George Maclean

George Maclean (1801-1847) was a Scottish solider and agent of British imperial expansion. As an administrator of the British-owned Gold Coast forts, he was instrumental in extending British influence in the interior of present-day Ghana.

Born on Feb. 24, 1801, George Maclean spent his early years primarily in idleness and aimlessness. Eventually he obtained a military commission and was gazetted to the Royal African Corps, considered at the time to be a most undesirable billet. His first assignment was to Freetown, Sierra Leone, where he arrived in 1826. The ensuing 2 years were spent in Freetown and the Gold Coast (now Ghana), where he began to reveal his potential as a leader. But illness in 1828 forced him to return to England.

In the same year conditions in the Gold Coast had led the British government to withdraw from the area. British merchants on the coast strongly opposed this decision, and an agreement was reached whereby the British government would provide a subsidy to a committee of merchants who would be responsible for administration of the forts. In 1829 Maclean was appointed by the committee as president of the Council of Government in the Gold Coast, where he arrived in 1830.

Maclean's duties were strictly limited to directing the internal affairs of the forts, and he was to avoid any involvements with the interior. But as an agent for the merchants, Maclean believed that trade would improve only in conjunction with improved relations with the numerous neighboring African states. He therefore entered into negotiations with the Ashanti government and in 1831 concluded a treaty with them which provided for several decades of relative peace in the region. Concurrently he entered into negotiations with the states which lay between Ashanti and the coast.

In time, Maclean became widely respected in the interior for his ability to settle diplomatic and judicial disputes. His success in regularizing the tangled affairs of the Gold Coast has been attributed to his strong sense of justice, respect for African institutions and custom, and tenacity in upholding British commitments in agreements and treaties. His success is clearly documented by the dramatic increase in trade volume during the first decade of his administration.

Maclean's activities did not escape criticism, however. In 1843 a parliamentary select committee was appointed to investigate charges that although Maclean had increased trade he had ignored local slave-trading activities and that his relations with the interior far exceeded the limits of his responsibility. The select committee recommended that the British government resume direct responsibility for the Gold Coast, and in 1844 Maclean was relieved of his duties. The newly arrived governor immediately sought to legalize, in the view of British law, the informal jurisdiction over the interior which Maclean had developed. The rulers of about 20 African states signed the Bond of 1844, an agreement which provided for the extension of British standards of law into their territories. Maclean remained in the Gold Coast as judicial assessor with the responsibility of enforcing the conditions of the bond. He died there 3 years later.

Further Reading on George Maclean

The only biography of Maclean is George Edgar Metcalfe, Maclean of the Gold Coast (1962).

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