This blog and the accompanying images refer to white British business interests in colonised Sierra Leone.

In 1787 the Province of Freetown on the West Coast of Africa had been established as a home for emancipated Black people in the Caribbean and former Black servicemen of the Napoleonic Wars despite the claims of numerous tribal communities. It was strategically important to the British as a trading and naval hub as the profits from the trans-Atlantic slave trade were falling.  It was forcibly made a Crown Colony by the British from 1808 until gaining Commonwealth-based independence in 1961.

The Co-operative Wholesale Society made their first deputation to Sierra Leone in 1913.  For the CWS, the purpose of deputations was to investigate potential business interests overseas and the British control of the region meant this was easier to explore under colonial rule.  The CWS had always looked to expand its business outside of the UK and had depots, factories and plantations across the world.  A year before the trip; business rivals Lever Brothers had commenced business in Sierra Leone, motivating CWS to expand their business in the area.

A driving factor for the CWS expanding into different business areas was a ‘do it yourself’ attitude.  For example;  shortly after opening a  jam factory in Middleton, land was purchased to farm fruit to supply the factory, rather than purchase from another business in order to keep as much of the process within the control of the movement. 

Percy Redfern (CWS employee and writer of two volumes of the organisation’s history), says that this was the purpose of the West Africa deputation - to build a factory to process palm oil.  Although the use of this product is a controversial environmental issue today; at the time palm oil was widely used in a range of food and household products such as soap. British rule in Sierra Leone meant that the CWS had an advantage as a British company in obtaining a concession of 314 square miles to build the factory. This concession also meant that no other factories could be built within a ten-mile radius, therefore limiting competition and ensuring that all of the local workforce would be available to sustain production.

On the deputation visit were CWS directors George Thorpe,  William Lander and Joseph English, as well as J.E Green, the senior manager from Irlam Soap Works.  They sailed from Liverpool to Freetown on the 15th of October 1913.  Also with them was Mr. A R Richards who was to become the CWS representative in West Africa.

According to Redfern; even before they departed for Sierra Leone the four men were clear that they did not want to encroach on the land of local people in Masungbo and made efforts to reassure the community of their intentions at a meeting of around a thousand people with the tribal chief in attendance. These people are those appearing in the photographs in the commemorative album made to mark the visit. The album shows the land as well as the factory which the society went on to build.

It is important to show that the history of palm oil production and it's popularity in consumption is tied to the experiences and treatment of the indigenous and settled African communities (former enslaved peoples) in this part of West Africa. The Black people involved are not given a voice or included in the narrative and although CWS personnel involved may have felt they were behaving honourably at the time, the fact remains that business interests were based on the inequality and destabilisation of the region through Empire building which has left a legacy of deprivation for governance and economy into the 21st Century. 

CWS later became known as the Co-operative Group: For further information on the Co-op’s stance on using palm oil today, please see their blog post:  https://blog.coop.co.uk/2018/07/03/your-top-palm-oil-questions-answered/