Northwestern Events Calendar


Resolving an Empire Problem: Public Health, Convict Labor, and the Revenue Crisis in Colonial Sierra Leone, 1914-1944

When: Wednesday, March 24, 2021
10:00 AM - 11:00 AM Central

Where: Online

Audience: Faculty/Staff - Student - Public - Post Docs/Docs - Graduate Students

Contact: Elizabeth Morrissey  

Group: Equality Development and Globalization Studies (EDGS)

Co-Sponsor: Buffett Institute for Global Affairs

Category: Lectures & Meetings


EDGS Graduate Lecture Series on Political Ecology

Chernoh Bah, PhD student, History, Northwestern University

This presentation explores how prison labor became central to different kinds of medical and agricultural projects in Sierra Leone in the years between the First and Second World Wars. In early 1914, colonial authorities introduced a new prison ordinance in Sierra Leone as part of a range of legislative and administrative reforms undertaken just as fighting commenced in the Great War. An important feature of the 1914 ordinance was that it introduced the “prison grading system,” a classification regime that grouped prisoners into units according to their skillsets and ability to do different kinds of labor.  A precedent setting law for the British empire, the ordinance and “grading system” transformed Sierra Leone’s prisons from an ad hoc approach meant to “morally shame and uplift” so-called criminals into an organized and expanded network of convict labor designed to support the colonial government.

This presentation examines how officials of the Alfred Jones Research Laboratory – Sierra Leone’s first tropical medical research laboratory – came to conceive of "hard labor" as constitutive of good health for prisoners and what consequences this had for colonial development projects. It explores the ways tropical medical research served to accelerate and rationalize the use of convict labor in the service of colonial finance and development.  

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