Cocoa farmers in the Gold Coast successfully defend their livelihoods, 1937

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Timing
Time Period:  
October
1937
to
February
1938
Location and Goals
Country: 
Ghana
Country: 
Nigeria
Location Description: 
Across the Gold Coast and parts of Nigeria
Goals: 
The primary goal was to end the cocoa buyers' agreement, but they also wanted to improve general trade conditions.
 

Cocoa was essential to the economy of the British colony in the Gold Coast, which is now Ghana. Cocoa accounted for over 60% of exports. However, the European-dominated trade and the exploitative patterns of trade they faced often frustrated the many Africans involved in the process. In attempts to achieve more equal relationships Africans held large “holdups” in the Gold Coast in 1924 and 1930-1931, during which they refused to sell their cocoa to European firms, but neither attempt succeeded.

In mid-1937, the two large firms buying cocoa in the Gold Coast, Cadbury and the United Africa Company, initiated an agreement regarding the terms of cocoa purchases. Ultimately, 13 firms, comprising 94% of cocoa purchases in the Gold Coast, joined the agreement. The firms felt that African brokers were abusing their power as they would often demand advances from farmers and manipulate prices to get a larger profit. To reduce the power of the brokers, the firms agreed to lessen competition and set prices. In August, the firms informed the colonial authorities of the agreement and hoped for support from Governor Sir Arnold Hodson, but he was concerned that it would cause protest among the Gold Coast residents. As the British colonial system was coming under more strain globally, he was wary of anger among colonial subjects.

The agreement became public in early October 1937 and was met with widespread dismay as Africans felt that, without competition, there was nothing to stop them from being exploited. Over 5,000 cocoa farmers signed a petition opposing the agreement within the first week. By mid-October many farmers’ associations had passed resolutions against the agreement and there was a noticeable decline in cocoa sales as holdups began to take place. African organizers held a conference on 20th October and mass meetings on 28th October and 4th November to organize resistance. They also agreed to boycott European goods, although they excluded necessities including sugar, kerosene, matches, and tobacco. The farmers that produced the cocoa, the brokers that served as middlemen, and chiefs who often also served as producers and brokers all participated in the resistance. The holdup extended throughout the Eastern Province, Ashanti, part of the Central Province, and even some limited holdups in Nigeria.

The colonial authorities saw the matter as purely commercial and chose to remain neutral. Both sides expected the other to cave quickly. In November, the colonial authorities tried to mediate an end to the holdout. While Africans were moderately pleased with the authorities, European firms were angered that Hodson would not back the agreement. By 19th November Hodson relented and recommended a one year period to test the agreement. The protesters reacted furiously and held conferences on 25th and 26th November to ensure continued refusal to sell to European firms.

The boycott was well enforced by the leaders of the movement, who primarily consisted of brokers and chiefs. In October, sales of cocoa were down 60% from the last year and by February the figure was 90%. However, poorer farmers began to feel the strain of refusing sales. They lacked income and had very little to fall back on. The cocoa they stored began to rot, risking future profits. The holdup better suited the interests of brokers and the many chiefs that also acted as brokers than the farmers. However, chiefs and brokers largely prevented farmers from defecting. They provided some financial support and also created a few methods of direct sale bypassing the European firms. The complete cooperation of African society also helped convince farmers to hold firm, but chiefs additionally used their traditional authority and occasionally intimidation to ensure compliance. While they did not repress those involved in the holdup, the firms attempted unsuccessfully to persuade Africans to abandon the campaign. Toward the end of the holdup, farmers began burning some stores of cocoa to demonstrate their continued opposition to the buyers’ agreement.

Hodson became increasingly concerned about the holdup, and at the beginning of February, he created a commission to explore resolutions to the conflict. The holdup ended in February as the participants awaited the commission’s response. The commission released the Nowell Report in September 1938. It placed the bulk of the blame on the brokers and acknowledged legitimate grievances for both farmers and the European firms. The brokers never adopted the report’s recommendations, and protests did not resume. However, the report also recommended the end of the buyers’ agreement. While the buyers’ agreement did officially end, the colonial authorities created a Cocoa Marketing Board that did little to change the underlying problems.

Research Notes
Influences: 

The holdups were influenced by the 1924 and 1930-1931 holdups in the Gold Coast

Sources: 
Alence, Rod. "The 1937-1938 Gold Coast Cocoa Crisis: The Political Economy of Commercial Stalemate." African Economic History 19 (1990): 77-104. Web. 8 Feb. 2015.

Bourret, F. M. The Gold Coast; a Survey of the Gold Coast and British Togoland, 1919-1946. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1949. Print.

Frankel, Jeffrey A. "Cocoa in Ghana: The Cocoa Farmers, The Cocoa Marketing Board, and the Elasticity of Supply." (1974): n. pag. Web. 8 Feb. 2015.

Howard, Rhoda. "Different Class Participation in an African Protest Movement: The Ghana Cocoa Boycott of 1937-38." Canadian Journal of African Studies 10.3 (1976): 469-80. Web. 8 Feb. 2015.

Milburn, Josephine. "The 1938 Gold Coast Cocoa Crisis: British Business and the Colonial Office." African Historical Studies 3.1 (1970): 57-74. Web. 8 Feb. 2015.

Southall, Roger. "Farmers, Traders and the Gold Coast Cocoa Economy." Canadian Journal of African Studies 7.2 (1978): 185-211. Web. 8 Feb. 2015.

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Timothy Hirschel-Burns 02/08/2015