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  • Mediators, Contract Men, and Colonial Capital: mechanized gold mining in the Gold Coast Colony, 1879–1909 by Cassandra Mark-Thiesen
  • Michael Kevane
Cassandra Mark-Thiesen, Mediators, Contract Men, and Colonial Capital: mechanized gold mining in the Gold Coast Colony, 1879–1909. Rochester NY: University of Rochester Press (hb US$110 – 978 1 58046 918 0). 2018, 230 pp.

Cassandra Mark-Thiesen uses archival records to investigate labour relations in the early decades of semi-industrial gold mining in the Wassa area of Ghana. The centuries-old artisanal mining of Wassa was ‘discovered’ in the late 1870s by European entrepreneurs, who then ignited a more capital-intensive industry using steam-powered stampers to crush ore mined from deep shafts. The machinery, however, did not displace labour: mining companies needed significant numbers of manual labourers for extracting and processing ore. Recruiting and managing labour was an important determinant of profitability. Mark-Thiesen describes the economic [End Page 982] features of relationships among the intermediaries who organized labour gangs, the companies that used the gang labour, and the labourers themselves.

Mark-Thiesen begins her history by introducing a ‘colourful group’ of mining men, both European and African. French adventurer-merchant Marie-Joseph Bonnat had travelled extensively in West Africa, and served a stint with the Basel Mission in Ghana, when he was captured by the Asante. But he was one of the lucky captives: his period of detention eventually led to his fortune. From the Asantehene, he learned about Wassa, and he set out there on his release, founding a mining society in 1877. A circle of influential European and African capitalists followed, including the merchant James Irvine, the ‘explorer’ Richard Burton, the Liberian London-based newspaper editor Ferdinand Fitzgerald, and the African administrator Joseph Dawson.

Fraud rather than actual profitability may have been the objective of some early companies. The British commissioner appointed to Tarkwa district in 1882, William Cuscaden, issued a damning report suggesting that mining enterprises were speculative schemes and unlikely to obtain much gold. Cuscaden predicted high mortality rates for white workers, sought to avoid a rush of migrant miners, and worried about erosion of traditional authority. Cuscaden especially criticized ‘bush-magistrates’ such as Dawson, who, he claimed, profited as inter-mediaries between mining entrepreneurs and local chiefs.

There then followed a bust, and mining activity was renewed only after the South African war of 1899–1902 disrupted gold supplies and apparently led to a rise in the relative price of gold. In 1889, Governor Brandford Griffith visited Wassa and began supporting infrastructure investment. A railroad, enabling significant expansion of mining extraction activity, reached Wassa in 1901 and was extended in the following years. Until then, all equipment had been brought in by head porters (sleeping sickness had limited animal porterage). Coal began to be brought from the coast to run the crushers. The British defeat of Asante in 1901 gave another big impetus to European investment.

The heart of Mark-Thiesen’s book describes attempts by the resurgent mining industry to reduce labour costs. Various alternatives were advocated: importing ‘coolie’ labour gangs from China; recruitment monopolies enforced by the colonial state; exclusive hiring through the government transport department; pass laws or labour certificates (whereby labourers’ identities would be verified); semi-forced labour by encouraging northern ‘chiefs’ to send labour gangs to the mines. The proposals involved coercion and restrictions on freedom of labour. Mining companies also tried (sometimes half-heartedly) and failed to fix wages at lower levels, to establish norms of ‘no poaching’, to discourage ‘indiscriminate touting’ of workers from other mines, to clamp down on physical violence and intimidation by local foremen, and to prevent women from living in the mining settlements.

On the whole, Mark-Thiesen argues for a negative thesis: the Wassa mining companies failed to establish the arrangements associated with South African and Rhodesian exploitation of black mining labour. Against Wassa mining companies were two powerful forces. The simple logic of labour markets was that parallel cocoa and other commodity booms gave workers alternatives. Without coercion, only high wages could induce mineworkers to remain. Coercion remained an elusive option, however, because higher levels of colonial government were, apparently, opposed to labour...


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