Edward Wilot Blyden, grandfather of African liberation
In my recent report on the unveiling of a plaque on June 28, 2011 at No 22 Cranleigh Street, Camden, North London, to commemorate the years that the premises were the residence of the Trinidad-born writer, George Padmore, I mentioned that Padmore was regarded as the “Father of African Emancipation.”
A less well-known fact about Padmore is that is his lifelong devotion to the cause of African liberation was ignited in him by another African who was also born abroad – Edward Wilmot Blyden, who was born in the Virgin Islands (then under Danish rule) but spent most of his life in West Africa, especially Liberia and Sierra Leone, but also in the then British colony of Lagos, As Padmore’s intellectual mentor, Blyden ought, therefore, to be rightly recognized as “the grandfather of Africa emancipation”.
These acknowledgements are important, for you cannot read about the history of American liberation, (for instance) without also being told of the dept which the American founding fathers owed to some of the British advocates of “the rights of man”, whose ideas influenced them. But African history was – and still continues – to be taught largely as if our liberation dropped out of heaven and grew in splendid isolation, nurtured entirely by its own inner vicissitudes.
The reason is, of course, that it is extremely inconvenient for some of the whites who own the political/history teaching/publishing industry which mediates between us and our knowledge of our own continent, to accept that there is only “One Africanness” in the world. Even more difficult to grasp for some is the fact that the black colour of a person brought up in a white environment, can – and does – often arouse so much curiosity about the origins of that colour (and the possible loss of intellectual and spiritual identity associated with the person’s removal from its “source”) that he or she can spend a lifetime exploring and retrieving what he or she had lost. And when what is lost is found, it sometimes becomes a lifelong mission to communicate it to others also – with such force and passion that a whole movement – both political and intellectual – can arise out of it to unite peoples separated by land and sea.
This rediscovery of African roots happened to Edward Blyden; it happened to Sylvester Williams; to W.E.B. Dubios; to Marcus Garvey and to George Padmore. All the others are relatively well known to students of the history of Pan-Africanism, but Williams and Blyden tend to be forgotten when the history of the Pan African movement is recounted. This article is intended to correct that ommission.
Edward Wilmot Blyden was born in 1832 in the Virgin Islands, but later moved to Liberia, where he became an educator and statesman. He is described in a biographical note as someone who, “more than any other figure laid the foundation of West African nationalism and of Pan-African.”
A “precocious youth,” (the biographical note continues) “he early decided to become a clergyman. He went to the United States in May 1850 and sought to enter a theological college but was turned down because of his race. In January 1851, he immigrated to Liberia, an African American colony which had become independent as a republic in 1847. He continued his formal education at Alexander High School, Monronvia, and later became the institution’s principal in 1858.”
From 1862, Blyden was appointed professor of classics at the newly opened Liberia College, a position he held until 1871. Although Blyden was self-taught after high school, he became “an able linguist, classicist, theologian, historian, and sociologist. Form 1864 to 1866, in addition to his professorial duties, Blyden acted as Secretary of State of Liberia.”
From 1871 to 1873, Blyden lived in Freetown, Sierra Leone, whose intellectual life he enriched by editing Negro, the first known Pan-African journal in West African. After 1885, Blyden divided his time between Liberia and the British colonies of Sierra Leone and “Lagos.” (This city didn’t become part, as well as capital of, “Nigeria”, until the arrival there of Lord Lugard at the beginning of the 20th century. It was Lugard’s wife who, it is reported, gave the whole country its name, Nigeria, after Lugard had “amalgamated” its constituent parts in 1914).
Blyden later returned to the service of Liberia as the country’s ambassador to Britain and France. He was also a professor and later president of Liberia College. In 1891 and 1894, he spent several months in Lagos, and was appointed “government agent for native affairs” there between 1896 and 1897.
Despite his official appointment, Blyden, while in Lagos, wrote regularly for the Lagos Weekly Record, one of the earliest propagators of Nigerian and West African nationalism. He also operated in Freetown, Sierra Leone, where he helped to edit the Sierra Leone News, which he had assisted in founding in 1884 “to serve the interests of West Africa… and the (black) race generally.” He African Reporter (1874 - 1882), who’s declared aim, was, even in those early years, to forge a bond of unity among English-speaking West Africans.
Between 1901 and 1906, Blyden was “director of Moslem education” in Sierra Leone. This made him responsible for teaching English and “Western subjects” to Moslem youths, with the all important object of building a bridge of communication between the Moslem and Christian communities. The importance of his work can only be gauged by comparing those days of harmonious co-existence between the religions in West Africa, with today’s chasm between believers of different faiths, that often results in senseless mass murders, especially in Nigeria.
This aspect of Blyden’s work no doubt struck a chord with George Padmore, whose own father converted from Christianity to Islam. Padmore named his only child after Blyden, from which it can be deduced that Blyden’s intellectual influence passed from father to son, although Padmore himself was not a religious figure.
Blyden died in Freetown on Feb. 7, 1912, at the age of 82. He still has surviving family members in Sierra Leone, who commemorate his anniversaries each year.
The works of Edward Blyden, which Padmore came across among his father’s famous huge collection of books (which CLR James described as filling one room – “from the floor to the ceiling”) when Padmore was growing up in Trinidad, had such an effect on Padmore that when he was leaving Trinidad for America in 1924 (at the age of 21), he left instructions with his pregnant bride hat she should name the child “Blyden” – whether it was a boy or a girl!
The child turned out to be a girl, and Padmore’s wife, probably against her will, do as she was told and christened her Blyden. Poor girl – she can be forgiven if she became a bit hung-up on names, for shortly after her father had arrived in America, he was obliged to undergo a change of name himself – for political reasons – from “Malcolm Nurse” to “George Padmore.” This meant that he was addressing the letters he sent to his only daughter “To Miss Blyden Nurse”, while she, on her part, would have had to be replying to “(Dear Dad) Mr. George Padmore”!
Blyden Nurse, known by her name, “Blyden Nurse-Cowart”, is alive and well and lives in Las Vegas, USA. She is now 87 years old. The writer and publisher, Margaret Busby, met Blyden in the flesh 11 years ago, when Blyden visited London. Ms. Busby’s father was a boyhood friend of Padmore’s (Padmore visited the Busby family (Trinidad in origin) when they were living at Suhum, southern Ghana, at the time Padmore was also living in Ghana). She confirmed to me: “Yes, Padmore had decided that he was going to name his child after Edward Blyden, whatever the child’s gender. I met Blyden (and her daughter Lundia Fandall) in 2000, when they were in Londo for the conference that Lester Lewis organized to mark the centenary of the first Pan-African Conference in London in July 1900, at which my Dominican grandfather (Mr. G.J Christian), was a delegate.”
Margaret Busby adds: “Our families were close in Trinidad, and Blyden told me she was at school with one of my Trinidadian cousins. She and Lyndia live in Las Vegas, USA, I believe.”
The 1900 Pan-African Conference, organized by another Trinidadian, the lawyer, Sylvester Williams, was the first Pan-African Conference and a unique achievement of Williams’. But it is often overlooked in favour of the 1919, 1921, 1923, and 1927 conferences, and especially the 1945 congress in Manchester.
Sylvester Williams formed an “African Association” in 1900 to “promote and protect the interests of all subjects claiming African descent, wholly or in part, in British colonies and other places, especially Africa.” Look at the breadth and scope of the potential membership of such as association. Is there any organization with such wide reach anywhere in the world of today – 111 years later” isn’t the absence of such an organization, with all the technological tools we have at our command for uniting peoples – rather shameful?
In 1900, Williams said it was time for all people of African descent to begin talking directly about matters of concern to them selves. Williams influenced Du Bois to participate in the 1900 conference. Du Bois famous “Address to the Nations”, with its prophetic statement that “the problem of the colour line”, came to be regarded as the defining statement of that conference.
Sylvester Williams, like George Padmore, was born at Arouca in Trinidad, from where he went, first to Canada and then to England, to read law. He obtained a law degree at Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, and at King’s College, London, before going on to practice as a barrister in South Africa from 1903 to 1905. He was the first black man to do so, and he practiced around the same time as Mahatma Gandhi was also practicing law in South Africa on his return to London, he became involved in municipal politics and won a seat on the Marylebone Borough Council in November 1906. He was one of the first people of African descent to be elected to public office in Britain. He returned to Trinidad in 1908, where he practiced as a lawyer until he died in 1912.
The Ghanaian Times Page: 8 Tuesday, July 12, 2011