Sarbah, John C. 1834–1892

views updated

John Sarbah
c. 1834–1892

John Sarbah was a prominent nineteenth-century Gold Coast businessman. After first working in a Wesleyan mission school, in about 1870 he entered the import-export business and opened his first retail store in Cape Coast.

Sarbah's business flourished because he utilized modern business techniques. By the mid-1870s he had opened branch stores and trading posts in various locations and, over time, built a diversified business, including investments in transportation, real estate including warehouses, and the export of agricultural products. His store managers had to keep careful records, and he paid them on commission as an incentive. He held discount sales to sell slow moving merchandise. At the time that Sarbah became a businessman, most Gold Coast residents were full-time farmers, and working for others was not part of the way of life. Sarbah attracted paid labor by offering bonuses to new employees.

Sarbah also paid attention to market conditions. His first export was palm oil; when the market in palm oil became glutted and prices dropped, he started exporting palm kernels, which produced a different quality oil. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, learning of the high demand in Europe for natural rubber, he encouraged local production by offering attractive prices and began to export it.

Sarbah's use of modern business methods and his ability to seize new business opportunities made him, in the words of one historian, "one of the most important merchants of his generation" on the Gold Coast (Dumett, 1973, p. 660).

SEE ALSO Agriculture; Empire, British; Ethnic Groups, Africans; Imperialism;Nigeria;Slavery and the African Slave Trade.


Dumett, Raymond E. "John Sarbah, the Elder, and African Mercantile Entrepreneurship in the Gold Coast in the Late Nineteenth Century." Journal of African History 14, no. 4 (1973): 653–679.

Kimble, David. A Political History of Ghana. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 1963.

Harvey M. Feinberg