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Colonial rule and the ‘legal factor’ in Ghana and Lesotho

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  07 December 2011


This article compares and contrasts the development of the legal systems of two British colonies that occuped almost opposite ends of the colonial judicial continuum: what in colonial times were known as the Gold Coast and Basutoland. Both became British colonies in the late nineteenth century, but followed considerably different paths to that status. In the case of the Gold Coast it followed centuries of contact between Europeans and the coastal peoples in this area of West Africa. In the case of Basutoland incorporation into the European world was a nineteenth-century phenomenon and far more rapid. Nevertheless, at the turn of the century, as indirect rule became the officially accepted wisdom as to how colonial peoples should be ruled, administrators in both colonies sought to make the chiefly order an integral part of the colony's administration and award its chiefs judicial responsibilities. In the Gold Coast, however, chiefly courts remained in competition with a highly developed British-style Supreme Court. In Basutoland there were basically only chiefly courts until late in the colonial period, which applied Sesotho customary law that was written down as the Laws of Lerotholi in 1903. The two-tier judicial system of the Gold Coast allowed far more contestation and was far more flexible and responsive to social changes than was the case in Basutoland. Incremental changes over time meant that the judicial system evolved far more smoothly than in Basutoland. When in the latter colony changes did not come ‘from above’ in the 1940s, there was a serious outbreak of ‘medicine murders’ that many observers felt was directly related to the chiefs losing their judicial role. Also, the colony's high court ruled against the validity of the Laws of Lerotholi in the controversial ‘Regency case’. Apart from being a return to comparative analyses of the impact of colonial rule on former African colonies, much in vogue in the 1960s, this study is an attempt to modify the emphasis on ‘cleavage’ and the ‘coercive’ that has characterised historians' approach to the study of colonial law.


Cet article compare et contraste le développement des systèmes légaux de deux colonies Britanniques qui occupaient presque des places opposées sur le continuum judiciaire colonial: ce qui était connu en temps coloniaux comme Gold Coast et Basutoland. Toutes les deux étaient devenues colonies Britanniques à la fin du dixneuvième siècle, mais elles avaient obtenues ce statut en suivant des chemins considerablement différents. Dans le cas de Gold Coast ceci avait suivi des siècles de contact entre les Européans et les peuples côtiers de cette partie de l'Afrique de l'ouest. Dans le cas de Basutoland l'incorporation dans le monde européen avait été phénomène du dix-neuvième siècle et avait été beaucoup plus rapide.

Neánmoins, au début du siècle, alors que le pouvoir indirect était devenu la sagesse officielle acceptée quant à la façon dont les peuples coloniaux devaient être dirigés, les administrateurs dans les deux colonies avaient cherché à mettre l'ordre principal partie intégrate de l'administration coloniale et à conférer à ses chefs des responsabilités judiciaires. Sur la Gold Coast, cependant, les Cours principales étaient restées en compétition avec une Cour Suprême extrêmement développée de style Britannique. Au Basutoland, il y avait seulement deux cours principales jusqu'à plus tard dans la période coloniale, qui pratiquaient la loi coutumière Sesotho qui fut écrite comme les Lois de Lerotholi en 1903. Le système judiciaire à deux étages de la Gold Coast permettait beaucoup plus de contestations et était beaucoup plus flexible et sensitif aux changements sociaux qu'en Basutoland. Des changements incrémentaux avec le temps ont fait que le système judiciaire avait évolué beaucoup plus facilement qu'en Basutoland.

Controlling the colony
Africa , Volume 67 , Issue 1 , January 1997 , pp. 61 - 85
Copyright © International African Institute 1997

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