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Dereliction of duty: Love and corruption

Dereliction of duty: Love and corruption

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When the North Bank British Travelling Commissioner was entangled in a love triangle between 3 Gambian ladies leading to the first commission of inquiry in Protectorate Gambia in 1919

In the beginning

In the early days of Protectorate administration which began with the enactment of the first Protectorate Ordinance in 1894, the British Government initially divided the country into two administrative divisions taking the shape of the most visible natural phenomenon; the river.

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Being divided into two halves by the river, the land to the north of the river all through the length of the country was designated as the North Bank Province and similarly, all the land south of the river was designated as the South Bank Province. In charge of each province was appointed a Travelling Commissioner because they did a lot of travelling in order to run their spheres of influence. Today, the same land area (both sides of the river is run by five governors). Commissioner Ozanne was appointed as the first Travelling Commissioner of the North Bank Province while Commissioner Sitwell was appointed the first Travelling Commissioner of the South Bank Province. The latter would die at Sankandi during a skirmish between the people of Sankandi and Jataba over farmland but what has escaped many historians was a religious undercurrent which was exploited by Foday Kabba Dumbuya who operated in the neighbourhood.

The death of Commissioner Sitwell spelt doom for Foday Kabba Dumbuya when he was attacked and killed by a combined French and British forces aided by Musa Molloh at his base at Medina in present day Casamance. It also led to the fall of Musa Molloh, later exiled and for indirect rule to be effected across the whole of Gambia in 1901. The rest is history and I don’t want to be found repetitive or boring.

Setting the scene of the drama

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We have to understand that the case of Commissioner McCallum is not a unique historical event in both colonial Gambia and British West African spheres. It is my conviction that we can never legislate matters of love because it is a human trait difficult to suppress or control. It is natural and transcends ethnic and religious considerations. Throughout history, humans have always defied the norms and followed their hearts’ desires however controversial.

In The Gambia for example, an earlier incident although slightly different was the case of one Martha Thorpe who in 1893, eloped with the Captain of a British ship. It was a well-known incident perhaps because interracial relationship was by then unheard of and also by then, the clearly defined boundaries of the white man wielding from an advantaged position of power and influence as against the subservient role expected of the African must have raised alarm bells in both groups. It would be interesting to know what became of Ms Thorpe.

Another high profile Gambian case was that of Police Commissioner Roberts who had an affair with an underage girl resulting to pregnancy and which pregnancy would have a major effect on the political evolution of The Gambia like no other.

In 1873, Superintendent of Police of the Colony of The Gambia, Mr Henry Fowler began investigating a lot of complaints and allegations regarding rape and a prominent figure in the person of Cornelius Kortwright, who was the Administrator of The Gambia that he raped his servant girl and then dismissed her when she got pregnant.

Another key figure was the Chief Magistrate, one Mr Jackson, who was also accused of not only prostituting young girls but extended his tentacles to even prisoners. Jackson was accused by two young girls aged 12 and 13. One of the girls said Jackson dragged her into his room and raped her despite her cries.

Jackson however admitted that a girl aged 17 came to him on her own accord attempting to engage in prostitution but he rejected her. He described the girls as “of a class little given to truth” and that the girls were used by his enemies to bring him down. Jackson was never prosecuted and he remained the Chief Magistrate of Bathurst until 1876 when he fell sick due to liver complications and left The Gambia.

I tried to lay the foundation and the landscape in colonial Gambia so that we can appreciate the story of Commissioner McCallum. It so happened that the Travelling Commissioner for the North Bank Province in 1919 was one JK McCallum who would stir and make infamous British colonial rule in The Gambia like no other. He would, in opposite comparison, be likened to Governor D’Arcy who led more punitive expeditions against local chiefs like no other. Both were in their different leagues and should be judged for what they did independent of each other.

McCallum it was reported had affairs with three local women of his province in the persons of Fatou Khan, Fatim Samba Mbowe and Fana Kumba Lowe. It is however established that he married Fatou Khan according to Shariah law which I find difficult to digest because it is my understanding that a Muslim woman cannot marry a non-Muslim man and there is no indication that McCallum ever converted to Islam. That would be good research topic to undertake especially with the evolution of marriage law and contract in The Gambia.

Of the three women that the commissioner “married”, the case of Fatou Khan was more prominent in the degree of latitude she had in influencing policy decisions. Fatou it was said learned to forge the signature of the commissioner and was authenticating “official” documents to her advantage. She yielded power and influence and was being rewarded by her community with gifts.

Fatou had an uncle who was then the Chief of Saloum in the person of Sawalo Ceesay resident at Njau village. Sawalo, it was said started his early life as a big time wrestler which made him a good candidate to join the forces of Maba Jahou as a fighter. He fought alongside Biram Sisé, Ali Khoja Sisé, Said Kané Touré, N’Dari Kané Touré, Handala Buré Sisé, and Mahmud N’Dari Ba. After Maba’s death, he returned to Njau and would become colonial chief.

It was not until Commissioner McCallum tried to remove Sawalo from office due to age and to be replaced by his son Omar Ceesay, did Sawalo fight back. He accused the commissioner of ineptitude, corruption and dereliction of duty and petitioned him to Governor Cameron in Bathurst who opened an inquiry into the affair conducted at Kaur. It was Edward Francis Small by then stationed at Ballagharr who wrote Chief Sawalo’s petition.

Sawalo also accused McCallum of abdicating running of the province to these three women. It was also established that Fatou Khan would introduce a levy on all the towns of the District of Saloum in the form of millet which her uncle Sawalo enforced and would hand over the grains to Commissioner McCallum who in turn gave to Fatou Khan and who would sell the grains in Bathurst. Fatou also took money from a trader called Sering Niahana Ceesay of Bati Hai in Upper Saloum, and refused to pay the money back to the knowledge of Commissioner McCallum. Remember that debtors could face prison term if they defaulted until the law was abolished by the 1873 Ordinance for the Abolition of Imprisonment for Debt and Punishment of Fraudulent Debtors.

At the conclusion of the inquiry, the commissioner was found culpable and was retired with an annual pension of 277 British Pounds. Fatou Khan was fined 50 British Pounds for forgery. Fatou was never known to have had children and died in 1940.

Given the seriousness of the case, it was a slap in the face for the people of the North Bank Province for the commissioner to even be granted pension. His annual pension of 277 pounds dwarfed what the Colonial Government spent on Agriculture in 1914 amounting to just 268 British Pound Sterling. An individual’s pension was more than what a government would spend on Agriculture. The commission of inquiry was led by Senior Travelling Commissioner, Mr HL Pryce. In the end McCallum was dismissed, Chief Sawalo’s petition upheld and Fatou fined.

While I have not seen the book, it is reported that Commissioner McCallum was taught Wolof by Fatou Khan and he would later write a Wolof grammar text which was very widely used then by the colonial officials and merchants.

Such abuses by colonial officials were many and may require further research. 

The conclusion is not so much as to the abuse of office, but we must also look at this story from the perspective of independence from Gambian women who defied the general norm and were able to express their love beyond the restricted boundaries of a conservative African society. This I see as a revolt and perhaps it laid the foundation for many other women that followed to find their bearing especially the feminist movement and who would go on to break the glass ceiling. In my opinion, they were trailblazers however one looks at the story.

References for further reading:

References for further reading:

1. Report on Upper Saloum District’, 1933, PUB 13/13, The Gambia National Archives, Banjul.

2. Hassoum Ceesay;  “Gambian Women: an introductory history. Banjul: Fulladu Publishers, 2007, p.94.

3.  CSO 1/36 Cornelius H. Kortwright Administrator to the Governor in Charge, December 16, 1873.

4.  CSO 1/36 Thomas W. Jackson to the Governor in Charge, December 18, 1873.

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