When ‘Modern Slavery’ Meant Colonial Rule Nigeria and Panya (Fernando Po) in the 1960s

The colonial history of Fernando Po in Spanish Guinea and south-eastern Nigeria makes it clear that the new techniques of ‘modern slavery’ varied from deception and entrapment of unsuspecting migrants to harshly enforced debt bondage and penal sanctions for non-fulfilment of contracts.

In early independent Nigeria, ‘modern slavery’ was principally associated with the ongoing existence of colonial labour regimes. Especially in the neighbouring Spanish colonial island of Fernando Po in the Bight of Biafra and in the Apartheid and Portuguese empires in Southern Africa. In 1962, Ghana even brought forward an international legal complaint against the Government of Portugal for failing to enforce the 1957 Abolition of Forced Labour Convention. The continued existence of forced labour and modern slavery in the last remaining African colonies were seen as a negation of everything that had been arduously deliberated upon and fought for in the anti-colonial twentieth century. Yet the paradox quickly presented itself that even with the end of colonial rule, ‘modern slavery’ was not overcome or abolished but seemed to reappear in different moments with the same characteristics. Arguably, this paradox arose because what was labelled or misrecognized as ‘modern slavery’ was usually the simple creation or operation of new but quite ordinary semi-regulated labour markets, whether first appearing under colonial or post-colonial rule.

Referring to these labour markets as ‘modern slavery’ creates a confused historical timeline that obscures the direct predecessor of what is today called human trafficking and people smuggling—the turbulent and transformative colonial period. Looking at the colonial history of Fernando Po in Spanish Guinea and south-eastern Nigeria, it becomes clear that the new techniques of ‘modern slavery’, varied from deception and entrapment of unsuspecting migrants in a new territory to harshly enforced debt bondage and penal sanctions for non-fulfilment of contracts and other local legislation such as vagrancy laws. It is equally clear that such techniques were intricately created by the legal and economic conditions of colonialism and were not in any way a persistence of slavery and the slave trade.


A pivotal moment in late-colonial and early post-colonial African times was when heated public denunciations of widespread contract labour recruitment in certain colonies started to be understood with the vocabulary and imagery of ‘modern slavery’. Both then and now, there tended to be an intense focus on the aberrant ‘unnatural’ nature of extreme exploitation partially or wholly blamed on some semi-monstrous, incorrigible, unscrupulous and illegal recruiters associated with the merchant slave traders of the pre-colonial period. However, the most important difference between then and now is that when late-colonial critics compared the working conditions in remaining colonial territories to those of ‘slaves’, they connected it not only to the existence of arbitrary or cruel masters but also to the power of the colonial state itself. The historical lesson is that the revived metaphor of ‘slavery’ used to describe modern forms of labour exploitation appears ultimately in relation to the state, which created and enabled the legal and economic conditions of such extreme exploitation.

In late-colonial Nigeria, anti-colonial activists in the local press such as the Morning Post linked Spanish Guinea, the Portuguese colonies and South Africa into an axis of ‘powerful political-military-economic racists and colonizers fighting against the movements of national liberation’, the newspaper reported in 1965. Members of the Nigerian Youth Congress such as Tunji Otegbeye, who later founded the Socialist Workers and Farmers Party of Nigeria (SWAFP), were quite struck that a few miles from their shores still lay an ‘appendage of Spain’ where ‘modern slavery’ was still occurring. They even denounced the ‘Nigerian government’s support of slavery on the island’ as, Otegbeye once explained in the West African Pilot, the Federal Republic of Nigeria continued to uphold the labour agreement signed in 1943 between the British colonial government of Nigeria and Spain to annually ship tens of thousands of workers to the cacao plantations on the island and the forestry concessions in Rio Muni. In early 1961, the Nigerian and sometimes international press-storm that regularly formed over Fernando Po was reaching one of its many apogees—with vivid and haunting titles of incarceration and damnation that drew on an imaginary of satanic mills and cruel dungeons: a ‘Biblical Hell,’ ‘Hell on Earth,’ an ‘Island of no return,’ the ‘Brutal Island,’ with ‘Wickid Laws and Wickid Rulers.’ Many of these newspaper reports, such as Nigerian Outlook’s 1961 ‘We Were Tortured, Starved,’ contained interviews with returning labourers who told ‘newsmen in Calabar that they had suffered “the most inhuman, hellish and brutal treatment” they ever had heard of in their lives.’


In 1960, in an independent Nigeria still surrounded by a diminishing number of colonial territories, the radical Zikist wing of the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC), the party of Nnamdi Azikiwe, comprised millions of members of labour unions and other associations, listed the ‘annexation of Fernando Po’ into the top four points of its resolutions. In the early 1960s, there was a crowd of editorial pieces and letters to the editor calling to ‘bring the noise of weaponry to defeat and expel’ the Spanish from the Gulf of Guinea. The United Labour Congress in 1965 pressed the Nigerian Government for a ‘policy of confrontation’ with the aim of ‘sacking Spain from Fernando Po,’ ‘we demand action—a positive confrontation,’ precisely because Fernando Po was associated with the existence of modern slavery.  A remarkable 1962 article published in the Lagos-based New Times simply titled ‘Hell on Earth,’ concluded that ‘progressive organizations in Nigeria demand decisive action against the Franco slave-holders’ and provided a ‘grave warning to the Spanish colonialists who have made this beautiful island a hell on earth.’  The escalation against the remaining European colonial strongholds displayed in the post-colonial or more precisely anti-colonial press was a decisive historical turnaround of the narrative pushed by European colonizers since the nineteenth century, who consistently and heavily promoted the idea that the colonialization of Africa was necessary to abolish the persistence of slavery. That an independent Nigeria was forcefully challenging the lingering and weakened Spanish empire and its last remaining ‘slave colony’ was an extraordinary historical reversal. This geopolitical turning point also became a founding moment for the Nigerian social sciences, through the works of notable scholars such as Bolaji Akinyemi and Akinjide Osuntokun who published on precisely this topic in the 1970s.

The anti-colonial front against Fernando Po was almost singlehandedly activated by the accidental journeys of Isaac Pepple, an aristocrat from Bonny, and his tremendous revelations made in an article titled ‘Free Ticket to Hell’ published in the popular Drum magazine in 1957—a sensational piece that went ‘viral’—it was a ‘Pepple event,’ every subsequent reference to the island included some allusion to or component of Pepple’s reporting. Pepple had been dispatched by the Observer newspaper of Port Harcourt to do ‘a story on the island’; initially he was only given ‘access to the model plantation’ very near the capital city of Santa Isabel, so he proceeded to write ‘a glowing account of Fernando Po.’ ‘There it might have rested,’ Pepple says, ‘had I not required a holiday,’ for which he decided to ‘return to this pleasant holiday island.’ On the first day he stumbled upon ‘Meredith Pepple, a second cousin on my father’s side,’ who ‘had just been beaten up for not going to work for two days.’ After bringing this case to the attention of the British Consul, a Spanish ‘police van arrived and I was whisked away to the common jail. Now, this was their big mistake. For it permitted me to find out from the inmates what actually goes on in Fernando Po.’ From ‘prison,’ Pepple says, he ‘saw in all its nakedness the inhuman code of fascist oppression.’ His cell ‘held over a hundred prisoners who slept there, almost one over the other.’ Pepple tells us in his first-hand account that the ‘place was a boiling cauldron of carbon dioxide with a repugnant stench, and the idea came obsessively to mind that committing suicide would be the only way out.’ Pepple was ‘convicted of sedition and fined 18 pounds,’ and spent three weeks in jail before being deported.

Spanish officials kept people in collective and deplorable jail cells for months on end, and this state-sanctioned coercion became particularly intense in Spanish Guinea after the Francoist came to power during the Spanish Civil War in 1936-1939. In the Francoist period, which lasted until the independence of Spanish Guinea in 1968, much of the prison population consisted of Nigerians who had been brought to the island by recruiters but then refused to enter contracts. ‘[F]or refusing to contract themselves, they shall remain in the barracoon,’ said the chief of the prison in Santa Isabel to justify the incarceration of immigrants who did not willingly turn themselves into plantation workers. The daily routine was ‘imprisonment and detention without trial,’ while ‘prison conditions [were] semi-barbaric.’ The places of work such as construction sites or large plantations were much less brutal, but nevertheless, as Pepple reported to the British Consul, it ‘costs the Spaniard a lot of money to obtain Nigerian labour’ once ‘he has got it, he makes sure he gets value for his money.’ Pepple saw clearly that the ‘prison’ should be seen as the underlying object of critique where the most insights can be gained, in particular on the ability of states or state-like entities to arrest and ransom off mobile labour migrants to employers who were permitted to manage their ‘hired’ labour with impunity.


The eminent Nigerian journalist, Peter Enahoro, (under his nom de plume, Peter Pan) was one of the few non-labourers who gained a glimpse of plantation life on Fernando Po, by independently travelling there himself in early 1961 and disguising himself as a labour inspector from the Nigerian consulate to see ‘workers engaged under the terms of a charter which is a twentieth-century devise for slave dealing.’ Visiting the hospital in the plantation town of San Carlos he says, ‘in one week I saw more blood than when I visited the slaughterhouse in Lagos.’ Enahoro says while there ‘very varying conditions of employment,’ in ‘that island of terrorism and brutality,’ where ‘strikes are illegal and agitation is criminal,’ the ‘condition under which they toil are the equivalent of paid slavery.’

An active civic space could only emerge outside of the island. The Spanish imprisoned and deported any Nigerians who were seen as ‘infiltrators’ and ‘communist sympathizers’—anyone who had newspapers or other ‘documents written in English,’ anyone who was ‘too well-dressed,’ or who ‘was speaking in a certain way,’ anyone ‘who was uttering phrases related to the presence of Nigerian workers on this island that have a possible political character’—and someone who was described as an ‘overeducated labourer’ because the ‘collected works of J. Stalin’ were found in his bag.

In 1962, Mich Nwoke, a labourer who returned from Fernando Po, sent a letter to a newspaper editor saying that ‘those of us who have worked in FERNANDO POO know very well that a passport to that island is a passport to hell.’ He even said that Peter Enahoro underestimated the reality of ‘the brutal island’ in his widely circulated exposé: ‘understandably for security reasons, [Enahoro] did not stay long enough on the island. This short period of stay probably explains why he was so soft on the Spaniards.’

An unpublished 1936 police report held at the National Archives of Nigeria in Enugu written by the policeman, Sergeant Muyiwa (who had earlier decided to conduct an undercover investigation of the island after hearing disturbing reports in the media) relates actual working conditions he found on the worst plantations on the island. Broaching Orlando Patterson’s thesis of the relationship between slavery and death, Muyiwa said those ‘captured from Calabar and Port Harcourt are subject [to] work from six in the morning to six in the evening rains and sun—their masters at their back with canes in hand watching any one that would lift up his head for a second and if there be any that would lift up his head for a second—it is the cane that will tell him that his master has paid dearly for him and as such he has not right to rest even for a second. Is this not more than Slavery? Is this not more even more than Killing?’.

Journalists, parties, youth groups, and a variety of associations entered the public sphere to ‘act as liaisons’ and become representatives of the ‘illiterate labourers [who] can find no medium of expression and do not know the method of approach.’ They filled the space of representation with an unending spree of ‘atrocious and fretful news […] about the inhumane treatment of Nigerian labourers recruited to Fernando Poo’— since the 1930s ‘local dailies [had been] reporting atrocious acts of barbarity allegedly meted out by the Spanish Government to Nigerians in Fernando Poo.’ There was no ‘justice’, Enahoro said; the only legal forces on the island were the colonial guards, who could ‘detain a man indefinitely and for no other reason than that he had been (to quote the Spanish Police Commissioner in Santa Isabel) making palava.’


Until 1960, the only representation Nigerian workers in Fernando Po had was the British consul on the island, W. Bradley, who sought to discredit Nigerian journalists and unions: ‘The writing of a fair and objective article on the labor situation here is beyond the capabilities,’ he says of the ‘junior freelance reporters’ who because of concerns for their own career and public profile sought to ‘associate their names with sensational news.’ The British consul, who was also later re-appointed by the Nigerian state, simply accepted that ‘in this part of the world, labour relations’, in the industrial sociological sense of bargaining agreements with a certain standard of legal protections, ‘are unknown.’ He added that any ‘attempt to discuss or argue an issue with the employer would be regarded as an affront and the labourer may find himself in serious trouble.’ The consul remembered, as he had come from the ‘atmosphere of English, and Nigerian Native Court procedures,’ that he was ‘somewhat shocked to witness the short-comings of the Spanish idea of Law and Order;’ ‘the standard of Spanish Justice is deplorably low,’  he said, ‘just as bad here as it is alleged to be in Spain,’ which was under the Francoist dictatorship. The difference, of course, was the Spanish in Spain were subject ‘citizens’ and many Spaniards were able to emigrate to Latin America and Northern Europe in this period fleeing political persecution and post-war economic hardship. In contrast, the Nigerian workers in Fernando Po were essentially immigrants in Spain who could not depart before completing a long and irrevocable labour contract. Between 1958 and 1968, Fernando Po officially ceased being a colony and became just another additional Spanish ‘overseas’ province.

H. Rylands, a British colonial officer stationed in Owerri, where the mostly Igbo labourers on the island were from, said he had ‘heard all about the “evil” conditions of Nigerian labourers in Fernando Po from those who [had] previously been’. In 1947, Rylands was dispatched to the island as vice consul and concluded that the ‘illiterate candidate for the Fernando Po labour market knows more or less what to expect.’ When the then-Nigerian federal minister of labour and welfare, Festus Okotie-Eboh, undertook an inspection tour of the island in 1956, he went there on the steamer that departed from the Calabar wharf on a bi-monthly basis.

On the Spanish steamer filled with several hundred workers heading off to the island, Okotie-Eboh solicited such workers’ ‘motives in contracting to work in Fernando Po.’ The workers made it ‘clear that the principal attraction is the accrued wages payable in sterling on return to Nigeria.’ The ‘inability of the individual to save when employed in Nigeria on even well paid work is well known and the acquisition of a lump sum is regarded as the prime advantage of a term of employment in Fernando Poo.’ A labourer, one ‘Mr. Chinedu Echu, from Okigwi,’ after returning from four years of contract labour, told a journalist that ‘the conditions’ on the plantation where he had been working were fine; he was even considering ‘heading off again to said place.’ Echu had managed to earn ‘some 35£,’ (equivalent to about 1000£ today) because, he said, ‘there was also a bonus given by employers’—also known as a dash.

What shocked Pepple the most, apart from being jailed for three weeks, was what he found out from ‘a group of five thieves [in the] prison cell.’ ‘[S]trangely enough,’ he said, ‘there are Nigerians who have smuggled themselves on the island because as free men, they can bargain for high wages’—in the shape of informal wage advances or dashes. These dashes were sums distributed directly by employers and their recruiters and were not stipulated or permitted by the formal contract. Such sums could reach quite high levels and were seen to create conditions for ongoing debt bondage making a worker unable to leave the worksite even after the end of a two or three-year contract.


For the new Nigerian political and intellectual elites, it became almost a trend to try to visit Fernando Po and see and determine the reality for oneself. Lola Martins, a Lagos businessman and former secretary of the Action Group, went in 1961, ‘in view of all the stories about the treatment given to visitors to this wonderland.’ After ‘visiting this never-to-be-forgotten place’ and returning ‘home safely without any stigma of Spanish inquisition,’ he optimistically said that ‘the motive behind my adventure was to wipe out traces of colonialism from the continent of Africa.’ Martins observed the massive amount of wholesale commercial warehouses and shops in Santa Isabel, whose main customers were Nigerian smugglers from Calabar and Oron. Such customers returned on canoes up the Cross River delta to illegally resell tax-free tobacco, Spanish-made cloth, wine and ceramics and, ‘a miscellany of other manufactured articles’, and above all, the ‘queen of the exports’ from Fernando Po: Domecq brandy, estimated at over 60,000 to 200,000 cases a year in the 1950s and 1960s.

Martins travelled on the steamer that was mainly used to transport labourers to the island under the terms of the 1943 labour treaty, and he reported that the labourers ‘were packed full onboard like captured slaves being carried off to a slave market. No elbow-room between them and they were there with a few belongings and some with their wives and children.’ Martins asked some of them about ‘their emotions on leaving Nigeria and their fate in Fernando Po’ and wrote in the Express that ‘a good number of those I spoke to go to Spanish Guinea to work on the cacao plantations because there is no employment for them in Nigeria and some of these labourers have passed primary VI and government secondary class IV in Nigeria.’

In the mid-1970s, more than 25,000 Nigerians were evacuated and brought back to Nigeria by their own government from the now independent Equatorial Guinea when social and economic conditions under the independent regime of Francisco Macias had deteriorated drastically. A pseudonymous writer for the Nigerian Chronicle, Signor Tofu, said to the returnees, after ‘four decades of torture and enslavement’, ‘welcome back to Nigeria. You did not deserve to suffer so.’ He also added that until ‘very recently slave labour was still being exacted very close to Nigeria by Spanish Nationals in Fernando Po’ and that ‘the history of the slave trade had to be re-written.’


For much of the twentieth century, the mostly African labour recruiters or touts brought several hundred thousand Nigerians and other West Africans onto the Spanish imperial plantations run on indentured contracts right off the West African coast. Because of their systematic use of deception and misinformation, their high commissions for organizing the transport (initially on their own canoes) of future workers, and because many of them were Efik from Calabar, descendants of slave-traders, they were seen to be the principal agents behind the ‘new slaveries’ after the formal abolition of slavery in the lurid eyes of various colonial and anti-colonial observers. The British colonial authorities tended to blame ‘unscrupulous’ recruiters and even the ‘gullible victims’ themselves for falling for the false promises and traps of recruiters and middlemen. Instead of paying attention to the economic havoc and displacement brought about by their own merchant and later territorial colonialism in Nigeria, the British colonial authorities instead also invoked the long-standing ideological trope of Spanish colonialists as especially cruel, backward and feudal colonizers in contrast to the progressive and enlightened colonialism of northern Europeans. But most of the blame was heaped on the African recruiters themselves.

The need to find ‘culprits’ and effectively scapegoat these recruiters to absolve colonial and post-colonial states from blame for creating the conditions of entrapment and absent labour legislation has a long history. This need for simple and one-dimensional stories is very much alive in the present with the relentless narrative pursuit and focus on policing of obscure middlemen, smugglers and traffickers. This is particularly evident in the contemporary press coverage of Libyan middlemen who arrange the migration of West Africans to Europe, such as the CNN and BBC ‘scandal’ that uncovered apparent ‘slave auctions’ of unsuspecting itinerant African migrants organized by Libyan traffickers in 2017. The omission of even recent historical and structural context by the media is even more evident in this case. Such ahistorical narratives encourage the active forgetting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s role in deposing the former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and destroying his state which indeed had some guarantees and protections in place for Black Libyans and African migrants. Such narratives also reinforce the impulsive idea that the so-called new ‘slave markets’ can only be rectified through a further Western moral and military show of force. This recent and ongoing phenomenon can only be understood as the result of neo-colonialism, just like the extreme exploitation in colonial-era labour markets were understood as an almost entirely colonial occurrence by its contemporary critics.


The absence of historical context conceals the ordinary operation of labour markets and deregulated exploitation and imagines its causes to lie in some kind of revived archaic slaving traditions. This can be seen in the imperial press coverage of another important migration route out of colonial-era Nigeria, namely the hajj to Mecca, which between the 1890s and 1960s was done on foot and camel until air travel became the principal mode of transport for pilgrims. There are endless newspaper stories in the British press of the 1950s and 1960s, of pilgrims falling victim to kidnappers, ‘trappers’ and ‘raiders’ on their way to Mecca.

In this period, the British abolitionist NGO, Anti-Slavery International, founded in the nineteenth century and still going strong, was verifiably obsessed with seemingly blatant cases of slave-like auctioneering by recidivist Arab ‘slave traders’ en route. This coincided not incidentally with the end of the British Empire and served as an ideological steppingstone in the attempts to keep European imperialism alive in North Africa and the Sahel and especially Egypt after the Suez Crisis in 1956. The labels ‘trafficker’ and ‘people smugglers’ continue to demonize brokers today; the media, politicians and activists use images and vocabulary that evoke pre-colonial regional and transatlantic slave trading networks. However, most contemporary instances of modern slavery, and the tone of its ‘alarm’, can more suitably be traced back to colonial-era recruitment of contract workers.

This specific ‘figure’ of the recruiter as the cause of the ugliest aspects of a labour market dates back to the early modern British empire when soldiers and mariners were recruited to unpopular and dangerous destinations and naval frontlines. In London, labour recruiters were called ‘spirits’, and were popularly imagined to operate through ‘diabolic cunning and assiduity.’ They were called ‘monsters’ and ‘demons’ who ‘infest the metropolis,’ and ‘deceive’ through persuasion with ‘allurements and deluding falsities whose whole employ is to collogue and seduce indigent, ignorant Souls [by] making Golden promises of things never likely to come to pass’. British colonial officials considered the new forms of indentured labour recruiting to be a ‘species of slavery or kidnapping’. They believed it resulted from the unregulated and ‘erratic’ recruitment and migration with the resulting widespread feature of ‘knavery,’ or being ‘cajoled by plausible touts.’ As Bruno Lamas has observed most cases of ‘modern slavery’ begin with ‘fictitious job offers’ to misleading destinations or placements, and so are formally the exact opposite of slavery proper. It is these touts who have the connections and knowledge to ‘assist’ in the unauthorized emigration to destinations with a labour market, even if the route is made by the opaque and unpredictable logistics of illicit brokers.

In discussions of ‘modern day slavery’ and ‘trafficking in persons’ the different phases of migration, recruitment and work are often not distinguished, it was usually simply said that the recruiters use ‘persuasion, swindling, or coercion’ to entrap their victims. Indeed, already in 1925, the Anti-Slavery and Aborigines Protection Society decided on a ‘broad principle’ when deciding ‘what practices may be said to-day to amount to modern slavery,’ namely ‘any system in which force or fraud are exercised to secure control over the labourer for private ends.’ If we attach the label ‘modern day slavery’ to many different situations caused by many different reasons, it is impossible to understand the history and present unfolding of the ‘underside’ of local or international labour markets, which may occur even under the harshest conditions imaginable.


As Peter Enahoro perplexedly concludes in his 1962 Sunday Times piece ‘The Brutal Island’, ‘I WAS ASHAMED that in spite of the treatment they got, they still came in numbers.’ Such ‘irrational’ migrations are usually explained away as being either errant, the result of deception and naivete, or born out of an extreme ‘life over death’ desperate ‘choice.’ Opposing ideas that labour migrants who ended up in such extreme situations of exploitation were brought there only as a result of involuntary and forced displacement or of empowering and wilful quests of last resort gone wrong are both unlikely. Our concepts should not fail to account for the complex and contradictory movements of past and present migrations and their reasons.

The entire framing of many contemporary labour markets as a form of ‘modern slavery’ obscures the fact that this is precisely how modern labour markets emerge—not from the ‘continuities’ of slavery and the slave trade but from the dislocations and legal systems resulting from conquest and colonial rule. In The Condition of the Working Class in England, Friedrich Engels first noted the characteristics of ‘early stage’ and ‘incipient’ labour markets, with its ‘miserable wiles and subterfuges’ and ‘petty devices of swindling and pilfering.’ Without considering the development of the wage labour market in the colonies, he concluded that ‘those tricks do not pay any longer in a large market, where time is money, and where a certain standard of commercial morality is unavoidably developed, purely as a means of saving time and trouble.’ Any reflection or examination of the extreme exploitation of vulnerable and immigrant subjects across various industries and sectors of the global economy today needs to consider that the templates that permit it were directly provided by state power during colonial rule so that we can designate such situations as part of an ongoing and global neo-colonial economy rather than a remnant or left-over of some archaic personalized relationships that cannot easily be overcome by further bureaucratic reforms

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