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“That Hell-hole Of Yours”
In 1943 Franklin D. Roosevelt visited Britain’s poorest, most dismal African colony, and what he saw there fired him with a fervor that helped found the United Nations
October 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 6
There was also the matter of development. Great Britain’s foremost colonial theorist, Lord Lugard, set out in 1922 the requirements for development in his classic text, The Dual Mandate in British Tropical Africa. Development funds were to come from the colonial revenues from taxes and import duties that remained after paying a colony’s administrative costs. But special circumstances led the Colonial Office to drag its feet on spending Gambia’s modest revenues for development: There was the fear that one day the British government would cede the colony to France, since French Senegal surrounded it, and all money spent on development would be lost to the Empire. And there was an official notion that the colonial treasury had to hold substantial reserves to serve as a cushion for bad economic years. In Gambia, between 1900 and 1940, revenues almost always exceeded expenses. The colonial government could have spent this money on social services but it chose not to. In 1925 it allocated only £3,500 for education and £24,712 for medical services. By 1940 not even one percent of the colony’s two hundred thousand population was receiving any education, and a British medical officer labeled Gambia’s lone hospital “indubitably the worst in the whole of the Colonial Empire.”
In a scathing critique of Gambia’s colonial administration in the Daily Express two months before World War II began, the journalist Morley Richards summed up the plight of Gambians: “I question whether they have escaped from their slavery. They are taxed, directly and indirectly, out of all proportion to their miserable cost of living.…They pay heavy duties on staple foods—rice and sugar.…They even pay an export duty of 10s [shillings] a ton on the ground nuts they send out of the country, almost their only earning source. They are in bondage, these black Britons—in debt from the cradle to the grave…in order to pay salaries to white Britons who administer where little administration is required but do not develop when development is most urgently needed.”
Afterward FDR badgered Churchill about Bathurst and pushed hard for a U.N. to oversee decolonization.
The onset of the second World War only made the situation worse. With the closing of the Mediterranean and the danger to shipping in the Atlantic, Bathurst became an important Allied air and sea base. Construction and maintenance of air facilities and roads to support the military activity meant more expatriates to feed and house around Bathurst and more unskilled jobs for Africans. Word of this opportunity passed rapidly upriver, and Bathurst’s population doubled, from ten to twenty thousand, between 1939 and 1944.
This surge of growth took place at a time when Allied merchant shipping was tied up and the usual sources of rice—Burma and Java—were in enemy hands. According to a formal 1942 British memorandum, all of this “placed a strain on the food resources of the Gambia that it was unable to bear.” A medical officer, G. M. Findlay, noted in August 1942 that “many of the civilian population had only one meal in three days.”
Africans living in wartime Bathurst faced a shortage of housing too. Even before the war there were not enough places to live; then the government got land for its military expansion by evicting people from their homes on fifty-one acres of Half Die, the most heavily populated section of town. Some of those evicted moved in with relatives; others curled up at night in the yards and outbuildings of strangers; those who had neither of these options lived and slept without shelter. Not two months before Roosevelt rode through town, Bathurst police rounded up eight hundred people sleeping on the streets.
Bathurst’s sanitation was another problem that perplexed colonial officials, all the more as the population grew. A professor of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine likened Bathurst in 1937 to “a water logged sponge floating in a sea of its own excreta,” and no one seemed able to wring out the sponge or cleanse the sea.
The diseases that resulted from this combination of problems made Bathurst in 1943 one of the unhealthiest cities on earth. Most Gambians had malaria, but, according to British medical reports, respiratory disease took “the heaviest toll.” Yaws was “moderately plentiful,” with one in four residents of most villages showing “obvious indications [open sores] of late yaws.” Intestinal worms and infections were “nearly universal”; twenty percent of Gambians had trachoma; blindness was merely “common.” And there was more: Every village of any size had two or three lepers, and syphilis and gonorrhea were almost epidemic in parts of Bathurst.
Young children had the worst of it. Dr. W. M. Howells reported that half of the children in three Gambian villages he visited in 1935 had enlarged spleens; conjunctivitis was “chronic” among them, “parasitic skin diseases” were “common,” nasal discharges were “extremely common,” and schistosomiasis was “commoner than generally supposed.” Howells wrote, “If [as little as] a third of the children born reach the age of 5 years it would not be surprising.”
As he was driven along the streets of Bathurst and as he boated past the wharf towns upriver, the American President—the Depression leader who had worried at home about freedom from want, who had lamented in fireside chats about the unemployed, who had brought Americans a New Deal to help provide for their basic welfare—cast his eyes on the human results of colonialism, and he was dismayed.