The Architecture of the United Africa Company

Following a six month delay due the COVID-19 Pandemic, our latest project to research the Architecture of the United Africa Company has finally started. With generous funding from the Leverhulme Trust, the project will run for two years and result in a series of papers, exhibition, and a monograph.

The Principal Investigator is Iain Jackson (Liverpool School of Architecture), with Co-Investigator Claire Tunstall (Global Head of Art, Archives and Records Management, Unilever Archives and Records Management). This close collaboration will allow the project to have full access to the 1000 linear metre UAC archive held at Port Sunlight, Wirral. 

The three research associates for the project are Ewan Harrison, Michele Tenzon, and Rixt Woudstra.

F&A Swanzy Store, Axim, 1903, Unilever Archive

Background

The history of West African cities has often focused on government projects, health, segregation and so on, with far less attention given to the one of the largest contributors to the built environment – the mercantile traders and their endeavours.

This project will investigate the impact of the mercantile developments across former ‘British West Africa’ starting with the late 19thC and ending with the early years of political independence of each nation.  The shops, trading centres, high streets, and factories offer an alternative view of these cities, and whilst some of these buildings are ‘everyday’ functional structures, when viewed collectively they form a large and significant assembly across the West African region. Through these buildings and wider town plans that accommodated them, the imperial mission is clearly revealed, as are changing tastes, designs, technologies, and economic positions. The architecture, interior spaces, and streetscape serves as a gauge for wider political development, as well as mapping social shifts as the quest for independence came to fruition.

J. Walkden’s Store, Accra,1920, Unilever Archive

One of the largest of these firms operating in West Africa was the United Africa Company (UAC). Whilst formally established in 1929 its constituent firms trace back to the late 18thC and include the Royal Niger Company (operating from the territory that is now Nigeria) and the African and Eastern Trading Company, as well as a whole range of other enterprises. These businesses were effectively operating in a quasi-government capacity and held immense power and influence over what became the colonial occupation of the region. Their contribution to the built environment shaped transport infrastructure, housing, town planning, as well as industrial development of docklands, warehouses, and factories. They also developed more glamorous projects including high-end department stores incorporating the latest design and retail environments; and shaped the fashions and cultural agenda of the towns through facilities such as cinema halls and community centres.

Kingsway Store, Accra, 1950s, Unilever Archive

How did the UAC contribute to the development of the built environment in West Africa, and in what way did it shape the streets, districts, and cities within this region? 

Beyond the pragmatic requirements of the business, what type of architecture and planning was it pursuing, and how did this inform the streetscape and experience of the West African city?

Objectives

To develop a new historical study of West African town and cities through the buildings, plans, and infrastructure projects of one of the largest trading conglomerates in the region, the United Africa Company. 

Archives

The primary data for this project is held in the UAC Archive, now part of the Unilever Archives, located in Port Sunlight, Wirral. This is a substantial collection and an unapparelled set of material relating to British and post-colonial West Africa. It is a largely ‘untapped’ archive, recently catalogued, and forms a unique set of documents relating to the various businesses ran and acquired by the UAC. In addition to the written sources, the collection includes an exceptional set of photographic records, company films, and recordings of interviews with UAC employees. We’ll also consult various other repositories including the UK National Archives; The Public Records and Archives Department(PRAAD) in Accra, and the National Archives in Sierra Leone (held at Fourah Bay College, Freetown); National Archives of Nigeria (Ibadan Branch). 

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