Law Enforcement in British Colonial Africa: A Comparative Analysis of Imperial Policing in Nyasaland, the Gold Coast, and Kenya

Mathieu Deflem
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This is a copy of an article published in Police Studies, 17(1):45-68, 1994.
Also available for download in PDF format.

Please cite as: Deflem, Mathieu. 1994. “Law Enforcement in British Colonial Africa: A Comparative Analysis of Imperial Policing in Nyasaland, the Gold Coast, and Kenya.” Police Studies 17(1):45-68.


This paper centers on the history and nature of law enforcement in the former British colonies Nyasaland, the Gold Coast, and Kenya. I discuss the central features of policing activities and organizations in these colonies in relation to the general characteristics of British colonialism. I then examine how colonial policing changed over the period extending from the territorial conquest and consolidation of colonial power to the formation of the independent African states. Colonial policing provides a provocative topic of inquiry to assess the impact of British colonialism on the subjugated African population. I approach law enforcement in the colonial period from the perspective of the sociological and criminological police literature which has this far mostly been applied to western models of policing. Given the relative neglect of the study of colonial policing, I identify some problems that future research on this issue will have to address.


In this paper I explore three case studies in the history of law enforcement in British colonial Africa. Against the background of the style of political government, economic control, and the accompanying legal system of British colonial rule, I will specifically analyze the nature and means of policing that emerged within these colonial contexts. First, I will outline the basic principles of indirect rule and customary law that guided British colonial policy in Africa. Second, I will examine the police forces in the former British colonies Nyasaland, the Gold Coast, and Kenya. I devote special attention to the changing nature of policing from the time these colonies were initially formed until the independence of the newly created African states. This will lead me to discuss and compare some of the broader principles and patterns that shaped policing in the discussed colonies.

I wish to demonstrate that the study of colonial policing may foster crucial information to acquire a more adequate understanding of the substantive impact of political and economic colonialism on the native African population subjected to European rule. I also seek to elucidate the important changes that took place in the history of colonial policing from the formation of the colonial states until their independence. The history of colonial policing is a pertinent topic of inquiry since the way the colonial police forces were conceived, organized, and gradually underwent changes has contributed to shape contemporary modes of law enforcement in the African continent and is a necessary element in our understanding of comparative policing issues today. In light of the relative lack of scholarly attention to the history of colonial policing, I conclude with some general problems and prospects for the study of law enforcement in colonial regimes.

The Politics, Economy, and Law of British Colonialism

The administration of the British colonies was generally guided by the principle of indirect rule.1 Officially not introduced until 1934, indirect rule refers to the imposed government of Africans through their own institutions. The policy was based on the assumption that Europeans and Africans were culturally very distinct and that the institutions which had locally developed in the African communities were the best suited for their government under British control. However, there was never a whole-scale adoption of local African practices. Rather, the acceptance of native political authority always implied a British redefinition and limitation of the role of African political powers and radical mutations of traditional practices whenever they were considered repugnant in light of European conceptions. Further, the principle of indirect rule was considered secondary to the overall political and economic objectives of colonial rule. Political paternalism replaced indirect rule when local politics did not resemble appropriate government in the eyes of the British authorities and when it conflicted with Company Rule which sought to make colonial conquest a commercially viable enterprise.

The history of British colonialism, therefore, always entailed an alien imposition of power and a mixture of political and economic interests determining the government of the conquered territory. This is further shown by the fact that indirect rule could be interventionist or non-interventionist. In the case of interventionist indirect rule, the native chiefs were governed as dependent rulers and their traditional administration was gradually adapted to the alien institutions of British rule. Non-interventionist indirect rule left the traditional authorities to their own devices, but only to the extent that the over-all political and economic goals of colonialism were not threatened. In practice this meant that colonialism involved the collection of taxes, recruitment for wage labor, and, as I will make clear in this paper, the enforcement of colonial laws regardless of an official practice of limited non-intervention.

The legal system that accompanied British colonialism is characterized by a mixture of different laws related to the principle of indirect rule.2 Much like the way in which African political authorities were incorporated within the overall structure of British government, native law was taken up in the colonial legal framework. Customary law, purported to represent the legal principles of native Africa, was essentially amalgamated with colonially imported law. As was the case with native political government, customary law was only accepted on the condition that it did not conflict with the basic principles of British law, which were in any case considered superior on a presumed evolutionary scale of legitimate legality. Customary law did concern native Africans, and was settled in separately organized native courts, but its premises grew out of British understanding of traditional African legal systems. What was accepted as the native African legal tradition was fundamentally a British invention, probably having more sense of reality in the minds of the British rulers than actually being founded upon the concrete historical practices of the African population. Thus, the incorporation of African political institutions in British government, based on the principle of indirect rule, was complemented at the level of legal procedures by an appropriation of customary law into British imported law.

Three Case Studies of Policing in British Colonial Africa

The systems of law enforcement that accompanied the regimes of European colonial rule have only in recent years begun to attract scholarly attention.3 Most studies that have centered on colonialism have done much to advance our understanding of the cultural, political, and economic aspects of colonial rule, but a profound consideration of colonial policing has not yet been sufficiently addressed. Even work that has specifically investigated the principles and practices of colonial law and legal systems has hardly examined the enforcement of these laws by the colonial police forces. This neglect has regrettably lead to a shortage of data on the issue. The colonial police forces which I will examine in some detail are selected because of the availability of information over a period of time extending from the imposition of colonial rule until the independence of the new African states. To enhance the strength of comparison, however, the three selected case studies represent geographically dispersed communities in the African continent. Nyasaland (now Malawi) is located in central-southern Africa, the Gold Coast (now Ghana) in west Africa, and Kenya in east Africa.

I will focus my analysis on the organization of the colonial police forces, the way they operated within the wider realm of political and economic colonial rule, as well as their functions and changing nature over time. These case studies allow to offer an in-depth investigation of the type of policing in these colonies, as well as a cross-cultural comparison of some of the broader patterns of colonial policing under British rule.

From Territorial to Functional Policing in Nyasaland

The history of the police force in Nyasaland can be roughly divided into four periods.4 The first period, from 1891 to 1900, is marked by the extensive use of coercion in the establishment of British territorial domination over the newly founded colony. The quest for hegemony was externally directed at the protection of the frontiers, while internal control was established through the imposition of hut taxes and the formation of alliances with local chiefs. Both functions were secured by a military force, which consisted of an imported Indian military detachment, an army of mercenaries from Zanzibar and Mozambique, as well as selected native people from within the Nyasaland territory. Most of the Nyasaland recruits came from the Yao ethnic community, since the British rulers conceived them to be of a martial race, fit for control, combat, and the enforcement of regulations. The British administrators drew up so-called ethnic security maps that indicated the characteristics, considered relevant for internal security and order, of the different ethnic communities within the colonial territory. The notion of martial race denoted the ethnic groups believed to produce reliable and efficient soldiers, largely based on official British reports of the natives' presumed military capacities. The first Nyasaland police forces were established in 1896 when the district tax collectors were instructed by London to raise and train small law enforcement units.

After the territorial boundaries of the colonial regime were secured, a period of control was set in. The emphasis of colonial rule now switched from military security to the formation of a colonial police force for civil duties. Armed with rifles, the central function of the police force was to collect hut taxes and obtain African labor for employment in the European estates. The army troops were gradually reduced and matters of internal security given prominence since it was thought that the African population would no longer resist British rule. By 1914, some 400, armed yet largely untrained, policemen made up the Nyasaland police force. Gradually, however, additional efforts had to be taken to step up internal policing. The Chilembwe Rising of 1915 in particular had alerted the British administration to the need for continued control of the internal social order. As a result, a more professionally trained and more specialized police force was established in 1920. The force was expanded with a Finger-Print Bureau and a Central Intelligence Division for the control of serious crimes and the monitoring of political activities against the state. The official colonial police, however, remained a relatively small force compared to the private uniformed police forces in the towns. These private forces were set up by the different mining and industrial companies and watched closely over European property and racial segregation.

After 1922, the third period of Nyasaland's policing, the ties between British and native authorities were strengthened, and the economic motives of colonial law enforcement were further expanded. The emphasis on coercive control generally declined in favor of closer collaborations with the local chiefs. The army troops were reduced from about 1,000 in 1921, to some 250 in 1930, and the police force sought to more adequately fulfill its role through expanding its alliances with selected native chiefs. Most police work, nonetheless, was not so much involved with the prevention and detection of crime, but focused on the economic foundations of colonial power, and specifically involved the collection of hut taxes and order maintenance at the tobacco markets and the European estates. During the second World War, the police was still of relatively small size and had little influence in the rural areas which were by and large unexplored. While the police gradually engaged more in the enforcement of various criminal laws, its economic functions remained crucial. Police agents also functioned as prison wards for Africans that could not pay hut taxes, or they kept women hostage to force their husbands to pay. In addition, the police protected European property in the towns and tried to enforce laws against liquor-distilling and native witchcraft movements. Most other police activities during the war were military and political. For instance, enemy aliens were arrested and detained by agents of the newly created Political Intelligence Bureau.

The final phase of the police in Nyasaland started after the second World War, when British authority was at first strengthened, but in the following years gradually began to decline. Two important changes after the second World War forced an increase in the expenditure on the police force and its expansion into rural areas. First, the British administration imposed soil conservation measures which were intended to improve peasant agricultural techniques. These measures, however, also lead to compulsory resettlements of selected native communities. Second, this in turn disrupted African social life and enhanced criminal activities in the towns, which now also involved organized thefts from the European elite. During the early 1950s several major disturbances took place in Nyasaland: impoverished tenants damaged European property, and, because of emerging sentiments of African nationalism, colonially legitimated chiefly authority weakened, leading to outbreaks of localized rioting. Different efforts were taken to strengthen the coercive arm of the colonial state: the Zomba Police Training School was opened in 1952, police training programs were intensified, the manpower of the various police forces was increased, totaling some 750 agents by 1959, new police divisions were set up (e.g. the Special Branch for political intelligence work, and the Police Mobile Force specialized in riot control), and more African policemen from within the Nyasaland territory were recruited. By 1959 these changes proved insufficient when major disturbances were taking place whereby natives stoned police stations and attacked policemen. A state of emergency was declared, and military forces were brought in to handle the situation. Regiments of the Royal Rhodesian Army and platoons from Tanganyika and Northern Rhodesia imported some 2,500 soldiers. The manpower of the police force was expanded to a total of about 3,000, including 200 extra policemen from Britain. Nevertheless, all these efforts were of no avail. The political opposition to British rule, organized in the Nyasaland African Congress, grew stronger and stronger, and the British colonial administration could not but prepare the way for African self-government. After the transition of power in 1962, the new African state of Malawi inherited from its colonial past a police force of some 3,000 agents, consisting of British, Asian and African recruits.

Establishing and Maintaining Colonial Rule in the Gold Coast

As in Nyasaland, the British conquest of the Gold Coast initially relied heavily on a military force for the establishment of the territorial boundaries of British colonial rule.5 In 1845 detachments of the West India Regiment were brought into the territory, and the first official police force was organized in 1865. Modelled after the Lagos Armed Police, the police force consisted, next to British officers, largely of Hausas, the ethnic group which was considered a martial race. The Gold Coast Armed Police, or the Hausa Constabulary as it was unofficially named, became the paramilitary police arm of the colonial government even before the proclamation of the colony in 1874. Apart from Hausas, the police force also consisted of Fanti tribe members which initially were the only police agents instructed in civil police duties.

The different police forces were put under control of the Governor of the colony, while the District Commissioner supervised the day-to-day affairs. The organization of the police was not regulated by any one model in particular, but organized in a pragmatic way on the basis of an assessment of local conditions. In practice, this meant a mixture of geographically spread and structurally diverse systems: "Indian and Egyptian paramilitary policing provided examples of practice; the Royal Irish Constabulary offered a structural model and, after 1907, regular training facilities for all officers; the methods of organization in English county forces, the London beat system, and some of the accouterments of the Metropolitan Police, were transferred to the coastal towns; and officers from other West African colonies and the Caribbean islands also brought distinctive patterns and dimensions to civil police work".6 The only unifying guidelines that determined the police recruitment policy were the notion of the martial race, responsible for the high number of Hausas, and the principle of policing strangers by strangers. Africans from other territories were called in to join the police force because they were considered to stand sufficiently close, yet not too close, to the native populace.

While the importance of controlling the colonial frontiers over the years declined, the Gold Coast police force did retain several military functions next to its civil duties. These mainly involved fiscal control through the collection of taxes. Though many inland areas remained unpoliced, the police relied extensively on the cooperation of local chiefs. The support of the chiefs was secured and regulated through the Native Jurisdiction Ordinance, passed in 1878 and enforced in 1883. The Ordinance transferred most chiefly powers to the Crown, but it also allowed tribal chiefs make by-laws, subject to the Governor's consent. While the police force was in those early days expected to interpret and administer the law and was free to exercise personal judgment, unlike the soldiers who had to obey orders, the force was generally unstable and demoralized. The police was unpopular with the native population, and, in spite of its ethnic composition, it was generally conceived as an intrusive alien force. As early as 1886, African policemen were stoned in Accra, because they were considered traitors of the native African community.

Until 1901, the Gold Coast Constabulary embraced both police and military functions. Then it was officially separated into the Gold Coast Regiment and the Gold Coast Constabulary. The centralized Gold Coast Constabulary was accompanied by uniformed but unarmed Native Authority Forces for the enforcement of customary laws. The official separation between military and policing tasks, however, did not prevent the transition from military to civil police work to be more rhetoric than reality. During the 1920s specialized civil police divisions were created (e.g. separate Escort, Mines, and Railway Police units), but the police remained first and foremost an armed force directed at the paramilitary protection of the political and, especially, economic interests of the colonial powers. The police surveyed the European owned mining infrastructures, agricultural production areas, and the transportation of goods. Thus, policing had hardly anything to do with serving the community, but was primarily directed at upholding the authority of colonial rule.

After the second World War, political instability and public unrest were to announce major changes in the organization of the police. Riots in 1948 caught the police unprepared and led to a rapid expansion and gradual Africanization of the police force. The central Commissioner of police now gained control over four regional commands, divided into several districts and provinces, which were each headed by an Assistant Superintendent of Police. The force had expanded to no less than 8,000 agents, including Palestine recruits. The duties of the force were divided over the General Police, a largely literate force engaged in criminal procedures, and the Escort Police, which was illiterate and took care of routine watch duties and patrols. The Escort Police had a special division of the Mounted Escort Police whose members wore a uniform that included an Indian cavalry style turban. The expansion of the force was not only characterized by the policy of policing strangers by strangers, it also involved a strengthening of its political and economic functions to uphold colonial rule. The expanded police force was largely engaged in riot control. Riots continued to break out because of food shortages and led to the inauguration of the special anti-riot Elmina Mobile Force in 1948. The police pamphlet "Riot Drill" provided instructions for riot control based on experiences in the other British colonies.

After industrial unrests started to break out and a general strike had taken place in 1949, the way to African self-government was prepared. Supported by the National Liberation Movement, several disturbances took place against British rule, including attacks on police barracks. The police force was rapidly professionalized and expanded in a last attempt of the British colonial rulers to retain their power. Although the police's Special Branch, specialized in political intelligence work, tried to gather information on the precise significance of the unrests in the country, no coherent view and policy could be agreed upon by the British power holders. In 1951 the first general elections were held, but matters of law and order remained under British control for another six years. In 1957, after 113 years of British rule, the Gold Coast gained independence and was renamed Ghana. The Gold Coast Regiment was reformed into the Ghana Army. The Gold Coast Constabulary was renamed the Ghana Police Service, and remained patterned after the British imposed police system, enforcing criminal codes inherited from British colonialism. The police force was further modernized (in 1959 the Police Training School was opened in Accra) and Africanized (by 1960 the force was composed of 90 percent Ghanaians). The newly installed political regime, however, rapidly became dictatorial and had to face massive popular opposition. After a police constable had tried to kill President Nkrumah, the police was disarmed, and the President instituted a secret security police. In 1966, a military-police coup was successful in overthrowing the regime. The intelligence services of the police, directly resulting out of British colonialism, proved essential for the success of the rebellion.

Military, Political, and Criminal Policing in Colonial Kenya

Kenya provides one of the best documented case studies of colonial policing and offers some remarkable elements to gain better insight into the changing nature of policing in the British colonial empire.7 The history of policing in Kenya, until 1920 called British East Africa, started in 1896 when the British Foreign Office ordered the first police station to be opened in the city of Mombasa. The officer of the force came in from the Zanzibar police and had previously served in India. Originally, the force comprised some 150 agents, including Indians, Somali, Swahili and Carmorans. Next to the official colonial police, the Imperial British East Africa Company also had policing units at its disposal. For the protection of its trade and commerce activities the Company could appeal to the East African Rifles and the Uganda Rifles, two military forces later merged into one army, the King's African Rifles. In addition, a railway engineer established the Uganda Railway Police. The main tasks of these forces were related to the territorial and economic establishment of colonial rule.

The first important internal duties of the police were developed with the passing of the Palm Wine Regulations in 1900. This law stipulated that all persons distilling and selling wine had to have a license provided by the District Collector. The free movement of wine was considered disadvantageous for African employment in European companies because it was thought that Africans whose livelihood dependend on the production and distribution of wine could easily avoid contract work with the British occupiers. The consumption of wine was also considered detrimental for the quality of work performed by the African labor force. The police forces had actually been the first to alert to these problems, in which way they were directly instrumental for the creation of the wine law. The hut taxes that were imposed on the Africans also served economic motives. Because Africans had to pay their taxes in cash money, they were forced to take up wage labor with the European owners. Vagrancy laws, moreover, also sought to control the African labor force and were massively enforced by the police.

The first major police reorganizations took place around 1902. More police stations were opened, and the Railway police were absorbed into the official colonial police force to become the British East Africa Police (in 1920 it was renamed Kenya Police). Improvements were made in drill and discipline, new uniforms were introduced, a Fingerprint Bureau was set up in the Nairobi headquarters, and more inspectors were appointed. The inspectors were all European, the assistant inspectors largely Asian, and the rank and file was entirely comprised of Africans. By 1910, the force contained no less than 2,000 men, but still they were largely enforcing the law only in the urban centers, while the unarmed Tribal Police was left to control the inland Native Reserves. The different District Commissioners headed the tribal forces in their areas, but in their everyday operation the Tribal Police were quite independently run by the local chiefs. Of course, criminal activities were not restricted to the jurisdictional areas mapped out by British colonialism, so that people could always commit a crime in one area and flee into a Native Reserve where the local chief would not enforce the law. To ensure better coordination of activities between central and tribal police forces, the Stock and Produce Theft Ordinance was passed in 1913. The law sanctioned collective punishments in case the Tribal Police and the local chief did not cooperate in the apprehension of criminals. During the first World War, the Police Service Battalion was formed to fight against the German enemy in neighboring German East Africa. After the war, civil police duties were resumed, and the police force was expanded.

The criminal laws the police had to enforce were originally planned to be quite similar to the British codes. However, the colonial rulers soon decided that preference should be given to introduce Indian law in Kenya since, unlike British law, Indian law was codified and thus thought off to be a better instrument to control the African population. The Penal Code, the Criminal Procedure Act, and the Police Act which were introduced in colonial Kenya, were all imported from British India. Next to this imported legal system, the British took into account customary laws: cases involving Africans were guided by native regulations, so far as applicable, and inasmuch as they were reconcilable with British standards of legal morality. The activities of the police involved night patrols in the urban areas, the detection of property crimes, the enforcement of labor laws on settler farms, the execution of death sentences, and, more than anything else, the protection of European property and persons. The enforcement of minor offenses took up most of the police time. In 1937, for instance, no less than 6,000 Africans were prosecuted for being resident in townships without permission, or because of failure to produce a pass, over 3,000 for crimes against property, more than 4,700 for not paying hut taxes, and more than 1,000 for vagrancy. Despite these impressive figures, however, many laws were not enforced by the police who ran their operations quite independently from the colonial legal administration.

In the years before the second World War, as crime became increasingly professional and organized, the police expanded its facilities and manpower. By the end of the war, the Kenya Police had largely taken over most activities from the Tribal Police forces, and now comprised some 5,000 agents, most of which were Kenya Africans. The Kenya Police was also rapidly professionalized after the war: a Mounted Branch was established for patrol and pursuit work, an Emergency Company was set up to handle labor unrests (there had been strikes in Mombasa in 1947 and in Nairobi in 1949), and the enforcement of traffic regulations began to take up a lot of police time (in 1951 the traffic court in Nairobi dealt with some 700 traffic offences per month).

The evolution of the ethnic composition of the Kenya Police is quite remarkable, considering that Kenya harbored some 27 tribes next to Asian migrants and European settlers. The Imperial British East Africa Company had already recruited Indians for police duties in 1887, and later more Asians and local Africans were recruited into the Kenya Police. Very likely, the decision to recruit Africans, which conformed to the policy of indirect rule, should also have helped prevent the Asian community, which was largely engaged in trade and commercial activities, from taking too much control over the area. The notion of the martial race was again important in deciding which tribal groups were to be recruited from the African population. Some figures may illustrate these principles: in 1949 the police consisted of 84 British officers, 269 British, 41 Asian and 115 African inspectors, 22 Asian sergeants, and more than 5,500 African sergeants and constables. In 1954 the African police comprised only 2 percent Kikuyu, though they took up 20 percent of the total population, and 18 percent Kamba, who represented about 12 percent of all Kenyan tribes.

Crucial events affecting the structure and operation of the Kenya police took place in the early 1950s with the rise of the Mau Mau movement. This religious-political movement sought to overthrow British rule, and engaged in terrorism, arson, and the killing of Europeans and African collaborators. One of its tactics was to withhold from the police any information on crimes involving Africans. The activities of the Mau Mau movement had already started around 1947, and the political intelligence division of the police, the Special Branch, had reported on its potential dangers for British rule. But initially British authorities did not respond to these reports and thought off the movement as a politically irrelevant religious group. Only after the Mau Mau movement had vigorously shown its revolutionary political intentions, a state of emergency was declared in October 1952, and the police force was again brought to the center of political activities. The police now reacted energetically against any actions by the Mau Mau movement. Regular police work had to make way for semi-military actions in a three-legged anti Mau Mau campaign, involving the police, the colonial administration, and the army. By 1954 some 78,000 prisoners were taken as a result of the campaign. Police operations were facilitated by an expanded Special Branch, the import of more British trained policemen, a special police bureau (the Special Effort Force) set up in 1953 to deal with the Mau Mau movement, the appointment of several District Military Intelligence Officers, nearly 200 Police Signals stations for the exchange of information, vehicles with radio communications, and two aircrafts. By 1954, the expanded police force consisted of some 14,000 policemen for a population of about 5,000,000 people. The increased police efforts proved successful in the control of Mau Mau activities. Though other police operations had suffered, the Mau Mau movement was virtually eradicated by 1957. Thereafter the police could return to its normal duties, and the country was again considered peaceful. During the final years of the 1950s, legitimate African political activity was resumed, and political meetings could again be held on the condition that they had been authorized by the British administration. To improve the relations between the police and the public, the police forces were gradually Africanized.

The period of peaceful and civil oriented policing, however, was very short. In the early 1960s the country was again very restless, facing unemployment, economic stagnation, and ethnic disturbances. Inevitably, the way had to be made free for African majority rule. When independence was in sight, the Africanization of the police force was rapidly increased, and the tribal composition of the force was adjusted to the ethnic composition in the country. Finally, elections were held in 1961, and Kenya received independence in 1963. Regular police duties were resumed in the newly created state, and, remarkably though not all together surprisingly in light of its colonial past, the police also took up political intelligence work in support of the new African rulers.

Continuities and Discontinuities in British Colonial Policing

The mere identification of the changing means and nature of colonial policing in Nyasaland, the Gold Coast, and Kenya already indicates the complexity and significance of law enforcement as a crucial element in the establishment, continuation, and eventual decline of British colonial domination. Some broader insight may be gained from a discussion of colonial policing in relation to the political, economic and legal foundations of British colonial government. In addition, I will situate colonial policing within the history of the British tradition of law enforcement.

Colonial Policing, Customary Law, and Indirect Rule

The police forces in the colonies I discussed consisted of both imposed central units and tribal law enforcement forces. As with indirect rule in general, tribal police units were shaped by British conceptions of law enforcement, and can in no way be presumed to represent existing African legal practices. Projected African law enforcement clouded larger British strategies directed at political control and economic exploitation. The broader goals of British colonialism were also reflected in the ethnic composition of African recruitment. Based on the imperial notion of martial race, the British colonial administration sought to incorporate African and Asian people into colonial law enforcement units to fulfil the ambiguous, yet likely more efficient, role of close, but not too close, policing. The examples mentioned in the previous section make this clear and are confirmed by information from other colonies. In British Guiana, for instance, the police consisted of British officers, agents from Barbados and "individuals from Germany, Holland, Ireland, the United States, Madeira, Africa, Calcutta, China, Surinam, and various West Indian islands".8 This kind of multi-ethnic recruitment strategy reveals the British belief that members of the native population could provide a necessary link with the British rulers to increase the efficiency of police work. Therefore, it was carefully arranged that native policemen did not serve in their own region of origin or residence, which was considered too dangerous, but were to police other regions of the conquered colony, or were even exported into other British colonies. The policy of policing strangers by strangers was in practice facilitated by the fact that native recruits enjoyed several benefits when they joined the police force (e.g. relatively high salary, and exemption from hut tax and hard manual labor). At the same time, British hegemony was secured through the appointment of British officers, though occasionally reliable Asians were also allowed in commanding positions. The British control over law enforcement in the colony was thus always predominant, in spite of the existence of relatively independent tribal police forces. The gradual Africanization of the police forces in later years, when African self-government became unavoidable, likewise does not seem to follow from humanitarian concerns, but rather reflected a carefully planned engineering of the inevitable path to African independence.9

The fact that next to a central police force a tribal police was maintained also reflects the principles of indirect rule and customary law. The enforcement of customary laws was mostly left to the tribal police, which operated in the economically unexplored rural regions, while the central police handled violations of introduced British criminal codes in areas of European settlement. Not surprisingly, many of the introduced laws were meant to secure political stability and served the economic interests of colonial power. The fact that much of the police work was involved in enforcing property, tax and labor laws testifies to this. Furthermore, many private police forces were established by colonial companies, which again shows how law enforcement and commercial imperialism were inextricably linked. Various aspects of colonial policing, then, cannot be accounted for on the basis of a transposed model of western policing, which would unjustly emphasize the role of law enforcement in the prevention and detection of crimes as defined by systems of law. Rather, it is imperative to consider the profit-motivated expansion and politically motivated formation of colonial rule to adequately understand the development of colonial policing.10 In addition, this perspective helps explain that contemporary law enforcement in former colonial countries is, precisely because of its past functions and characteristics during the colonial era, more prone to play a role in political, economic and military affairs than in western societies with stronger democratic legal traditions.11

Colonial Law Enforcement in the History of British Policing

An important factor in the relation between colonial policing abroad and British policing at home is the aspired reliance in the formation of colonial law enforcement units on the model of the Royal Irish Constabulary. In Britain, two types of policing have historically emerged out of the Royal Irish Constabulary and the Metropolitan Police.12 The Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) was formed in 1836 to deal with the disturbances in British occupied Ireland. This police force was organized like a military force: the RIC agents lived in barracks, the different police units were headed by a commander whose orders the agents had to obey, and the commander was directly responsible to the British administration in Ireland. The RIC was primarily formed to uphold British political rule in occupied Ireland rather than to enforce the law.

The Metropolitan Police, on the other hand, was first established in London in 1829 and became a model for the police in all British towns and cities. This civil police force was in the first instance directed at the preservation of order and the prevention and detection of crime. The Metropolitan Police was not organized as a military but as a civilian force. Metropolitan Police agents were officially considered enforcers of the law, not servants of any political government. The policemen all had the same duties and were each individually accountable for their actions. The Metropolitan force was also unarmed and its agents lived inside the community they were responsible for.

The differences between these two British police forces may explain why the British colonial rulers decided to introduce the Irish police model in its colonies overseas.13 It was ascertained that the semi-military RIC police force was better suited to establish, maintain, and secure the enforcement of British imposed colonial laws. The police forces established in Nyasaland, the Gold Coast, and Kenya were indeed first and foremost semi-military forces that were housed in barracks and were separated from the community. Colonial police agents also performed their duties under the control of officers who were primarily responsible to the local administrative authorities and not to a legal system. The general reliance on the model of the Royal Irish Constabulary clarifies, for instance, the introduction in Kenya of Indian based police organizations, since the Indian police force was itself directly modelled after the RIC.14

This kind of cross-border importation of a police force, and the recruitment of policemen from one colony to another, are central features of colonial policing, and they point to the fact that a colonial police force cannot be adequately comprehended without taking into account the history of other colonies in the British empire. Moreover, the return of colonial officers to Britain to join police forces in the homeland suggests that policing in Britain was, at least partly, formed by the imperial experience.15 The study of law enforcement in any one colony, therefore, is at once a study of colonial policing across the world as well as of policing in the homeland.

The British conception of colonial policing, specifically as it relates to a shift from the territorial conquest to the internal stabilization of control, also implied that the military character of the police would gradually make way for a police force designed to perform civil duties. In the history of British policing, this can be seen as a transformation of policing from the Irish to the Metropolitan model. But, as the case studies showed, this was not a goal easily fulfilled, and the introduction of civilian police forces remained often more an aspiration than an accomplishment.16 During the formative years of the colonies, the military functions of the police were dominant, and once the colonial territory was established, the creation of a more genuine police force, with civil duties, slowly took place. However, the shift to normal police duties was never complete, with military reserves always standing by, and never lasted long because of mounting political and economic tensions. Particularly, not long after the colonies were territorially consolidated, political activities of African nationalism often led to social unrest and forced the British colonial authorities to adopt forceful measures to preserve European domination. The police forces then had to engage in political activities, much like the military forces from which they originated. When self-government became unavoidable, an orderly and dignified as possible retreat was prepared, notably through a general Africanization of the force and the training of African officers.17 The processes of militarization, de-militarization, and re-militarization, as well as the changing nature of Africanization, indicate how important it is to take into account the temporal dimension from colony formation and consolidation to African self-government. Moreover, it shows the rather ad hoc and often muddled way in which the colonial powers responded to changing conditions.

Finally, it can be noted that, while the general goal of British colonial rule was to create institutions as British, or as Irish, as possible, adaptations to local circumstances were always necessary, which suggests a more complex pattern than is expected from the perspective of dependency theory.18 The inlands of the colonies, for instance, were often not policed, either because of ecological conditions, or because the area was not considered economically attractive for European settlement. The opportunities for the economic exploitation of a region heavily influenced the nature of law enforcement. This is clear from the economic role of much of the colonial police work (e.g. surveillance of European property and persons, collection of taxes, recruitment of wage labor), the establishment of private police forces alongside Company Rule, and the military and political nature of law enforcement in the transformation from conquest to abandonment of the territory. The reliance of the colonial police on the Royal Irish Constabulary, its evolution from military to civil and back to military duties, the ethnic composition of the force, and the adaptation to local circumstances given the overall goal of political and economic conquest, indicate how British colonial policing reveals certain general, re-occurring patterns, as well as locally specific features and variations over space and time.

Conclusion: Problems and Prospects in the Study of Colonial Policing

Many chapters in the history of colonial policing still have to be written. As I pointed out at the beginning of this paper, investigations into the means and nature of colonial law enforcement form a relatively neglected field of study. It appears that most research during and after the colonial era has concentrated, understandably perhaps, on the erosion of native cultures and the devastating impact of modernization and industrialization. Attention has also been paid to the political, economic, and legal aspects of colonialism. Legal-anthropological research, for instance, has markedly advanced its scope and perspectives, centering on new approaches to law and law related processes and often leading to demystify some of the all too long taken for granted myths of the so-called benign nature of British indirect rule.19 However, legal-anthropologists mostly focus on the production of colonial law, the European construction of customary law, the historical dimensions of legal change, and the actual behavior of law in disputing processes in colonial courts. What is involved in the enforcement of colonial laws is not dealt with, or but mentioned in passing.

The main problem resulting out of this neglect for the enforcement of colonial laws is that adequate models for a thorough analysis of the patterns of colonial policing are lacking, and that many issues still remain unexplored. The work that has been done on the dimension of colonial policing is mainly historical and descriptive. Of course, such analyses are important, but research should also go further to ask pertinent questions inspired by the wide body of police studies developed from a sociological and criminological perspective, yet which is mainly applied to western countries. Additional research would prove invaluable to clarify some of the following issues: - the links between colonial political rule and economic company rule and their effects on colonial policing; - the relations between the central colonial police forces and the native forces; - the concrete operation of colonial policing, enforcement and non-enforcement, and its repercussions for colonial legal systems; - the relationships between colonial police forces, private police units, and the army; - the impact of colonial policing on native cultural experiences of European domination; - the adaptations of colonial policing to local circumstances versus the adherence to an ideal model of imperial law enforcement; - the changing nature of colonial policing in the history of the colonies, and the related processes of militarization and de-militarization, professionalization, and Africanization; and - the results of this evolution for present police formations in the new African states. A detailed comparison of more case studies of policing in British colonial Africa is needed to more carefully analyze some of the patterns that I have clarified in this paper. In addition, a comparison of the police forces of colonies in different continents, and occupied by alien powers from different European regimes, would reveal crucial information on the interdependencies between past, and consequently contemporary, forms of policing across the world.20

In conclusion, I wish to shortly explore one of the issues that, I believe, merits further attention. A cross-cultural comparative study of policing in the British colonies with the police forces that evolved in French administered colonial states can be well-founded based on anthropological accounts of colonialism21 and sociological perspectives of policing.22 First, Britain and France each had a distinct approach to colonialism because of their different emphasis on indirect versus direct rule, that is, the incorporation of native authority into colonial institutions versus the substitution of local rule by colonial command. Second, the two countries have markedly different traditions of legal ideologies: British common law is grounded on decisions of earlier courts (precedent law) and adopts an accusatorial model (presumed innocent assumption), while French civil law is based on statutes and doctrines (codified law), and employs an inquisitional model (presumed guilty assumption). Finally, Britain and France are also known for their distinct conceptions of the role of policing. The British policing system developed principally out of a decentralized unarmed civilian force (the Metropolitan Police), while the French police are established around a centralized armed force (the Gendarmerie).

The analysis which I undertook in this paper only focused on policing in three British colonies but nevertheless reveals some elements that may show the value of a comparison of policing under British and French colonialism. First of all, it is striking to note that British colonial rule did not introduce the genuinely British model of the Metropolitan unarmed civilian police into its colonies. Instead, it relied on the Royal Irish Constabulary, which is in fact a police force more closely akin to the European-continental armed and centralized Gendarmerie. The police in the British colonies were also not an independently operating force adherent only to the law, but were intimately linked to the economic imperatives of Company Rule and subject to the political administration of the Colonial Districts. Next, critical questions can also be asked about the import of British common law in the colonies. Common law may have been applied to the European settlers in the colonies, but as far as the African populations were concerned, British law was mixed with the European construction of customary law, forming an amalgam of entirely divergent legal principles. Moreover, in light of the economic and political-military role of colonial rule, it does not seem very wise to employ such notions as the presumed innocent principle for an understanding of colonial law enforcement. British laws were introduced, but always with certain mutations, largely for economic and political purposes, to form a hybrid of laws, reflected in a mixture of central and native colonial law enforcement units. Finally, the distinction between indirect and direct rule seems to become quite fuzzy when colonial policing is considered, as the repressive nature of British colonial policing testifies, and seems to point to differences in degree rather than quality. Further analysis is needed to reveal how these adaptations of British policing relate to patterns of law enforcement in the French colonies. In this regard, the data that cross-cultural research on colonial policing would bring forth could be quite demystifying to some all too readily accepted presumptions in our understanding of the colonial era as well as its persisting relevance for the once colonized countries today.

I am grateful to Paul Shankman for his generous support in the completion of this project. I thank Gary T. Marx and Eve Darian-Smith for comments on a previous draft.


1  See the discussions in: Michael Crowder, West Africa under Colonial Rule (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1968); Michael Crowder, Colonial West Africa: Collected Essays (London: Frank Cass, 1978).

2  On the policy of customary law, and its relation to European imperialism, see: James S. Read, "Customary Law under Colonial Rule", in H.F. Morris, and J.S. Read, eds., Indirect Rule and the Search for Justice: Essays in East African Legal History, 167-212. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972); Kristin Mann and Richard Roberts, "Law in Colonial Africa", in K. Mann and R. Roberts, eds., Law in Colonial Africa, 3-58 (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1991); John R. Schmidhauser, "Legal Imperialism: Its Enduring Impact on Colonial and Post-Colonial Judicial Systems", International Political Science Review, 13 (1992), 321-334.

3  Some recently published collections on colonial policing have done much to advance knowledge of the issue, specifically by providing much needed historical data. See, particularly: David M. Anderson and David Killingray, eds., Policing the Empire: Government, Authority and Control, 1830-1940 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1991); David M. Anderson and David Killingray, eds., Policing and Decolonisation: Politics, Nationalism and the Police, 1917-1965 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992); Anthony Clayton and David Killingray, Khaki and Blue: Military and Police in British Colonial Africa (Athens, OH: Ohio University Center for International Studies, 1989).

4  Historical data on policing in Nyasaland are taken from: Anthony Clayton, "Law Enforcement and Colonial Police Forces", in A. Clayton and D. Killingray, Khaki and Blue: Military and Police in British Colonial Africa, 67-78 (Athens, OH: Ohio University Center for International Studies, 1989); John McCracken, "Coercion and Control in Nyasaland: Aspects of the History of a Colonial Police Force", Journal of African History, 27 (1986), 127-148; John McCracken, "Authority and Legitimacy in Malawi: Policing and Politics in a Colonial State", in D.M. Anderson and D. Killingray, eds., Policing and Decolonisation: Politics, Nationalism and the Police, 1917-1965, 158-168 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992).

5  This section draws on: Anthony Clayton, "Law Enforcement and Colonial Police Forces", op.cit., 12-26; W.H. Gillespie, The Gold Coast Police, 1844-1938 (Accra, Gold Coast: The Government Printer, 1955); David Killingray, "Guarding the extending frontier: Policing the Gold Coast, 1865-1913", in D.M. Anderson and D. Killingray, eds., Policing the Empire: Government, Authority and Control, 1830-1940, 106-125 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1991); Ernest W. Lefever, Spear and Scepter: Army, Police, and Politics in Tropical Africa, 33-79 (Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution, 1970); Richard Rathbone, "Political intelligence and policing in Ghana in the late 1940s and 1950s", in D.M. Anderson and D. Killingray, eds., Policing and Decolonisation: Politics, Nationalism and the Police, 1917-1965, 84-104 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992).

6  David Killingray, "Guarding the extending frontier: Policing the Gold Coast, 1865-1913", op. cit., 112.

7  See: David M. Anderson, "Policing, Prosecution and the Law in Colonial Kenya, 1905-39", in D.M. Anderson and D. Killingray, eds., Policing the Empire: Government, Authority and Control, 1830-1940, 183-200 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1991); Anthony Clayton, "Law Enforcement and Colonial Police Forces", op. cit., 79-142; C.J. Duder, "Men of the officer class: The participants in the 1919 soldier settlement scheme in Kenya", African Affairs, 92 (1993), 69-87; W.R. Foran, The Kenya Police, 1887-1960 (London: Robert Hale Limited, 1962); David Throup, "Crime, Politics and the Police in Colonial Kenya, 1939-63", in D.M. Anderson and D. Killingray, eds., Policing and Decolonisation: Politics, Nationalism and the Police, 1917-1965, 127-157 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992); Justin Willis, "Thieves, Drunkards and Vagrants: Defining Crime in Colonial Mombasa, 1902-1932", in D.M. Anderson and D. Killingray, eds., Policing the Empire: Government, Authority and Control, 1830-1940, 219-235 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1991); James B. Wolf, "Asian and African Recruitment in the Kenya Police, 1920-1950", International Journal of African Historical Studies, 6 (1973), 401-412.

8  George K. Danns, Domination and Power in Guyana: A Study of the Police in a Third World Context, 19 (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1982).

9  See: David M. Anderson and David Killingray, "Consent, Coercion and Colonial Control: Policing the Empire, 1830-1940", in D.M. Anderson, and D. Killingray, eds., Policing the Empire: Government, Authority and Control, 1830-1940, 1-17 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1991); William F. Gutteridge, "Military and police forces in colonial Africa", in L.H. Gann and P. Duignan, eds., Colonialism in Africa 1870-1960, 286-319 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970).

10  Stanley Cohen, "Western crime control models in the third world: Benign or malignant, Research in Law, Deviance and Social Control, 4 (1982), 85-119; David Killingray, "The Maintenance of Law and Order in British Colonial Africa", African Affairs, 85 (1986), 411-437. It should be noted that recent perspectives in the police literature have suggested that western policing, too, cannot be exclusively framed in terms of legal systems, but should also consider its political connections and economic-industrial aspects. See the discussions in: Stanley Cohen, Visions of Social Control (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1985); Mathieu Deflem, "The Invisibilities of Social Control", Crime, Law and Social Change 18 (1992), 177-192; Steven Spitzer, "The Rationalization of Crime Control in Capitalist Societies", Contemporary Crises 3 (1979), 187-206.

11  Research indeed indicates that contemporary police work in former colonies is often inefficient because of a lack of western technical facilities and organizational skills which were no longer available in the post-colonial era. Post-colonial police forces perform not only civil crime duties but at the same time operate as a semi-military force involved with the control of political activities. Popular perceptions of the police are often highly negative because of its association with unjust economic and political structures, past and present. See: James S.E. Opolot, "Police Training in the States of Africa", Police Studies, 14 (1991), 62-71; Leonard P. Shaidi, "Crime, Justice and Politics in Contemporary Tanzania: State Power in an Underdeveloped Social Formation," International Journal of the Sociology of Law 17 (1989), 247-271; Philip T. Ahire, "Re-Writing the Distorted History of Policing in Colonial Nigeria", International Journal of the Sociology of Law 18 (1990), 45-60; Etannibi C.O. Alemika, "Policing and Perceptions of Police in Nigeria", Police Studies 11 (1988), 161-176; John P. Harlan and Charles P. McDowell, "The Role of Police in Post-Colonial Sub-Saharan Africa", Police Studies 4 (1981), 21-27; Cynthia H. Enloe, "Ethnicity and Militarization: Factors Shaping the Roles of Police in Third World Nations", Studies in Comparative International Development, 11 (1976), 25-38.

12  Philip J. Stead, The Police of Britain, 36-46, 61-66 (New York: MacMillan, 1985).

13  See the discussions in: Mike Brogden, "The Emergence of the Police - The Colonial Dimension", British Journal of Criminology, 27 (1987), 4-14; Richard Hawkins, "The "Irish Model" and the Empire: A Case for Reassessment", in D.M. Anderson and D. Killingray, eds, Policing the Empire: Government, Authority and Control, 1830-1940, 18-32 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1991); Ernest W. Lefever, Spear and Scepter: Army, Police, and Politics in Tropical Africa, op.cit.; John J. Tobias, "The British Colonial Police: An Alternative Police Style", in P.J. Stead ed., Pioneers in Policing, 241-261 (Montclair, NJ: Patterson Smith, 1977).

14  David Arnold, Police Power and Colonial Rule: Madras 1859-1947, 25-34 (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1986).

15  Mike Brogden, "An Act to Colonise the Internal Lands of the Island: Empire and the Origins of the Professional Police", International Journal of the Sociology of Law, 15 (1987), 179-208.

16  Adam Clayton, "Law Enforcement and Colonial Police Forces", op. cit.; Cynthia H. Enloe, "Ethnicity and Militarization: Factors Shaping the Roles of Police in Third World Nations", op. cit.; Charles W. Gwynn, Imperial Policing (2nd edition) (London: MacMillan and Co, 1936); Richard Rathbone, "Political intelligence and policing in Ghana in the late 1940s and 1950s", op. cit.

17  See: D. Killingray and D. M. Anderson, "An Orderly Retreat? Policing the End of Empire", in D.M. Anderson, and D. Killingray, eds., Policing and Decolonisation: Politics, Nationalism and the Police, 1917-1965, 1-21 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992).

18  Marlies Bouman, "A note on chiefly and national policing in Botswana", Journal of Legal Pluralism, 25&26 (1987), 275-300; Stanley Cohen, "Bandits, Rebels, or Criminals: African History and Western Criminology", Africa, 54 (1986), 468-483.

19  For comprehensive reviews of recent work on colonial legal systems, see: Peter Just, "History, Power, and Culture: Current Directions in the Anthropology of Law", Law and Society Review, 26 (1992), 373-411; Kristin Mann and Richard Roberts, "Law in Colonial Africa", op. cit.

20  In this paper I have of course not considered all the literature which is available on colonial policing, for instance, in India and South-East Asia. The most comprehensive collection of works on colonial policing can be found in the bibliographies in: David M. Anderson and David Killingray, eds., Policing the Empire: Government, Authority and Control, 1830-1940, op. cit.; David M. Anderson and David Killingray, eds., Policing and Decolonisation: Politics, Nationalism and the Police, 1917-1965, op. cit.

21  See, for instance: Michael Crowder, West Africa under Colonial Rule, op. cit.; Michael Crowder, Colonial West Africa: Collected Essays, op. cit.

22  See, for instance: David H. Bayley, Patterns of Policing: A Comparative International Analysis (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1985); R.I. Mawby, Comparative Policing Issues: The British and American System in International Perspective (London: Unwin Hyman, 1990); Philip J. Stead, The Police of France (New York: MacMillan, 1983); Philip J. Stead, The Police of Britain, op. cit.

See also my other writings on policing.