This article explores the way in which the idea of trusteeship shaped questions relating to property and possession in nineteenth-century sub-Saharan Africa. Trusteeship is distinctive insofar as it sanctioned European dominion over territories in Africa while preserving an indigenous right in the wealth contained in these territories. The article illuminates the character of this relationship, first, by arguing that a narrative that reduces empire to a story of domination and exploitation ends up obscuring the complex property relations entailed by trusteeship. Second, it describes the introduction of trusteeship into the political, economic and social life of sub-Saharan Africa, focusing mainly on the experience of British colonial administration and the Berlin Conference of 1884-5. Third, it clarifies a relationship of unequal reciprocity that joined European commercial interests with the well-being of the so-called 'native' tribes of Africa.