Birch Collection: 6: Freetown and Yengema, Sierra Leone

This film is held by the British Empire & Commonwealth Museum (ID: 2005/046/006).


Various scenes in Sierra Leone. Aerial sequence along a jungle river with waterfalls shows us increasing western development nearing the coast. Views of pools by the river used to wash for diamonds; views of a market; views of steam train crossing a girder bridge. Local reaction to a light aircraft in their midst is followed by the plane taking off. Two views of a military parade, march past and inspection, a formal photograph of dignitaries, and a gathering of native and European guests viewing a flypast of Canberra bombers.

Production / Donor Details: Films taken by John Birch. In the 1950s the John and Daphne Birch were mainly in Sierra Leone, where he was head of Unilever, and also held a position on the Legislative Council; the majority of the films cover time there and on holidays abroad and in Sussex. John Birch was a member of Royal African Society, Bristol branch.



Mining in the jungle hinterland of Sierra Leone began in earnest during the 1930s, and the decade saw the industry grow at an extraordinary rate. In 1931, minerals had accounted for just 5% of total domestic exports; ten years later, that figure was 85%. The country, Britain’s oldest African territory, had been economically moribund for decades owing to a perceived lack of resources; the dramatic change in its fortunes came with the discovery of diamond deposits in the alluvial soil around the Sewa river, and by the eve of full independence in 1961 Sierra Leone would be producing fully a third of the world’s diamonds (Zack-Williams, 1982, 80; Smillie et. al., 2000, 18).

The first diamond to be found by a European in Sierra Leone was picked out of the gravel of the Gboraba stream, Kono District, in January 1930 by J. D. Pollett. His discovery was confirmed by N. R. Junner, an official of the Sierra Leone Geological Survey, which had been prospecting for heavy minerals, rather than precious stones. The discovery was made public, and though some gold mining companies at first failed to find any diamonds, the fields were more thoroughly examined by the Gold Coast-based and De Beers-handled Consolidated African Selection Trust Ltd. (CAST), who then applied for an exclusive prospecting licence in 1931.

Mining by hand began in 1933, and in 1935 a CAST subsidiary company, Sierra Leone Selection Trust (SLST), obtained a license from the colonial government for exclusive mining and prospecting rights throughout the entire country for 99 years. All such arrangements were made in close contact with the colonial authorities, who had early on determined that exclusivity and the control it guaranteed were the best way to maximise tax revenues from the nascent mines. Taxation on SLST’s diamond profits was set at 27%, eventually rising to 45% (ibid., 38, though SLST’s own literature reports a rate of 60%), and they also paid into development funds for the Kono District and elsewhere (SLST, 1965, 5. SLST’s own account has this latter figure at £25,000 in 1965, though Magbaily Fyle has the annual ‘mineral rent’ at £7000; Magbaily Fyle, 2006, 185). The contract had not been difficult to arrange, either with the authorities or the local chiefs: ‘Kono District had never been a commercially active region and Kono chiefs, who owned the land communally, appeared unconcerned and unable to grasp the dramatic impact that diamond mining would inevitably have’ (Smillie et. al., op.cit., 38)

The mining process had initially been of the simplest kind, with workers panning and washing the alluvial soil by hand, but SLST began mechanising their operation immediately after the 1935 contract was awarded, and by 1936 all SLST extraction was by means of mechanical pan plants (Greenhalgh, 1985, 52). By 1937, a million carats were being mined per year (Smillie et. al., op.cit., 3).

From 1948 onwards production was significantly intensified, but the situation remained stable until the ‘Great Diamond Rush’ of the 1950s, when the SLST concessions were almost completely overrun by illicit mining. Between 1952 and 1955 the amount of people working in the diamond areas went from 5000 to 50,000, almost all the increase being accounted for by illegal mining (‘illegal’ insofar that SLST had an absolute monopoly on all diamond mining in the country). The numbers were such that SLST’s monopoly was effectively broken; millions of pounds worth of precious stones were draining out of the country as the illegally mined diamonds were smuggled into Liberia. In a move which essentially legalised the diamond rush, new legislation passed in 1955 cancelled SLST’s original 99-year grant, compensated them with £1.6 million, and left them in control of around 450 square miles. The rest of the country was restored to the Government, which could then grant new licences under the new Alluvial Mining Scheme (AMS) (van der Laan, 1965, 10-16).

1500 new licences were granted in the first month of the AMS, and by 1956 up to 75,000 people were working the diamond fields, a mass movement of people and labour away from agriculture so serious that food production in the country noticeably suffered – Cartwright notes that ‘as many men left the land in a three-year period to search for diamonds as had left it over half a century to seek wage employment’ (Smillie et. al., op. cit., 41; Cartwright, 1970, 69). With tens of thousands of young men having moved to the diamond areas, serious social problems were also generated. The production of diamonds was largely pre-industrial by nature, and without the contracts, disciplinary controls and close regulations of truly industrialised migratory labour (such as those that pertained in the mines of South Africa or the Copperbelt, for instance), large swathes of the diamond country were reduced to ‘near anarchy, with armed bands of as many as 400 to 500 men raiding the SLST and licensed miners’ areas, and on occasion doing battle with the police’ (ibid.). 

Van der Laan suggests a major cause of the acceleration of the diamond rush of the mid-1950s was the fact that ordinary Sierra Leoneans realised that diamonds were easily obtained by simple means, often in areas close to their homes (van der Laan, op.cit, 64). It does however seem likely that this realisation might have been spurred by the new constitution of 1951, which for the first time allowed an African majority on the Legislative Council and African representation on the Executive Council. One of the first major issues to be debated by these new African members of the Sierra Leone government was the profits and structure of the mining companies, which had hitherto been shrouded in mystery, and it seems reasonable to suppose that this increase in public knowledge about the mining companies and their profitability may have contributed to the flood of unauthorised diamond diggers into SLST areas (ibid., 2-3). Another contributing factor may have been the profitability of thefts made from within operating SLST concessions. The existence of a ready market for smuggled diamonds in Liberia further encouraged illicit mining, and throughout the 1950s an influential network of Lebanese middle-men, local gang-masters and Liberian criminal elements all staked their claims alongside SLST to Sierra Leone’s diamond wealth. 



The Birch collection consists of 18 reels of 8mm film, taken by John and Daphne Birch during the 1940s and 1950s (there are also 2 reels of 9.5mm taken in China during the 1920s). Several West African locations feature in the footage, including the Gold Coast, Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Sierra Leone, where John Birch held a position on the Legislative Council during the mid-1950s.

Reel 6, provisionally dated to 1949/1950, contains various scenes shot in Sierra Leone, including shots travelling by boat and by plane (apparently surveying diamond production sites), scenes of various military parades and officials, and several sequences of diamond mining, shown here. Given that SLST had been mechanised since the mid-1930s, it seems certain that the manual diamond washing and panning in the film is taking place on illicit diamond mining sites; the clip opens with a near 360° panning shot, taking in the localised environmental destruction wrought by alluvial mining. There follow several minutes of footage documenting the diamond field and the work going on, including shots of two men bailing water out of a diamond pit using a rather elegant device, and a sequence of a European woman (probably Daphne Birch) being shown a procedure which seems to involve the sorting by hand of diamonds from washed gravel.

As a member of the legislature, John Birch would certainly have had to take an interest in the issue of mining. Van der Laan actually records that during the 1955-56 session of the Council, during which the new AMS legislation to deal with the diamond rush was passed, Birch gave a statement in which he ‘warned that diamonds were not like groundnuts which could be reproduced, but that if a diamond had been taken out of the ground, it was gone’ (ibid., 188).

This straightforward warning about the fundamentally unsustainable nature of mineral mining has a terrible resonance in the light of subsequent events in Sierra Leone. The 1950s diamond rush not only began processes of social destabilisation through the disruption of agriculture and order, but also generated phenomena that prefigured elements of the violence that so disfigured Sierra Leone during the 1990s, notably the use of private militias and the beginnings of guerrilla warfare for control of the diamond fields. In 1953, just as the rush began to gain momentum, Sir Ernest Oppenheimer, head of De Beers, employed British private security contractors to police the SLST areas and contain smuggling to Liberia. Between 1953 and 1956 this force, ‘led by white soldiers of fortune from the Rhodesias and South Africa’, attempted to police the border between Sierra Leone and Liberia, and eventually hired local proxies through whom a ‘small-scale guerrilla war’ along the Liberian border was waged against smugglers (Smillie et. al., op. cit., 39-40). In the light of subsequent events, such petty skirmishes may be seen not as forewarnings of the terrible violence of the 1990s, but in fact as its first stages. The promise of wealth from Sierra Leone’s diamonds was not exhausted, and formed the fulcrum of the 1990s civil conflict. As Smillie et. al. note, ‘only the economic opportunity presented by a breakdown in law and order could sustain violence at the levels that have plagued Sierra Leone since 1991’ (ibid., 1; emphasis in original). Birch’s private film captures scenes from the beginnings of the economic and social paroxysm that ultimately triggered the descent into this violence.

Francis Gooding (May 2010)


Works Cited

Cartwright , John R. Politics in Sierra Leone 1947-67 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1970)

Greenhalgh, Peter West African Diamonds 1919-1983: An Economic History (Manchester: Manchester University Press 1985)

Magbaily Fyle, C. Historical Dictionary of Sierra Leone (Oxford: Scarecrow Press 2006)

Sierra Leone Selection Trust Diamonds: The Story of SLST (London: SLST, 1965)

Smillie, Ian; Gberie, Lansana; Hazelton, Ralph The Heart of the Matter: Sierra Leone, Diamonds and Human Security (Ottawa: Partnership Africa Canada, 2000)

van der Laan, H. L. The Sierra Leone Diamonds: An economic study covering the years 1952-1961 (London: Oxford University Press, 1965)

Zack-Williams, A. B. ‘Merchant Capital and Underdevelopment in Sierra Leone’ Review of African Political Economy no. 25 (Sep-Dec 1982), pp. 74-82



  • Birch Collection: 6: Freetown and Yengema, Sierra Leone (Archive)
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