could make deals in the head of navigation towns, the factories on the river banks and islands, or Freetown – or they could buy and sell things at each of those “stages,” which had competing collectors of commodities and retailers. The traders’ decisions involved prices, networks, and social and cultural factors.

  • 4 The prime kola producing areas actually extended inland beyond the heads of navigation; buyers were (...)

10The Coastal Corridor was an especially important part of the plain and served both regional and inter-regional trade. It was made up of the seas, roads, and rivers that were plied by boats large and small carrying passengers and goods. The road with the highest volume ran through the head of navigation towns. It and lesser roads nearer the coast were inter-digitated with waterways, forming a complex grid that enabled traders to move east-west and north-south. Oftentimes they combined movement that was perpendicular to the ocean with movement parallel to the shore. Juula, in particular, often traveled some distance laterally in the Coastal Corridor as they headed for exchange points, or as they wound their way home. Specialized traders developed particular networks in the later 19th century. For instance, traders arriving both overland and by sea targeted the rich kola producing sub-region of the Scarcies, where towns contained buying agents who served their unique needs. And, regional traders who profited by moving laterally among exchange sites seeking the best prices built connections with merchants, shop keepers, and other middle people who sought their produce or sold them imports4.

Phase I: Coastal Colonial Customs Spheres and the Responses of Regional Traders

11The 1870s and 1880s saw major changes as the European imperialists expanded their customs spheres. The British took the lead through a series of steps by declaring a narrow coastal strip in the Coastal Corridor to be under their customs authority, expanding its extent, and setting up stations and patrols. They gained compliance through a combination of negotiation with African rulers and exertion of force, including armed boats that chased down violators. In this period, the French also began to establish a small customs zone around their tiny enclave of Binty. European customs policies amounted to a weak boundary extension, since their authority and power were limited within their customs spheres. Their enforcement devices and the unequal duties they charged, however, often led to differences in prices for goods in the two spheres. African traders located in the Coastal Corridor already had a strategy of selling produce where they could gain the best return and/or buying imports in whichever sphere offered lowest prices, possibly by obtaining imports that avoided duties in Freetown. Once the French and British began to collect duties in the rivers on some imported goods, or implement policies that favored imports of their own national origin, their actions affected prices in their two spheres and further influenced the commercial and network-building strategies of some regional traders.

  • 5 For 1879, see Sierra Leone National Archives (SLNA)/Aborigines Minute Paper (AbMP) n.n., 25 June, 1 (...)

12The year 1879 marked a new, aggressive British expansion of their custom sphere and their enforcement mechanisms through pursuit of alleged violators and searches of vessels and even persons. Rulers of kingdoms and towns – some of whom were doing business –responded by ousting or embargoing Sierra Leonean and British traders from their territories. Besides the economic issues, African authorities were angered by the British intrusion into their territories and the insulting behavior of customs agents. Traders who protested most vociferously, even violently, against the British duties were those who lived in the coastal zone near the boundary between the spheres. They were used to moving goods within the region, even rather short distances, but with the tougher enforcement, their lateral trade and their well-established networks were threatened. Some continued their trade by evading customs patrols, which the British now branded “smuggling”5.

  • 6 Almami (literally, “the imam”) was the title given to heads of Islamic states (almamates) and, in s (...)
  • 7 Authorities and traders in some towns of the Sierra Leone-Guinea plain also promoted exchange with (...)

13During this era, traders and authorities in Freetown – African and European merchants, colonial officials, and, especially, the leaders and elders of the resident Mandingo and Sarakuli communities – were highly energetic in promoting commerce with Futa Jallon, the upper Niger, and other distant interior areas. They hosted and gave presents to juula and leaders of caravans sponsored by Almami Samori Touré and other heads of African states, and they sent expeditions inland6. Some Freetown community leaders, such as Almami Baraka, headman of the Sarakuli, were part of widespread networks and traded inter-regionally, while many others were well linked with authorities and big men in the towns of the Coastal Corridor and beyond7. The highly mobile juula continued to treat the Sierra Leone-Guinea plain as part of the larger macro-regional system, and most seem to have been affected in only limited ways by the British-French expanded customs jurisdictions. They regularly crossed through the customs zones and the boundaries of the European enclaves. Furthermore, many of the commodities they carried were not taxed. If imports they sought were subject to duty, juula could avoid the tax by trading elsewhere, or could add those levies to the other costs they sustained along the way.

14Although significant changes were under way along the coast, all in all, this remained an era with a well-integrated commercial system with alternative routes for travel and competition and struggle among various exchange sites. There were few boundaries, and most that existed were permeable. African traders thought in regional or macro-regional terms, and incorporated global forces into their strategies. Global forces affected traders in various ways, often indirectly. Atlantic transport technology and competition among European and African merchants, bulk buyers, and shopkeepers in the Coastal Corridor generally increased the options for mobile traders arriving from the interior and the plain. All traders responded to prices for imports and commodities that emanated from the Atlantic or the large interior states and consuming centers. Coastal traders, in particular, were buffeted by the world-wide depression of the 1870s and early 1880s, which cut severely into the returns of some. Inter-regional traders handling hides saw that market drop; many turned to rubber, which experienced a boom (and, later, a bust). Yet, most traders were able to adapt without great difficulties as long as the regions remained integrated, the system provided travel and exchange options, and a wide range of goods continued to be bought and sold.

Phase II. Imperial Creation of Inland Colonial Boundaries and Traders’ Responses

15In the 1890s, the French and British took over the interior, created the formal territories known as the Sierra Leone “Protectorate” and “French” Guinée, and erected the colonial boundary between them. They began to transform space by erecting customs stations along the inland boundary, posting guards, sealing frontiers, and taking other measures to control trade to their benefit. Although some African leaders accommodated, many rulers and military commanders, along with their followers, mounted armed resistance. All were defeated by the early years of the twentieth century. Europeans used a variety of means to establish in each colony a single main port and administrative capital, Freetown and Conakry respectively, and the early stages of an administrative hierarchy with districts and district officers (in Guinée, cercles and commandants de cercle). The imperialists destroyed the Sierra Leone-Guinea system: beyond establishing the boundary, they interfered with the movement of traders and broke links between people and towns. Some traders adapted, mostly through adjustments in their boundary strategies, and continued to trade, while others gave up their businesses.

16France was more aggressive than Britain in their assault on African spatial patterns. Around 1891, as they expanded inland, the French began to channel, limit, and at times totally prohibit exports through Sierra Leone from areas they now regarded as within their colony. In doing so they had two main goals: first, to build up the trade of French businesses and the revenue of their new colony, Guinée Française, while undermining Sierra Leone commercially, and, second, to isolate and weaken the states led by the almamis of Futa Jallon and Almami Samori Touré (Person 1968, Barry 1998). They also stopped the internal traffic in slaves, which often was associated with trading in cattle and other commodities; while they did have a humanitarian motive, that policy, too, was designed to weaken African commercial organization and resistance. Operations were directed from Conakry, where, in 1891, the French had installed a Lieutenant Governor (under the Governor General in Dakar) and an administrative structure. France’s imperial planning also called for the development of Conakry as a capital and for commerce to be channeled to and through its port (Goerg 1997).

  • 8 See Baillaud (1907: 142-164) and Aspe-Fleurimont (1907: 135-141), Sierra Leone Colony, Annual Repor (...)

17To weaken Freetown and traders based in British territory and to strengthen French commerce, Guinée officials declared that direct importation of non-French merchandise through Conakry was duty free, but goods imported by way of Sierra Leone were heavily taxed. As a result, by 1899, 90% of all imports into their colony were through the port of Conakry. This ended Freetown’s role as an entrepot for sections of the northern coast that were now in Guinée. The total of all Guinée imports through Freetown, excluding specie, dropped from about £90,000 to £15,000, using French figures, or from £60,000 to £4,000 using British figures. In 1897, Guinée exported products worth only £3,000 to England, but £176,000 in 19008. Along with other French actions, the commercial growth of Conakry and some towns in Guinée helped undercut the businesses of traders who had been moving goods between customs spheres. Some adapted, as is discussed in the next section, but many were unable to develop new spatial strategies.

  • 9 Both British and French sources document this extension in detail. Collaborating chiefs were also u (...)
  • 10 On forced sales, see SLNA/NACLB (Native Affairs Confidential Letter Book) 1889-1898, 17 Oct., 1892, (...)

18Between 1891 and 1894, France extended controls from their coastal bases to the southern margin of Futa Jallon (see Map1) as the first stage in their strategy to construct a semicircular ring of posts along the full length of what became the inter-colonial boundary. With those posts they could collect duties and send out patrols to intercept traders9. In 1895 France and Great Britain signed a convention that recognized their mutual right to collect tolls at the boundary, while stipulating open commerce. By using coercion to control the interior frontiers, however, France went beyond what the British thought was permissible under the agreements. France not uncommonly used force against traders – redirecting caravans, seizing cattle and other commodities, compelling sale of animals at fixed price (often below market value), and arresting juula10.

  • 11 See SenNA 7G/36 pc. 46, 28 Feb, 1895, report of Captain Brouet.

19Toward the end of 1896, France occupied Timbo, the capital of Futa Jallon. They then went on to defeat its ruler, Almami Bokari Biro, and declare a protectorate. In 1893, Commandant Coombes, one of the architects of French imperial advance into Guinée, stated in a circular letter that Futa Jallon would have to be completely cut off from Sierra Leone and its resources used for building the economy of Guinée; later, military personnel referred to this statement as policy11. By taking control of a major trading state and the primary source of cattle for the region, they were better able to re-direct the flow of this valuable commodity (and other goods, particularly those that were exchanged for cattle or traded alongside cattle). Also, the French almost totally re-directed the rubber trade, which in the last three decades of the 1800s had grown to be a major export commodity. Whereas traders had primarily carried rubber to Freetown in the middle 1890s, once France began to divert it through force and tax policies, Conakry quickly took most of it. This further undercut older patterns of inter-regional traffic that were linked with rubber. France also carried out a long and strenuous campaign to defeat Almami Samori Touré. The destruction of the Muslim states ended their capacity to finance large caravans and reduced the importance of several towns that had facilitated inter-regional flows.

  • 12 See SLNA/CSMP1186/1899, SLNA/CSMP 428/1904.
  • 13 Howard interview with Pa Thokor, Kamagbonson, Biriwa chiefdom, 2 October, 1968.

20French boundary policies severely distorted regional commercial patterns organized by juula and other traders. Longer trips, higher risk costs, and imposed duties cut into traders’ profits. Avoidance was a common juula response to boundary patrols, unpredictable closures, and, especially, customs fees. For the first time, trading across interior ecological zones was defined as “smuggling.” From the mid-nineties onward for many years during the colonial era, juula and border guards played a dangerous cat and mouse game. For many juula smuggling became a way of life, though detection threatened their lives and livelihood12. When interviewed decades later, elderly juula recounted harrowing stories of being chased through “bush paths” by armed patrols, and as proof showed the scars they had sustained from sharp thorn trees and bullets13. These tribulations were not simply a desire to stick to “old ways.” Rather, traders sought to maintain their investment in regional networks of hosts and exchange partners. Cattle traders, in addition, wished to preserve their knowledge of places where they could find water and feed, thus maintaining their animals’ health, weight, and market value.

  • 14 Guinée Journal Officiel, Jan., 1901, p. 11, rept. of Commission, and 1 Aug., 1901, rept. of Commiss (...)

21Many juula demonstrated flexibility in modifying their travel paths and networks – and creating new ones. They re-imagined the macro-region with the new boundaries in mind. When the French attempted to destroy the Falaba Road Corridor by instituting a prohibitively high tariff on cattle passing through that section of the colonial boundary, juula who sought to reach the lucrative Freetown market quickly adjusted by walking their animals a very long way around through Liberia and eastern Sierra Leone. French officials were forced to abandon a mistaken policy14. Still, overall, there was a severe reduction in cattle exportation to Sierra Leone lasting well into the 20th century, and juula and middlemen were required to make major changes in patterns of exchange, as described in the next section.

22Imperial conquest broke up the pre-colonial system of exchange towns, roads, and personal and commercial networks and, ultimately, destroyed the Sierra Leone-Guinea system. Most important for the long term history of the macro-region was the great reduction in exchange between complementary ecological zones. The flow of traders and commerce along the Falaba Road Corridor, the Futa-Scarcies Corridor, and the Coastal Corridor declined precipitously. Exchange that had a long history was now illegal, or at least more costly and risky. Traders located in the two colonies faced impediments to partnerships and network building, including different laws and court systems, tax regimes, and currencies. As colonial rule became more deeply entrenched, however, some traders were able to take advantage of the new situation, for instance, by profiting from differentials in prices and also the exchange rates of currencies. Increasingly, traders began to move more regularly across the boundary in new patterns, either smuggling or paying duties, and re-orienting their networks to the existence of new urban centers and rail transport.

Phase III. Boundaries and Traders in the Early Colonial Era

23Within the new boundaries, the British and French authorities established administrative units (districts, cercles, provinces, etc.) headed by European officers, where taxes were levied, court cases heard, convicts jailed, licenses issued, and so on. African rulers were removed from office or demoted to being chiefs in an administrative hierarchy, and lesser title holders often found their authority constricted, although colonialism provided some office holders with new opportunities to acquire resources and exploit subjects. In the plain, many title holders and big men lost much of their capacity to order space through social, political, and military power and experienced a restricted capacity to use extensive networks and long-term alliances. A major step in spatial reorganization took place between about 1900 and 1917 as Europeans in both colonies directed the construction of railway lines linking the capitals and their ports to the interior; the rails, along with feeder roads, created dendritic systems for channeling bulk quantities of agricultural exports to the main ports and imports inland to Africans producers and other consumers (Map 2).

Map 2. Colonial Boundary and Railways, ca. 1915

Map 2. Colonial Boundary and Railways, ca. 1915

Source: author. Cartography: Rutgers University.

24Towns rose and fell depending on their location in relationship to areas of crop production and the new infrastructure. Some old trading towns at the heads of navigation – in other words at the intersection of the coastal and east-west corridors – lost most of their commercial life, while others entered long periods of competition with rival towns, and still others continued as viable exchange centers. Thus, Magbeli nearly died and its traders declined or moved because its hinterland was truncated by the splintering of the Falaba Road Corridor and the building of the northern spur of the Sierra Leone railway, and by the rise of new collection points along it. Traders in Kambia and Melikuri, near to each other on opposite sides of the colonial boundary, competed over prices of imports and access to the once common hinterland where exports were produced; their opportunities were determined to a considerable degree by custom duties and by the development of transport routes running parallel to the colonial boundary, which some traders continued to cross (see Howard in preparation). Generally, in the early years, Melikuri had an advantage, but around the First World War, Kambia traders benefited because their networks tapped an extremely rich kola growing area at a time when overseas markets were expanding. African traders and authorities undertook the physical upgrading of one of the roads of the old Futa-Scarcies Corridor and bought lorries that traversed the road with bulky produce and imports. Port Loko was less affected by the rail than Magbeli and the boundary than Kambia; its local traders did fairly well, especially as cattle and other goods continued to reach it and as traffic in its river, part of the Coastal Corridor, remained vigorous. European traders, however, took advantage of the colonial umbrella to set up operations there (and in several other head of navigation centers in both colonies) and directly challenge Africans in certain sectors.

25Many of the older inland towns – places that had prospered in part from the 19th century juula and caravan trade that integrated the whole Sierra Leone-Guinea system – either declined along with the destruction of that traffic, or saw their residents make major adjustments to new regional commercial patterns. Thus, towns that had benefited from being at the edges of the fractured transition area between the uplands and the coastal plain lost a lot of traffic; they would include places in Sierra Leone around the Biriwa kingdom and in Guinée on roads leading away from Futa Jallon. In contrast, some old centers gained from being on or very near to the new colonial boundary, which also saw the rise of new towns, especially those assigned colonial functions. Thus, Falaba, the ancient capital of Solima, which had been in decline during the late 19th century, got a boost when the British chose it to be a district headquarters and when cross-boundary cattle traders located there. Heremakono on the French side similarly gained in importance and attracted traders, including those crossing the frontier. Many traders who were most involved in cross-boundary trafficking – those examined in the above section – found it difficult to take advantage of the new administrative and transport structures, but some adapted well by changing their locations, patterns of movement, and networks. In the process, they modified their strategies for dealing with boundaries.

  • 15 See SLNA/CSMP 540/1900 Collector of Customs to Col. Sec. 13 Feb.; SLNA/CSMP 527/1902 Report on Cust (...)

26A special variation of the competition in the Coastal Corridor developed along the far lower sections of the Sierra Leone-Guinée boundary. Many Africans treated the French and British sections of that zone as one region. Farmers and occasional traders regularly moved back and forth across the boundary to sell their crops and buy necessities. Professional (regional) traders residing in the zone and farther afield made careful assessments of which goods to buy in each sphere; they obtained some on the British side and some on the French side, depending on how duties and transport costs affected prices (for similar historical trading options, see Nugent 1996: 58-60). Colonial officials quickly recognized that Africans were creating a border zone along both sides of the boundary by traveling back and forth through numerous bush paths and waterways. The British, in particular, mounted a campaign to interdict African traders they considered smugglers, but, in the end, abandoned most stations and removed the supervisors and patrols15.

  • 16 See SLNA/CSMP 1245/1909 Abolition of the Customs Preventative Service.

27Many juula who had been involved in the long-distance exchange of kola and cattle had to re-think their strategies as Europeans planted colonial rule inland and as technology, demand, and other global forces brought changes. A significant body of former caravaners gave up traveling the roads and settled down in old trade towns, in newer rail and administrative centers, or in Freetown or Conakry, often becoming diatigis (“landlords” or hosts/intermediaries) serving mobile traders. Some juula sought to keep their commerce viable by sustaining older patterns, others by radically modifying their spatial and organizational arrangements to fit the new colonial realities. Among them were traders described above – those who crossed at the far interior points, avoiding French patrols while maintaining sections of the old routes from Futa Jallon and the Upper Niger. They also included those who went along with French policy of re-direction on the Guinée side of the boundary: when they arrived near the Atlantic, they traveled into Sierra Leone, even reaching Freetown. Sometimes those juula not only transferred cattle from Guinée, but also operated like regional traders by moving dutied imports along the water and bush paths near the coast16. Thus, in the cross-boundary section of their travels they became “smugglers”.

28In general, rail and administrative towns grew in size as they took on new functions and were settled by foreign and African migrants – employees of large firms, laborers, marketers, artisans, government clerks, teachers, and others – who generated demand for goods. Most, though not all, of the rail and administrative towns were located away from the frontiers, so African traders were required to make spatial adaptations to take advantage of new opportunities. Towns along the northern rail spur in the Sierra Leone Protectorate, like Yonibana, Magburaka, and Makeni, and along the Guinée rail, like Kindia and Mamou (Map 2), quickly attracted African and foreign traders. Large-scale European firms, antecedents of modern multi-national corporations, built produce collecting, wholesaling, and retailing networks along the rails, gaining revenue through handling volume. Those African traders using the rails to transport food, kola, and other commodities to Freetown and Conakry struggled against the power of foreign companies by demanding lower fares and shipping rates, the right to rent rail cars jointly, and so on (Howard in preparation). Other traders who settled in the new towns found ways to re-orient their connections and build new networks, even across boundaries.

  • 17 The following section is based on Howard interviews with Alhaji Brimah Kabba, Sendugu, Port Loko, 1 (...)

29Many juula also took up residence in the new rail and administrative centers, for instance, Makeni (Sierra Leone) and Mamou (Guinée), either re-orienting their trade or becoming diatigi17. Some emigrated from Futa Jallon or the upper Niger, others from the plain, including now bypassed villages and dying towns. One of the new patterns of cross-boundary trading involved traders taking kola bought around Makeni or other centers in Sierra Leone to obtain cattle in Mamou on the Conakry-Niger rail, Kindia (another new rail center in Guinée), or old towns like Timbo or Labe. Some who abandoned the old corridors, re-directed their trade by forging connections that reached from Futa Jallon into southeastern Sierra Leone. All such cross-boundary networks now connected the main source of cattle with towns or crop production areas where population and demand were growing; traders maintained parts of an ancient commercial nexus by altering their location, patterns of movement, and networks.

30One final and significantly different form of cross-boundary trade deserves mention because it illustrates how mobile traders created very distant ties and then altered their networks as colonial rule gave rise to new towns and modes of transport. Traders had for centuries been coming by sea from Bissau (a Portuguese enclave) and other northern coastal points to buy kola in the coastal area near where the Sierra Leone-Guinée border later was fixed, especially in the Scarcies Rivers. In the later 19th century, traders, most of them Krio based in Freetown, built successful businesses by purchasing kola nuts from traders operating in the Coastal Corridor and then accompanying the kola north on the scheduled steamships, mostly to Bathurst (Banjul). After the British and French conquered the Senegambian hinterland and made structural changes similar to those in Guinée and Sierra Leone, African traders fundamentally changed the Atlantic kola trade. Dakar became the capital of Senegal, and, later, of all Afrique Occidentale Française (AOF), and also rose as a major kola market where a diverse body of traders carried out exchange. Bathurst continued to be the import center for The Gambia and, to some degree, Senegal. Traders began sending kola unaccompanied to Senegal and The Gambia on ships that regularly stopped at their ports. They used the inter-colonial telegraph lines to arrange deals with distant partners and to modify prices and contracts quickly as market conditions changed. Traders, thus, were now promoting trade that crossed the Sierra Leone boundary (in the port) and then French and British boundaries in the northern colonies. Sierra Leoneans also built up an even larger commerce in kola to Nigeria. Since Sierra Leone kola still crossed the boundary into Guinée, kola was now flowing in commercial networks that reached from multiple buying nodes throughout coastal northern Sierra Leone to multiple selling nodes in at least four other colonies, crossing boundaries as it flowed.

Traders, Boundaries, Networks, Regions, and Global Forces

31The Sierra Leone-Guinea commercial system of the 1870s and 1880s constituted a macro-region made up of several smaller regions. The system was shaped by demand from the Atlantic, the wider West African world, and the regions that comprised the system. Among those regions, the Sierra Leone-Guinea plain was critical because it bridged the interior and the ocean and because Freetown was located within the plain. Complex networks of all types spanned the plain and reached far beyond (Howard 2005). Trade flowed along roads that integrated the plain and linked it with neighboring regions.

32Three things stand out about the spatial patterns of the Sierra Leone-Guinea system. The centers of political and military power on the coast and inland, namely the Colony of Sierra Leone and the great Muslim almamates, affected but were unable to order the space of the plain. Titled authorities, big men, traders, and farmers of the plain organized that area politically and commercially through cooperation, competition and violent struggle. Furthermore, traders found the boundaries of the Colony, large African states, and numerous “mini-states” of the plain were permeable, although they did have to pay duties, fees, and extractions of sovereignty. Finally, within the overall stability of the main commercial corridors and towns, the patterns and complex relationships among networks, towns, and roads were quite flexible. Traders were used to adapting to changes in the accessibility and safety of roads, the location of favorable exchange sites, and the functional activities sited in various towns. Those traders who did well had a strategic sense of opportunity, hazard, and amenity, which included building bridges across social and political lines and negotiating existing boundaries. A similar, perhaps even more acute, strategic thinking was needed in the imperial and colonial eras as Europeans established and patrolled boundaries that were exclusionary and often difficult to cross.

33Colonialism, capitalism, and “transnational” technology had long exerted influences on the area, but from the late nineteenth century onward those global forces led to new structural realities in Sierra Leone and Guinée Française – and eventually drastically altered the options for African traders.

  • 18 My thinking on this subject has been strongly influenced by the work of Pred (1990).

34In global terms, the European inland extension of boundaries and subsequent spatial changes were associated with national rivalries, world-wide imperial conquest, and the application of advanced weaponry and technology abroad – and with colonial rule that was simultaneously violent, bureaucratic, and negotiated. African rulers, titled officials, big men, and traders lost much of their ability to use power and resources to contest the order of towns and roads. In the first two decades of the 20th century, European authorities and firms directly reshaped space in the plain and interior by setting up administrations and building new infrastructures, most importantly, spatially fixed, carbon-based rail transport systems, and other fixed capital facilities. The rail and road systems and administrative structures established formal (in contrast to functional) regions, and, along with associated changes in urban population levels, retailing by large firms, and consumption, led to a hardening of the spatial patterns of towns. That, as well as the improved telegraphs and regularity of steamships, affected African traders in many ways, but unevenly according to their location and capacity to use the technologies. In sum, global forces that were expressed locally and regionally influenced traders’ strategies for crossing the new boundaries. The cumulative actions of traders also modified the structures in which they made decisions18.

35Africans both resisted and accommodated to the spatial changes wrought by global forces and continued to shape space locally, regionally, and inter-regionally in the context of new constraints. For many traders who successfully adapted to the colonial era, their spatial strategies involved reconstituting networks – links among exchange nodes and ties with other traders – as well as crossing boundaries. Traders in different sectors and locations developed different border crossing logics and networks. Many African traders of the Sierra Leone-Guinea plain who dealt in imports and bulky export crops were pushed down the commercial ladder or closed their businesses. Those who continued to trade responded differently to the colonial boundary depending on where they were based, the commodities they handled, and the competitors they encountered. Some traders living around Kambia and Melikuri seem to have found ways to accommodate to the presence of colonial officials, negotiating relationships on both sides of the boundary. Those who operated in the zone between the head of navigation centers and the coast tried to sustain a modified version of the ancient exchange in the Coastal Corridor, a terrain where slavers had sought to evade the British navy and administrative officers throughout the 19th century and where rulers, big men, traders, and farmers “smuggled” goods from the 1870s into the 20th century. Traders in that zone created a border region rich with networks and culture that included knowledge of passageways and techniques for challenging and outlasting the controls of colonial authorities.

36Traders who dealt in kola and cattle frequently were seeking ways to link older, but continuingly productive, source areas with new sites of consumption. Kola traders were especially attentive to changes in colonial policies, technology, and demand. Demand was in turn affected by prices of kola grown in other colonies and by the incomes of consumers, who typically were residents of new towns or farmers producing cash crops for global markets. Some kola traders in Sierra Leone maintained older patterns by becoming diatigi who hosted juula coming from inland areas of Guinée seeking kola – or by carrying kola to interior consumption zones. By necessity such exchanges meant crossing the boundary. Others who bought kola choose, instead, to supply overseas exporters who operated out of Freetown. A spectacular pattern of adaptation was shown by those traders – mostly Krio, many of them women – who took advantage of the regular patterns of steamship movement to transfer kola to distant, overseas colonies such as The Gambia, Senegal, and Nigeria – in all cases crossing boundaries. Those kola exporters coordinated the boundary crossing with partners in the consuming colonies through innovative networks and use of telegraph lines for instant communication about quantities, quality, and prices.

37Cattle juula often found certain pre-colonial roads no longer possible to use and colonial boundaries difficult to cross, but not impermeable. They modified their strategies and networks where it was necessary and profitable, while also maintaining certain existing patterns that were oriented to Futa Jallon (now in Guinée) – which remained the premier cattle raising and exporting area – and to Freetown and some older places which remained leading centers for exchange or consumption. Traders also were quick to build new networks by linking supplies with new sources of demand in prosperous places and by allying with wholesalers and marketers who disposed of animals. Some re-oriented the kola-cattle nexus to integrate new towns in the two colonies. Thus the adaptability of both kola and cattle traders did not simply involve novel ways of crossing boundaries; critical to boundary crossing and to intra-colony trade, as well, was their ability to see and meet broad shifts in demand and to facilitate changes in networks linking centers.

38In Sierra Leone and Guinée, traders both preserved and altered their connections and movements within colonies and across the colonial line, giving rise to modified or new networks. Through those actions, they created functional regions that did not coincide with formal colonial regions – namely, the administrative districts or the colonies themselves, which the French and British envisioned as containers.

39Those functional regions, including ones that reached into distant colonies, often represented a combination of old and new patterns of investment in places, flows, and exchange partners. Traders were influenced by global forces spatially manifested through colonial boundaries, administrative centers, and transport systems, while they forged local sites of exchange and regions that integrated production zones with consumers.


40Prior to the late-nineteenth intensification of imperial intervention, the Sierra Leone-Guinea commercial system was highly integrated, which gave traders, particularly certain inter-regional traders, many options and a sense of spatial flexibility which many carried forward in time. During the era of high imperialism, the French and British first created customs spheres, then set down a line marking off their respective territories, and, finally, conquered the interior, patrolled the boundary intensively, and disrupted existing commercial patterns. Various kinds of African regional and inter-regional traders developed different strategies for dealing with the Sierra Leone-Guinée boundary. Professional traders (juula), who moved commodities inter-regionally throughout the wide Sierra Leone-Guinea system, responded to such changes differently from those traders who handled imports and exports in the Sierra Leone-Guinea plain, a sub-region of the whole system.

41Within those two categories, however, traders had different capacity to adapt depending on their resources and locations, the goods they handled, and their relationships to other structural and global forces besides imperialism. Those who acted in ways that enabled them to sustain their businesses either re-directed their existing networks or formed new networks to take advantage of changing patterns of urbanization, technology, and demand on one side or both sides of a colonial boundary. Through those actions, they created functional regions that did not coincide with formal colonial regions.

42Such historical findings have relevance for contemporary studies of traders in post-colonial Africa. First, it is important to locate traders in their longer historical framework and to incorporate an analysis of who wields spatial power. Prior to colonization, regional traders, along with titled authorities and other big men in the Sierra Leone-Guinea plain, exercised social and political power and accumulated and invested resources that promoted flows along particular roads and exchange centers. After colonial conquest, European officials and companies intervened spatially by laying rail lines and building administrative headquarters and commercial outlets, which in turn affected the size of towns, income of consumers, and so on. Such wider spatial realities conditioned the decisions of traders. Thus, it seems important to focus not only on traders’ acts of boundary crossing, but to understand their perceptions of and responses to changes in power, transport, exchange centers, and demand, often well beyond the immediate boundary zones.

43Interpreting the actions of traders in different commercial sectors seems particularly important to any analysis, past or present. The border crossing problems and logics of various traders in the Sierra Leone-Guinea area were quite different, as were their networks, that is, their exchange nodes and their ties with others. Traders who dealt in kola and cattle frequently were seeking ways to link older source areas with new sites and regions of consumption. They were attentive to changes in demand that was in turn affected by local, regional, and global prices, incomes of consumers, and colonial policies. Some of their wider business strategies differed fundamentally from those who crossed the Sierra Leone-Guinée boundary in the coastal area; the latter were handling manufactured goods and export commodities, and thinking in terms of rapidly shifting global prices and changes in the suppliers of imports, as well regional exchange rates, local prices, and relations with customs officials. These traders have parallels with contemporary traders in the area where Nigeria, Niger, and Benin meet (Walther 2009, 2014).

44Comparing “border cultures” – as described and analyzed by Nugent (2002) – in different periods and contexts also appears to be a fruitful exercise. If a border culture existed along the Sierra Leone-Guinée boundary in the early colonial period, it was created by traders and others living around Kambia and Melikuri and in the zone between those head of navigation centers and the coast. Farther inland, on a long stretch of the Sierra Leone-Guinée boundary, African traders developed flexible strategies of accommodating and avoiding the colonial state that has some parallels to what Nugent found for more recent periods along the Ghana-Togo boundary. Cattle traders, in particular, recognized the boundary when necessary, for instance by paying duties, but also contested the boundary by avoiding customs stations and patrols. Traders’ actions along boundaries can best be understood in the framework of markets, colonial (or national) states, and the wider, trans-colonial (or transnational) regions traders forge. All of these ways of interpreting traders require an analysis that is multi-level, moving back and forth between the local, regional, and global. Such an analysis should also look both at how traders’ strategies were affected by global forces and dynamic structures and at how their cumulative decisions and actions helped shape regions and structures.

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1 I wish to thank Olivier Walther and the two anonymous readers for their valuable comments. Here I consistently use the term boundary, rather than border, which to my mind has a more general meaning; elsewhere I have attempted to distinguish various kinds of borders, one being a boundary. Historically, in the Sierra Leone-Guinée area borders can be identified along the Atlantic shore, along the rail lines, and in other places (see Howard 2011).

2 To focus on boundaries, I am ignoring merchants and middle-scale traders who invested in shops, factories, and other fixed capital in the rivers, in Freetown and, later, in Conakry. They often supplied imports to regional and inter-regional traders studied here and bought exports from them. For a survey of inter-regional trade in the area, see Howard (1999, in preparation).

3 It is not possible here to examine how other major states affected the history of inter-regional trade, such as Solima. For a comprehensive study of that kingdom, see Fyle (1979).

4 The prime kola producing areas actually extended inland beyond the heads of navigation; buyers were able to obtain nuts at numerous collecting points, however, a town such as Kambia had the advantage of being accessible to those who came by water as well as by land and being the site of many shops with a wide range of imports. For an overview of the Scarcies area kola trade, see Howard (2007).

5 For 1879, see Sierra Leone National Archives (SLNA)/Aborigines Minute Paper (AbMP) n.n., 25 June, 1870, “State of Affairs at Kaikonkie”; SLNA/ AbMP 8/1979; SLNA/Colonial Secretary Minute Papers (CSMP) 350/1979 and 45/1880.

6 Almami (literally, “the imam”) was the title given to heads of Islamic states (almamates) and, in some instances, was taken as a title with status by rulers of towns and small kingdoms inhabited by Muslims, and by heads of ethnic communities (Person 1968, Skinner 1978).

7 Authorities and traders in some towns of the Sierra Leone-Guinea plain also promoted exchange with the interior states. For an historic overview of trade between the plain and interior, see Howard (1999).

8 See Baillaud (1907: 142-164) and Aspe-Fleurimont (1907: 135-141), Sierra Leone Colony, Annual Report, 1900; SLNA Gov. to Sec of State, 11 July, 1899, “Increasing Trade of French Guinea...”; SLNA/CSMP791/1900.

9 Both British and French sources document this extension in detail. Collaborating chiefs were also used to help control traffic. For an early example, see Senegal National Archives (SenNA) 7G4/2/pc.181, extract of report of Administrator Dubreka, Jan., 1890.

10 On forced sales, see SLNA/NACLB (Native Affairs Confidential Letter Book) 1889-1898, 17 Oct., 1892, SLNA/NAMP 401/1891, letters of 27 July, and 5 Aug., and SLNA/ NAMP 294/1892. On redirection of caravans, see SLNA/AbNA Conf. LB 1889-1898, SLNA/NAMP 2809/1892, letter of 17 Oct., SLNA/NAMP 332/1893, letter of Binneh Sankoh and Sorie Bunkie, rec. 24 June, and SLNA/Conf. NAMP 60/1894.

11 See SenNA 7G/36 pc. 46, 28 Feb, 1895, report of Captain Brouet.

12 See SLNA/CSMP1186/1899, SLNA/CSMP 428/1904.

13 Howard interview with Pa Thokor, Kamagbonson, Biriwa chiefdom, 2 October, 1968.

14 Guinée Journal Officiel, Jan., 1901, p. 11, rept. of Commission, and 1 Aug., 1901, rept. of Commission. SLNA/NAMP 224/1899, rept. of 11 Oct.

15 See SLNA/CSMP 540/1900 Collector of Customs to Col. Sec. 13 Feb.; SLNA/CSMP 527/1902 Report on Customs Outstations, 13 Apr.; SLNA/CSMP 1272/1907 Report on Preventative System, 7 Feb; SLNA/1245/1909 Abolition of Customs Preventative Service; SLNA/CSMP 305/1910 Reorganization of Preventative Service on French Frontier; SLNA/DC Karene 54/1911.

16 See SLNA/CSMP 1245/1909 Abolition of the Customs Preventative Service.

17 The following section is based on Howard interviews with Alhaji Brimah Kabba, Sendugu, Port Loko, 11 Feb., 1968; Pa Alfa Fula, Makeni, 2 Nov., 1968; Alhaji Sittia Sesay, Makeni, 31 Oct., 1968; and other former traders or members of trading families. Howard interviews were deposited at the Institute of African Studies, Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone.

18 My thinking on this subject has been strongly influenced by the work of Pred (1990).

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List of illustrations

Title Map 1. Commercial Corridors and Sierra Leone-Guinea Region, 1870s-1880s
Credits Source: author. Cartography: Rutgers University.
File image/png, 184k
Title Map 2. Colonial Boundary and Railways, ca. 1915
Credits Source: author. Cartography: Rutgers University.
File image/png, 191k
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Electronic reference

Allen M. Howard, « Cross-Boundary Traders in the Era of High Imperialism: Changing Structures and Strategies in the Sierra Leone-Guinea Region », Articulo - Journal of Urban Research [Online], 10 | 2014, Online since 08 October 2014, connection on 09 July 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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About the author

Allen M. Howard

Allen M. Howard is Professor Emeritus at the Department of History at Rutgers University, USA. His research focuses geographically on the upper Guinea coast area of West Africa and topically on ethnicity, commerce, and urban social life. Email:

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