Anti-alcohol campaigns in Africa set precedent for future activism

The international anti-alcohol campaigns of the late-19th and early-20th centuries in West Africa have relevancy in today’s world of foreign infrastructure projects and transnational activism, says York history Professor Deborah Neill.

“We can learn a lot by studying how missionaries, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and activists led the anti-alcohol campaigns against the colonial liquor trade and how that contributed to the character of modern western activist movements in the global south,” says Neill, who is hoping to continue her research on the subject with a view to completing a book.

“This was a new generation of activists who organized campaigns against colonial governments’ liquor policies, the lucrative European liquor industry and consumers of high-alcohol-content spirits in West and Central Africa. Western missionaries, philanthropists and humanitarians were horrified by the extension of this trade,” says Neill.

Building on the tactics developed by anti-slavery campaigners, the activists lobbied their governments from the 1880s to the 1930s to restrict the trade of alcohol. “From their perspective, alcohol and alcoholism were significant contributing factors to the destruction of African lives and communities,” says Neill. “And their activism set an important precedent regarding non-governmental institutions’ involvement in Africa in the 20th century.” It brought together like-minded people from around the world to fight for a common cause and led to a shift from conquest colonialism to reform colonialism across the European colonies.

Right: Deborah Neill

Activists were successful at getting the British and French governments – the countries with the least to lose in terms of liquor sales and the most to gain from intervention in limiting social problems – and later the German government, working together on restricting alcohol. Many European countries participated in the highly lucrative business of the manufacturing, sale and distribution of liquor to the colonies. The British and the French sold the least, while the Germans and Dutch sold the most.

The missionaries and activists, including French tropical disease doctors, believed their cause was noble and that they had the best interests of the locals and their communities in mind. “They transcended governments in affecting the policies and politics of the colonies,” says Neill. Legislation was enacted limiting the amount of alcohol that could be imported by West and Central African colonies and where it could be sold, but overall Neill calls the anti-alcohol campaigns hugely ineffective.

High duties were imposed on liquor as a result and most of the locals could no longer afford it; only the colonizers could. “European trade spirits became a symbol of wealth and prestige, making them more desirable to local peoples. So what the activists basically did was encourage a big black market in alcohol,” says Neill. “Moreover, the colonial governments were treating the symptom, rather than the disease. By legislating from the top down and restricting access to alcohol for African consumers, they weren’t addressing larger problems at a grassroots level to resolve some of the problems created by a loss of community living under colonial rule.”

The disruptions caused by colonial economics – such as the rise of huge infrastructure projects that took labourers far from home, and military recruitment by colonial governments in Africa – had contributed to the breakdown of local communities and social structures. Where there was a problem with alcohol, it was often a result of these larger changes under colonial governments, Neill says. Restricting access to liquor did little to resolve these problems and stop the demand for, and the black market trade in, high-alcohol-content spirits.

“The focus of the activists may have been on alcohol, and their work did ultimately highlight some of the larger systemic problems of colonialism. But the solutions they proposed unfairly targeted the consumers of alcohol rather than taking on problems in the industry itself, as well as the problems of colonialism more broadly. It teaches us that even with the best intention you can implement ineffective and even harmful policies. So you may not be improving the situation and you might be making it worse. And that still applies today.”

The campaigns against AIDS/HIV and the politics of large-scale development projects in mining and oil production are some of the current issues that could benefit from lessons learned in the anti-alcohol campaigns, says Neill. It’s important to try and implement change from the bottom up, and recognize the broad factors that lead to social problems rather than have governments, corporations or NGOs try to affect economic and social change from the top down.

“Many non-governmental organizations who work in the global south were founded after 1945 and have achieved international followings,” says Neill. “Despite the importance of western NGOs and transnational activism to recent debates about the west’s ongoing activities and functions in the global south, however, scholars have only recently begun to interrogate the deeper roots of this organized activism by exploring the work of pioneering reformers and humanitarians in the colonial era.”

It is an area that Neill wants to dig into further and that has great relevancy today. “Alcohol is my window on the global world,” says Neill. “The work of the activists poses larger, fundamental questions such as: Why do we as humans have this desire to go abroad and tell other people what to do? How did we get here, what are the factors involved? What is the role of commodities in shaping global politics and legislation today?” These are just some of the questions Neill is hoping her research into the anti-alcohol campaigns will answer.

By Sandra McLean, YFile writer