Hut Tax War of 1898

Bai Bureh, leader of the Temne rebellion, under arrest in 1898.

The Hut Tax War of 1898 was a resistance in the newly annexed Protectorate of Sierra Leone to a new, severe tax imposed by the colonial military governor. The British had established the Protectorate to demonstrate their dominion over the territory to other European powers following the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885.[1] The imposed tax constituted a major burden on residents of the Protectorate; 24 indigenous chiefs had signed a petition against it, explaining its adverse effects on their societies, to no avail. The immediate catalyst for hostilities was the use of force by British officials to arrest the Temne chief Bai Bureh, a general and war strategist, because of ill-founded rumours. He is typically identified as the chief who initiated an armed resistance in the North in 1898, but the British forces shot first. Late 20th-century sources suggest he has been unfairly identified by the colonial government as a primary instigator and that the colonial government had provoked the war by its hostile actions.[2] Later that year, resistance arose in the south by the leading Mende.

Cardew's tax

The military governor, Colonel Frederic Cardew, had decreed that, to pay for British administration, the Protectorate residents had to pay a tax based on the size of their huts. The proposal revealed the ignorance of the administration about the lives of most residents, as it was unduly severe. Because of the British "scorched earth policy", which dramatically affected his people, Bai Bureh surrendered in 1898 after several months of warfare to end the destruction. He was sent out of the country to exile for several years.

Colonel Frederic Cardew was not an administrator, but a professional soldier who had spent years in India and South Africa. He imposed the tax for economic reasons to raise revenues to pay for administration of the Protectorate.

The owner of a four-roomed hut was to be taxed ten shillings a year; those with smaller huts would pay five shillings. His staff failed to advise him that the taxes, first imposed on 1 January 1898, often were higher than the value of the dwellings. In addition, the government taxed unoccupied dwellings. Lastly, Cardew's demands that the chiefs organize their own residents to maintain the roads ignored the fact that the people needed to devote their labor to subsistence farming in order to survive.[3] A total of 24 chiefs signed a petition to the colonial government explaining why these requirements were so burdensome and threatened their societies.[2] In addition, the chiefs believed the tax was an attack on their sovereignty.

Bai Bureh's revolt

The new requirements sparked two rebellions in the hinterland of Sierra Leone in 1898, one in the northern area of the Temne, led by Bai Bureh, a general and military strategist, and the other in the southern area by the Mende, led by Momoh Jah.

According to documentation by Arthur Abraham, the colonial government reacted to rumour, initiated an arrest of Bai Bureh based on no evidence, and fired the first shots against his followers in February 1898, thus provoking open warfare. The British issued a warrant to arrest Bai Bureh, the 61-year-old chief of the Temne, with the idea that a display of force would convince the natives to pay the taxes due. By February, it became obvious that resistance was spreading. But Bai Bureh continued to make peace overtures in April and June, including through the mediation of Limba chief Alamy Suluku of Bumban, which Cardew rejected, saying that the general had to surrender without condition.[2]

Bai Bureh had gained the support of several prominent native chiefs, including the powerful Kissi chief Kai Londo and the Limba chief Suluku. Both chiefs sent warriors and weapons to aid Bai Bureh, who felt he had to defend himself against Captain Sharpe's unprovoked aggression.[2]

Bureh's fighters had the advantage over the vastly more powerful British for several months of the war. Hundreds of British troops and hundreds of Bureh's fighters were killed.[4] Some innocent European and Africans were killed. In one case, Johnny Taylor, a Creole trader, was "chopped" to pieces by Bai Bureh's warriors.

As frustration grew, Governor Cardew realized that the war not easily winnable so he ordered a "scorched earth policy" wherein the British would burn entire villages, farmlands, and pastures. This change in tactics tremendously affected Bai Bureh's war effort due to the reduction of provisions to feed not only his warriors but his subjects as well. He also realized that the cost of reparations was getting insurmountable as the British were relentless in pursuing the new policy.

To save his people from more property loses, Bai Bureh finally gave up the fight, surrendering on 11 November 1898. Despite the British government's recommendation of leniency, the acting governor had Bai Bureh and two colleagues sent into exile in the Gold Coast (now Ghana).[2] The British convicted and hanged 96 of his comrades. Bai Bureh was allowed to return in 1905, when he reassumed chieftaincy of Kasseh.[2] Bai Bureh gave an account of his side to Rev. Allen Elba, who sent an account to Cardew. But, many historians have ignored this material.[2]

Mende revolt

The Southern front was based in the Southern provinces, and was led mainly by Mende (and a few Sherbro) warriors and chiefs. In this area, the warriors killed many Krio traders and civil servants living in the provinces. Colonel Marshal, the British commander, wrote that the operations, from February to November 1898, involved "some of the most stubborn fighting that has been seen in West Africa. No such continuity of opposition had at any previous time been experienced on this part of the coast."

The defeat in the Hut Tax war ended large-scale organised armed opposition to colonialism. But, resistance and opposition took other forms, particularly intermittent, wide-scale rioting and chaotic labour disturbances. Riots in 1955 and 1956 involved "many tens of thousands" of natives in the protectorate.[5]


  1. David Harris, Civil War and Democracy in West Africa: Conflict Resolution, Elections and Justice in Sierra Leone and Liberia, I.B. Tauris, 2012, p. 40
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Abraham, Arthur (1974). "Bai Bureh, The British, and the Hut Tax War". The International Journal of African Historical Studies. Boston University African Studies Center. 7 (1): 99–106. JSTOR 216556.
  3. Edward Breck, "In Foreign Lands: The Sierra Leone Massacre", New York Times (29 May 1898).
  4. Retrieved on 17 January 2007.
  5. Martin Killson, Political Change in a West African State: A Study of the Modernization Process in Sierra Leone, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, 1966, p. 60. Also pp 106, 107, 110, 111, 186-88 on other riots and strikes.


Further reading

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