- Journey to Work:Transnational Prostitution in Colonial British West Africa
I was brought here from Nigeria by the accused [Bassey Assor] about three years ago.... I was brought to Sekondi and after a few weeks taken to Prestea. At Prestea a whiteman came and made some arrangement with [the] accused and I was then told to go into a room with the whiteman. I objected but was forced into the room by the accused and the man had connexion [sic] with me which resulted in my vagina bleeding profusely. I was in pain and ill for some time afterwards. On recovery I was taken to another whiteman but ran away from him and returned to the accused. The accused beat me and made me return to the man but I again left. After this I was taken to Konongo, Tarkwa and Bibiani. At each of these places the accused sent me to different men who had connexion with me. The men paid the accused and sometimes gave me chop [food] money. After leaving Bibiani I and the accused returned to Sekondi where we lived together in one room with a partition down the centre. Every evening I had to sit at the door and men would come to accuse [sic] and ask for me. If I refused to go with a man the accused would beat me.
The above testimony, given in 1939 by a Nigerian child prostitute named Mwoanyaanyanwu who was trafficked to the Gold Coast (modern Ghana), unveils the subculture of forced prostitution—including the horrific atmosphere under which it operated—in a manner best told only by someone who experienced it.1 A Nigerian woman, Bassey Assor, had lured Mwoanyaanyanwu from her parents under the guise of marrying her to one John Nnji (later discovered to be a boy of about nine years old) and then prostituted her to men of varying ethnicities and races. The victim escaped from sexual captivity and found refuge in a police station. [End Page 99] Assor was later charged and sentenced to eighteen months in prison.2 While Mwoanyaanyanwu was lucky to have escaped forced prostitution to narrate her ordeal, another child prostitute named Lady was murdered by her madam, Mary Eyeamevber Eforghere of Warri Province, Nigeria, for refusing to have sex with a European sailor. After killing Lady, Eforghere dumped her corpse in a bush and proceeded to the police station to report her missing. She was found guilty of murder by a Gold Coast court in August 1943 and sentenced to death. While Mwoanyaanyanwu’s case was known only to a very few individuals close to the colonial administration, that of Lady gained front-page coverage in the print media—especially the West African Pilot, Nigeria’s best-selling nationalist newspaper—inciting public outrage against British colonial authorities in West Africa for having failed in their responsibility to protect sexually endangered girls.3
This article examines the most elaborate international prostitution network in colonial British West Africa and arguably the entire African continent during the first half of the twentieth century. Between the outbreak of World War II and the 1950s, British colonial administrators fought to halt the emigration of women and girls from the southern Nigerian provinces of Owerri, Ogoja, and Calabar to the Gold Coast for the purpose of prostitution.4 Yet, the transborder prostitution in West Africa was just one of the numerous networks of global sex work, otherwise known as the “white slave trade,” which aside from being a global humanitarian crisis prompted the convening of several international conventions against sexual trafficking from 1904 through the end of the twentieth century.5 Although the main nexus of white slave traffic was Asia, Europe, and the Americas, representatives of the League of Nations and later the United Nations who policed global prostitution were convinced that sexual exploitation in African colonial dependencies must be addressed to reduce global crime.6 In inserting the Nigeria–Gold Coast prostitution network into the well-documented history of the global movement against sexual exploitation of [End Page 100] women and children, I argue that local social processes played an important role in molding imperial perceptions of the...