Sierra Leone’s economy relies on the exploitation of its natural resources. The west African country is one of the largest producers of titanium, bauxite and gold; Sierra Leone’s economy, however, is predominantly based on diamonds. Despite the utilization of its natural resources, 70% of Sierra Leone’s population live in poverty.
Recent scholarship has traced the history of the diamond industry in colonial Sierra Leone between 1930, when diamonds were first discovered, and 1961, when the country gained its independence from Britain.
When the colonial government began exploiting diamonds, several problems had to be overcome if full control of diamond production was to be achieved. “This intention was systematically frustrated when confronted with reality,” Lorenzo D’Angelo writes in the journal, Historical Research. D’Angelo argues that in order to prevent theft, deter smuggling, inhibit unregulated access to the diamondiferous areas and regulate the production of precious gems in accordance with the interests of the global diamond industry, the colonial government made the mining population of Sierra Leone its target and, simultaneously, its instrument.
Once diamonds had been discovered in the country in the 1930s, Sierra Leone was integrated into the complex global commercial network monopolised by the De Beers Group of Companies. De Beers sought to reduce the risks and uncertainties caused by a fluctuating free market – recently brought low by the Great Depression – by imposing strict controls on the world’s production of diamonds and on illegal international traffic.
The ability to maintain order in the world market for precious stones depended on their capacity to tackle illegal mining locally, D’Angelo notes. Sierra Leonean mines, however, presented specific difficulties.
Diamonds in Sierra Leone are scattered over a large area, impossible to define and control with the methods and technologies used, for example, by De Beers’ operations in South Africa. Also, it was relatively easy to extract, conceal and transport Sierra Leone’s raw diamonds and smuggle them to neighbouring countries. Lastly, the difficulty in estimating the distribution and concentration of diamonds made their extraction financially risky.
To combat the risk to Sierra Leone’s burgeoning diamond economy, the colonial government took several steps. “This translated, for example, into the acquisition of [government and administrative] machinery of a size and shape designed to prevent the theft of stones; in the demarcation and construction of security posts for the surveillance of mining areas; and in the modification of existing legal apparatus, with the introduction of new criminal offences,” D’Angelo writes.
D’Angelo has argued that the strategies of colonial rule should not be thought of as always being the result of coherent economic and political calculations, they were occasionally reactive. On the other hand, these same colonial strategies were not always dictated by chance.
“From several points of view, the diamond areas of Sierra Leone were a ‘colonial laboratory’ where techniques and technologies of government that had already been experimented with in other territories could be mimicked or combined in different ways,” D’Angelo explains.
D’Angelo’s work reveals an important part of Sierra Leone’s history. In an area which is currently ravaged by the Ebola outbreak, it is important to remember that this country has its own unique history and is not simply defined by this tragic disease.