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In 1919, white people in cities across the United States and the United Kingdom targeted Black communities in riots. The reasons were complicated, but many in the white communities claimed they were seeking vengeance against Black men who were sexually involved with white women. As African and African-American studies scholar Carina E. Ray writes, in the West African British colony known as the Gold Coast, the hypocrisy behind this was glaring. Outraged writers pointed to white colonizers’ sexual exploitation of African women in terms that helped spark a growing independence movement.

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Earlier in West African history, Ray writes, European men involved in trading in the region often married African women with their own entrepreneurial ambitions, forming powerful trading families. But by the early twentieth century, sharp racial lines drawn by the colonial powers made this kind of marriage impossible. Instead, relationships between white men and Black women typically took the form of “temporary marriages,” informal concubinage, or sex work.

Meanwhile, British colonial rule in the Gold Coast was becoming more direct. Advances in tropical medicine in the late nineteenth century made it easier for more Europeans to work in the colonial bureaucracies, and a rising ideology of Black inferiority provided the justification for cutting Africans out of positions of power.

Ray writes that educated African elites responded by creating independent organizations and media outlets. In the early twentieth century, British authorities had not yet instituted extensive censorship, and newspapers aired grievances of the colonized population. In the wake of World War I, writers in these papers frequently called for political reforms, wider enfranchisement, and more independence for African institutions. But they generally assumed these changes could take place while their nation remained part of the British Empire.

Their tone changed in the 1920s. After the 1919 race riots in British port cities, some local authorities there responded by making plans to forcibly return African immigrants targeted by the violence to West Africa. Gold Coast newspaper columnist Atu noted that if the men were repatriated, they would return to see white men in their home country freely involved with Black women.

Atu and other Black Gold Coast writers pointed to European men who seduced young African women with material support only to exploit and abandon them. They attacked the hypocrisy of colonists who claimed to be advancing civilization but failed to care for their own mixed-race children. While the largely male writers often criticized the African women in these relationships for sexual immorality, they focused most of their ire on European men.

“By laying bare their sexual predations,” Ray writes, “Gold Coast writers identified white men as the real source of sexual peril, while also giving the lie to the claim that Europeans’ moral superiority endowed them with the right to rule over Africans and other subject populations.”

That sentiment contributed to a growing independence movement, which culminated in 1957 with the colony’s independence as the new nation of Ghana.

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The American Historical Review, Vol. 119, No. 1 (February 2014), pp. 78–110
Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Historical Association