Telegraphy in West-Africa

Telegraphy in West-Africa

What is the Album?

An album titled “Photographs – St Jago, Bathurst, Sierra Leone, Accra, Lagos, Brass, Bonny, & c”. from the archive held at PK Porthcurno, is filled with numerous photographs of telegraph stations and staff from the African Direct Telegraph Company (ADTC).

The ADTC was a branch of the Eastern Telegraph Company, connecting Great Britain to its colonies along the West African Coast. The purpose of the album was primarily to document the telegraph infrastructure and adjustments along the West African cable, with pictures dating from 1890 to 1917. The West African Cable was laid by the C.S. ‘Scotia’ and S.S. ‘Britannia’ between June-September 1886. It would connect the Cape Verde Islands, The Gambia, Sierra Leone, Ghana, and Nigeria, as shown in figure 1. All of these countries were colonies of the British Empire with the exception of the Cape Verde Islands colonised by Portugal. While there is minimal accompanying information, the album still serves as an interesting insight into the inner workings of the telegraph overseas in Africa, against a backdrop of colonial exploitation. 

The Architecture

At first glance the album appears as an architectural portfolio of the many stations along the West African cable. Many of the pictures show the telegraph stations before and after architectural upgrades, or alternatively showing original stations established in the colony followed by the newly built or acquired premises. While the photographer and the reason for the album’s assembly is unknown, it likely served as a report of building maintenance and renovations to be seen by management back in the UK. For example, a sequence of four photographs with notes and references to external reports, see figure 2, details the renovation of an old stable into a new outbuilding at the Banjul station. 

Elsewhere, larger overhauls saw telegraph stations pulled down and rebuilt. The Bonny station (Nigeria) was demolished, and the material was used to build new local staff quarters in 1896. While the last photograph taken in the album dates to 1917, further mention is made of the West African stations in ‘The Zodiac’ staff newsletter. An article published in Vol. XIV 1921-22 gives details on the grand opening of the new Accra station on July 4th 1921, built on the same location as the old premises. In contrast, other station buildings have not been demolished and remain unchanged over the last century. One such example, being the station on Santiago in Cape Verde, shown in figure 3. The telegraph station building, although repurposed, looks much the same only lacking its prominent flagpole. Other pieces of architecture pictured in this album remain in the modern world, including a railway station and St George’s Cathedral both in Freetown, Sierra Leone. 

The Staff

In addition to the telegraph infrastructure, there are also staff photographs. Some photographs feature the staff at ease, seated outside on verandas presumably enjoying the warm climates, while group photographs are more formal and assembled. In many photographs, the typical arrangement is that of White European staff members, often senior staff, seated centrally. Meanwhile, the local African staff stand behind their chairs or sit on the ground, such as in figure 4. Most of the group photographs are captioned with the initials and surnames of the staff members present, some are uncaptioned, and others only name the European staff members. Unfortunately, at present, there is limited information on the staff members employed by the ADTC. However, by using what information can be gleaned from the photographs and finding relevant documents in the archive, more context can be given to this album. 

When comparing subjects in the photographs, names and faces reappear throughout the years most frequently at the same stations. But in some cases, staff members were given new postings at other stations along the West African cable. One example includes R.S. Woolward, a European staff member, who first appears in Banjul in 1893 and later appears in a photograph taken in 1897 in Sierra Leone (see figure 5 and 6). Interestingly, alongside R.S. Woolward, two local African members of staff, H. Norman and D. Wright, also appear in these photographs. This suggests that while Africans were recruited from the colonised population to be trained in telegraphy, they were not necessarily employed and stationed within their country of origin. Further credence to this, is added by an article found in The Telegraphist Magazine published in October 1886, where a telegraphist gives his account of the journey to his posting in Banjul, The Gambia. During his journey, he makes note of two of his new colleagues, their country of origin noted as Sierra Leone and their names: Herbert Alfred Denis Norman and Hermann Albert Duncan Norman. The two men were said to be twin brothers who had trained together in Madeira to be telegraph clerks with the annual salary of £80. Perhaps, the H. Norman pictured in 1893 is one of the Norman brothers, later acquiring a posting back to Sierra Leone and appearing with D. Wright in staff pictures in 1897 and in 1903. 

Another piece of documentation found within the archive was a Pension Fund Application for the ADTC, appearing to have begun in 1900. This document exists as one of the few comprehensive lists of African and European staff employed by the ADTC (as of 1900) with many of the names corresponding to individuals pictured in the photograph album. The list is less comprehensive in other details, only defining nationality as either “European” or “Native”, where the individual was stationed, and when the pension contributions began. It does confirm that R. S. Woolward had returned to a posting in Banjul, and that only one H. A. Norman was employed by the company at that time. What happened to the second Norman brother therefore remains unknown. 

Colonial Exploitation

What these staff group photos also show is that many of those employed at the West African stations were predominantly Local Africans. While European staff were present, they often took managerial roles such as “Superintendent” or “Officer in Charge”, titles which can be found written in the album beside their names. From the vague details gathered from this album, no African members of staff were noted to be in these positions. Although the group photographs give the appearance of a high turnover of staff at these stations, some examples illustrate the many years of service given by Local African staff. At the Banjul station, N. L. Prom appears in photographs from 1893 to 1905, see figure 7. Meanwhile at the Accra station, Vanderpuiye appears in photographs from 1905 to 1921, as shown in figures 8 and 9. This long period of employment with the telegraph was possibly due to the benefits it provided, not only a steady income but also the long-term advantages of a pension and a widow’s fund.

This album therefore shows that a high number of Local African staff were employed within the telegraphy service, often posted all along the West African Cable, where they held positions for well over a decade. Despite this, it is unclear whether the ranks they held whilst employed, went beyond that of a Telegraph Clerk. The history around the employment of Africans within the colonial infrastructure is still being researched and expanded upon. What can be gathered from the existing academic literature, is that the telegraph along with other public services, was built as a means to open up and improve accessibility to the West African colonies for their exploitation (Crowder, 2012). In a similar manner, the training of Local Africans in roles like a Telegraph Clerk, aided in this colonial aim of economic exploitation and in assimilation (ibid.). A policy perhaps out of economic necessity, due to the reluctance of Europeans to staff certain positions (ibid.). While Local Africans were employed as Telegraph Clerks, it is possible that their position as local staff meant that they were prevented from or not given the opportunity to obtain higher ranks within the company. Although Africans were accepted as colleagues by the Europeans brought in, less acceptable was being their subordinate (Crowder, 2012). The album alludes to this separation between the African and European staff through the arrangement of group photos, and the photographs showing the separate staff quarters. Further to this, in documentation from the archives giving general information from the ADTC stations, notes on the Lagos station highlight that shifts were even separated. The morning shift from 7am to 10.30am was carried out by European staff and the shift from 3.30pm to 7pm by African staff. 

The Culture

Other items included in this album are various miscellaneous photographs of local people going about their business. One photograph taken in Lagos, Nigeria, features a group of local men, shown in figure 10. The caption provides minimal context to the photograph, but of particular note are two of the men in a distinct traditional dress unique to Lagos. This attire usually of long white robes, covers the face, and features a colourful hat while carrying a palm branch staff known as an Opambata as part of Lagos’ Eyo Festival (Visit Nigeria Now, n.d.). The festival serves as a cultural display, held to commemorate deceased individuals and their lifetime contributions to Lagos or otherwise held for the ascension of the King (ibid.). The men in this photograph are meant to represent the Eyo or spirits of the dead (ibid.). Their role in the festival would be to parade around the island with the purpose of cleansing and the bringing of peace and prosperity to the city (ibid.). 

Colonial Violence

Another photograph, figure 11, amongst the Brass sequence of photographs features four young women in traditional dress. The only context given for this photo is the caption “Four Daughters of King Koko of Brass…”. This photograph would later feature in ‘The Zodiac’ staff newsletter (Vol. XVIII 1930-31) along with an article detailing the violent dispute between the Royal Niger Company and the people of the Nembe Kingdom, occurring almost 35 years prior. The source of the dispute centred around the palm-oil trade along the Niger River, which from the 1880s was slowly monopolised by the Royal Niger Company, cutting the Nembe people out of the trade. Despite the efforts of the Nembe Kingdom in signing new contracts and petitioning the British Government, the Royal Niger Company was favoured with a charter. The rising tension between the local people and the trading company would result in an attack led by King Koko on the company’s headquarters at Akassa in January 1895. In retaliation, the Nembe settlement was burned to the ground. In the aftermath of this violence, King Koko would be deposed and exiled. Meanwhile, having received significant criticism following this conflict, the Royal Niger Company would later lose its charter and would dissolve. This would, however, not be the only instance of colonial violence contemporary to this photograph album with other occurrences of uprisings and rebellions violently ended. One example occurring in Sokoto, Nigeria, where a rebellion in 1905 resulted in the killing of 2,000 Africans (Morley, 2007). Despite the prominent featuring of this photograph alongside this article, little else is mentioned about these four women other than their connection to their father King Frederick William Koko.


The album researched here provides a record of the stations and staff employed by the ADTC along the West African cable from 1890 to 1917. While its primary purpose was to serve as a report of the many stations and their premises, the photographs also provide valuable insight into the social aspects of telegraphy. The group photographs in particular allow for the careers of both African and European individuals to be traced over the years. Many holding telegraphy positions for over a decade, sometimes at the same station and others moving from country to country. Other interesting insights include cultural aspects, with the photographs of the Eyo, who are still part of a festival celebrated in Lagos today. However, further research beyond the album brings to light how telegraphy in its purpose to connect Great Britain with its colonies, aided in their exploitation. Similarly, a single photograph of four young women tells the story of how colonial exploitation ultimately resulted in violence. In the future, more research needs to be conducted to further explore the roles of Africans during this period. In addition, hopefully more information can be found within the PK Porthcurno archive to tell the stories of those pictured in the album.

Written by Annabelle Garfield, Masters student at Exeter University studying International Heritage Management and Consultancy.

If you would like to learn more about the PK Porthcurno Collection please visit: PK Online Collections ( | PKPorthcurno Collections


Crowder, M. (2012). Colonial West Africa: Collected Essays. Routledge.

Morley, J. (2007). Africa and British colonialism. Oxford University Press.

Visit Nigeria Now. (n.d.). Eyo Festival. Retrieved April 28, 2022, from


Appendix 1: The list detailing the ADTC Pension Fund applications in 1900. (PK Porthcurno: DOC/ADTC/5/2).

Telegraphy in West-Africa
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