African Studies Research Seminar - Infrastructuring Freetown: Wharf and Railway in the Making of a Colonial Port City

Conveners: Rebekah Lee and Miles Tendi

Speaker: Milo Gough (University of Manchester)


Histories of Freetown have framed the turn of the twentieth century as a crucial turning point for the city, as a cosmopolitan enclave of British colonial abolitionism was transformed, from the top-down, into a modern colonial capital. Central to this change was the construction and improvement, by the colonial state, of an infrastructural chain centred on Government Wharf and the interior railway. As a hinge between the newly connected ocean and hinterland, the colonial port city would grow in step with the ever-expanding economic exploitation of the recently founded Sierra Leone Protectorate. This paper challenges this narrative by following the development of these infrastructures, from inception, through building and planning, and eventual day-to-day use, to show that the colonial state, and global capital, did not systematically mould Freetown into a neat space of extraction and control. Rather, infrastructuring Freetown was a contested, partial, and indeterminate process that was characterised as much by corruptions, dilapidation, and adaptation as it was by colonial coercion and subjugation. These infrastructural stories are built on an archive of colonial-era documents and newspapers alongside a deep engagement with a visual archive of photographs and architectural plans. In rethinking the history of the colonial port city in Africa, the paper also contributes to ongoing debates, across anthropology, urban studies, and geography, on the effects of infrastructure and considers some overlooked contemporary ruins and resonances of the colonial-era shaping of Freetown’s built environment.

Milo Gough is a Lecturer in the Department of History at the University of Manchester. He is interested in histories of infrastructure, landscape, colonialism, cartography, technology, and the built environment in sub-Saharan Africa.