Colonial taxation and taxpayers in Sierra Leone, c. 1890-1937.
This dissertation examines the history of colonial taxation and taxpayers in Sierra Leone during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. It is concerned with the interaction between tax systems and inequality: how existing inequalities feed into the design of tax systems, and in turn, how the spending of tax revenue can exacerbate or ameliorate inequalities. In a colonial context, these channels of inequality intersected with two fundamental features of colonial government: 1) the tendency of empires to govern different people differently; and 2) the ‘revenue imperative’ that exerted pressure on governments to fund their colonies from local sources. The dissertation argues that in practice, this combination led to a patchwork of tax categories that both reflected and further entrenched existing inequalities.
To examine these tax categories, the dissertation combines a range of previously under-utilised quantitative and qualitative sources from British and African archives. While overarching survey statistics created and compiled by the colonial government, despite some inherent problems, are useful for providing a general picture, this close-up data provides valuable information on the lives of taxpayers, including women, who are otherwise rarely mentioned in colonial sources. It is concerned with the years between the 1890s, when the final major territorial acquisitions were made by Britain, and 1937, when local administration underwent far-reaching reform with the introduction of Native Administration.
By looking at patterns of taxation and expenditure through the lens of these local level sources, the dissertation shows that a mixture of geographic and legal factors, coupled with economic and administrative feasibility, led to a continuum of colonial tax categories in Sierra Leone, not captured by the usual binaries of citizen and subject, European and African, slave and free or coastal and hinterland. In Sierra Leone, along with most colonies, there was no single direct tax for which all subjects were liable. Different tax categories underpinned different experiences of fiscal subjecthood, which in turn informed how taxes were perceived by those paying it. The internal fiscal structure of colonies was complex and multi-layered, and the colonial state was only sometimes the taxing institution. For some, taxes implied a two-way relationship with the state through representation, whilst for others, taxation was the entirety of the engagement of state and subject.