There is something banal about colonial evil.
Take the memoirs of your typical imperialist of his time in the colonies, and there is likely to be enough there of the casual routine of stonemasonry, condiments, quinine tonic, petty linguistic discoveries, and annoying detail about minor fauna to leave every cell in your brain dry with boredom.
But it is in these banalities that the real nature of the enterprise, as overwhelmingly economic, comes best to the fore.
I have always been quite intrigued about the old gold mining industries of Ghana (then Gold Coast). However, the best records of the metal’s production history do not come from official transactions in the colony but from the travelogues of various explorers, often in side remarks about certain native practices.
I have usually treated the subject as a rebuke to our ridiculous ‘modern’ policy on ‘illegal mining’. I mean our ancestors have been digging pits all over the place for centuries to mine the precious stuff, based on ancient techniques and concession management principles, and yet we think we can sit in Accra, incant on some piece of paper, proclaim it law, and voila, change all that!
What has been particularly significant for me though is how much gold we were able to produce without mercury. To the extent that the grand Iberian empire was already aware of these shores as a source of gold in the late 14th century (by the way, Don Diego D’Axambuja was NOT the first European explorer to come here.) According to some records, the Elmina Port was at some point the single richest source for the imperial mints of the Iberian Princes. And yet, deep into the 19th Century our ancestral miners still did not use mercury.
With the introduction of mercury, artisanal mining was transformed steadily into the environmental nightmare it is today. But was it simply the virgin nature of the reserves that made considerable small scale mining possible without mercury, or were there some clever techniques that are now lost due to poor documentation and the general distaste for technical knowledge and its preservation by succeeding generations of native elites?
As you might have guessed, modernisation of technique was hardly the number one interest of the colonialist (that will come with industrial capitalism at a later time). But they were concerned about productivity all the same.
Alternative history is often junk. But it is still mind-boggling to consider that only the insipid bureaucracy of London prevented the realisation of a serious policy to import very large numbers of slaves into the Gold Coast from China and East Africa to mine the deposit belts due to concerns about the sparse populations in the region and presumably their lack of complete submission to low-wage exploitation.
We could easily have had the legacies of large scale domestic industrial slavery to contend with following independence.