Saturday, June 24, 2017

"Bloody Coxcombs, But No Bodies": crowd control in post-war British Africa

Source |  This article examines British policymakers' attempts to address the political and practical problems of crowd control in British Africa. After the Accra riots, reforming the policing of crowds became an imperial priority. These efforts pushed in several policy directions, yet none could solve the deeper political issues causing the unrest, nor stop state violence against civilians. During the 1950s, the distance between the liberal rhetoric in Britain about the rule of law and the brutal realities of colonial policing continued to grow. This gap was finally exposed during the Nyasaland Emergency, which had dramatic consequences for the future of British Africa.

Magistrate-Sir, you must disperse the rioters.
Officer-Yes, sir. Soldiers, prime and load.
Magistrate-Stop, sir. You must not fire! What are you about?
Officer-Shall I charge with the bayonet then, sir?
Magistrate-Oh no! You must disperse the rioters.
Officer-But how am I to disperse them if I neither fire nor charge?
Magistrate-Oh, that is your business not mine. Do it as you like, only you must not fire or use your bayonets.

General Sir Charles James Napier relaying an exchange from the Burdett's Riots of 1816-1817-1

[R]ecourse should be had to the use of firearms only as a last result. In view of the serious consequences which result from firing upon civilians, it is I feel important that alternative methods for the dispersal of crowds should be continuously studied.

Secretary of State for the Colonies, Arthur Creech Jones, in a circular to colonial governors in the aftermath of the Accra riots, 1948-2

Though they were a century-and-a-half apart and working in drastically different contexts, Arthur Creech Jones and the nineteenth century magistrate quoted above shared the same basic dilemma: how can order in the streets be restored without resorting to lethal force? Both excerpts also articulate a difference in perspective, if not necessarily always a physical distance, between these men and the so-called "men on the spot" who were immediately tasked with controlling these crowds. These different perspectives as they relate to the use of force were primarily due to the men being subject to different pressures, guided by different understandings of their responsibilities, and locked into different interpretations of the nature of the civilian crowds they faced. 

When offered the option of soldiers firing into the crowd, the magistrate reproached the officer in charge, asking: "What are you about?" At times, London similarly castigated colonial officers for what was deemed to be excessive violence in the handling of colonial crowds.3 But neither the nineteenth century magistrate nor twentieth century colonial policymakers offered other viable alternatives to lethal force when facing down angry crowds: that simply was not their "business." In the aftermath of the Accra, Gold Coast Riots of 1948, colonial policymakers under Creech Jones would resolve to make it their business to reform colonial crowd control. Yet as they would discover, the violence that often accompanied imperial crowd control was not a simple administrative problem that could be easily overcome by technical or procedural reforms emanating from London. Instead, imperial crowd control was a subject inextricably linked to the nature of state coercion and control in Britain's post-war Empire.

In the decade following the riots in Accra in 1948, Britain was confronted with violent unrest in various forms across much of its Empire.4 The scale of this imperial crisis was reflected in the number of Emergencies declared all over the globe during the 1950s, from Kenya to Malaya to Cyprus to British Guiana. This left the security forces of the Empire dangerously stretched, and made colonial administrators increasingly anxious about losing control. The speed with which this anti-colonial unrest spread throughout Africa and the pace of subsequent constitutional changes, first in the Gold Coast then eventually across the whole of British Africa, was something no imperial policymakers in London had predicted.5 

On the force of African nationalism, Creech Jones wrote: "The emotional fervor attached to nationalism infects and spreads. Unless a serious effort is made to channel it, it may become disruptive and destructive. Our task is to channel this emotion and concept towards constructive courses."6 This channeling meant staying ahead of what was deemed to be legitimate nationalism and controlling and thwarting so-called "irresponsible elements." The suppression of mass politics was thus seen as a vital prerequisite to Whitehall's broader strategy of an orderly and slow constitutional evolution of its African possessions.7 After 1948, the Colonial Office was reconfigured to reflect a greater focus on security, intelligence gathering, and propaganda, which together formed the three main pillars of its mission to shape and control colonial politics.8