Published May 11, 2022
Title: Forging Autonomy in West Africa
Feature article by Rebecca Dingle, BA ’22, The Baldy Center Staff
Keywords: forgery, colonialism, new imperialism, West Africa, indentured labor, abolitionism, Sierra Leone, Old Calabar, Nigeria, Fernando Po, slavery, emancipation, family, kinship
The criminal act of forgery brings to mind white-collar crime and criminals like Frank Abagnale Jr., made popular through Leonardo DiCaprio’s portrayal of him in the movie Catch Me If You Can. But what does forgery look like when it is used to avoid state control, or as a mechanism for migration and tapping into economic opportunity under colonial rule?
Ndubueze L. Mbah uses a variety of sources to examine migration, labor, slavery, abolition, and constructions of gender, sexuality, and ethnicity in 18th to 20th century West Africa. Mbah's forthcoming book, “African Rebellious Migrants: The Forgery of Abolition and the Quest for Freedom,” examines how Nigerian people used forged documents and identities to survive European colonialism.
Forced labor and colonial exploitation of unfree labor continued in British, Spanish, and French colonies in Africa after the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade in 1808. In the 1850s, Africans from the region of eastern Nigeria, who were legally emancipated and resettled by the British Empire in Sierra Leone, attempted to return to their homeland or port of embarkation, Old Calabar in Nigeria.
Mbah writes, “[p]ressured by local elites and British merchants however, British consuls began deporting the returnees back to Sierra Leone, charging them with, and prosecuting them for crimes of ‘endangering British capital’ and ‘slave dealing.’”
To push back against this, Liberated Africans began forging documents such as freedom papers, testaments of emancipation, and marriage papers. They used these forged papers to move across borders, access economies that were otherwise closed to them, join (and sometimes avoid joining) spouses in other colonies, and to facilitate human trafficking. Such forgery practices opened the doors to economic opportunity for themselves and enabled migration to and between colonies.
Some of the Liberated Africans forcibly returned to Sierra Leone used the language of British abolitionists to fight for their rights. They had been settled in Sierra Leone as emancipated British subjects, so in some cases they argued that as Black Englishmen, allowing them to participate in the colonial economic structure would challenge “Liverpool monopolies and ‘advanced the extinction of the slave trade.’” Others took abolitionism to mean they should secure their own freedom. To do this, some Liberated Africans forged freedom papers to “steal away slaves” belonging to Old Calabar elites. They used the forged paperwork to sell these slaves to colonies, such as the Spanish colony of Fernando Po, as indentured laborers. These recruiters consisted of both men and women, with the women sometimes kidnapping young women or registering them as their daughters in order to sell them to Spanish colonists as domestic and sex workers.
From 1891 to 1939, thousands of eastern Nigerian men, women, and children were trafficked to the Spanish Island of Fernando Po, and contracted into indentured and forced labor, characterized by violence and slavery-type abuses. By World War II, British and Spanish colonial authorities could no longer overlook and justify this forced labor traffic. Therefore, both colonial powers negotiated a treaty between 1940 and 1942, with the aim of regulating the labor system. The treaty “legalized the recruitment of Nigerian British subjects as laborers in Spanish and French colonies.” It also defined a contract laborer as an adult male, entitled to bring along one or two wives, and any number of children under the age of 16 years. The treaty did not eradicate the forgery problem, and instead led to various other kinds of forgery, such as the forging of familial records, used by women and indentured male laborers to achieve their own ends, including trafficking children, and other women and men.
After the treaty was concluded in 1942, Nigerian male laborers and women came to agreements in order to use the treaty’s new definitions of “husband” and “wife” for their own benefit, allowing them to migrate and break into economies they otherwise would not have been able to access. Mbah describes how this exchange and the forgery of marriage papers allowed men to “leverage colonial ‘bureaucracy of paper’ as a way of claiming ownership over women’s bodies,” and allowed women to “gain access to economies regulated by colonial boundaries and heteropatriarchal conceptions of contract, labor, wage, and colonial subjecthood.”
This control and ownership that male laborers expressed over the bodies of women was enforced by the power of the British colonial state. They believed “placating Nigerian indentured male laborers [was] essential to sustaining a trans-colonial forced labor system.” This belief caused some women who refused to join their husbands to rely on family and kinship to evade colonial systems, but it also enabled women to take advantage of colonial documentation and marriage in order to “gain access to Spanish and French territories on their own terms.” These women would forge marriage documentation, as well as proof of marriage. They would get family – both actual family members and false family members – to swear to the legitimacy of the marriage within colonial courts. This would allow women to obtain travel permits, and they were able to leave their supposed husbands to pursue independent businesses once they migrated.
Mbah explains how, once these women arrived in Equatorial Guinea or Gabon, while they weren’t able to work as indentured laborers, they were able to find jobs as cooks, nurses, servants, traders, sex workers, and more. They used these ideas of heteropatriarchal families in order to access markets they would not have been able to alone. As Mbah states, these women “interfaced with the colonial state in ways that left testimonial and contestatory archival traces, in which they articulated ideas of wifehood and motherhood, sexuality, as well as their own imaginations of mobility.” Mbah uses the women’s affidavits, passport photographs, and fingerprints to recover their experiences of colonial patriarchy and desires for autonomy.
Mbah’s work examines documents that attest to ways in which Liberated Africans, indentured laborers, women, and traffickers contributed to outlooks and practices of abolitionism, forced labor, freedom, and communities of diaspora. These insights are important to understanding the laws, policies, and social implications of colonialism from the 18th through 20th centuries, as well as their ramifications for why human trafficking remains an enduring problem in Africa, and why many Africans continue to rely on forgery to negotiate mobility and evade the state.
Ndubueze L. Mbah, PhD, is a West African Atlantic historian. He uses a variety of oral, written, and material culture sources to examine changing labor systems, mobilities, slavery and abolition, and cosmopolitanism; as well as constructions of gender, sexuality, and ethnicity in West Africa between the 18th and 20th centuries. He is working on a second book entitled, “African Rebellious Migrants: The Forgery of Abolition and the Quest for Freedom.” The project recovers the stories of Nigerian men, women, and children, who fostered forced labor and dependency regimes, and developed networks of illicit migration across British, Spanish, and French colonies in West Africa, in pursuit of freedom and economic uplift between 1850 and 1960.