Edward Wilmot Blyden, grandfather of African liberation
By Cameron Duodu
In a report on the unveiling of a plaque at No. 22 Cranleigh Street in Camden in 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 lesser-known fact about Padmore is that 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 in Liberia and Sierra Leone, but also in the then British colony of Lagos.
As Padmore’s intellectual mentor, Blyden ought, therefore, to be rightly recognised as ‘the grandfather of African emancipation’.
These acknowledgements are important, for you cannot read about the history of American liberation, (for instance) without also being told of the debt 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 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. Du Bois; to Marcus Garvey and to George Padmore. The works of Edward Blyden, which Padmore came across among his father’s famous collection of books 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 that 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, did 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 who were Trinidadian 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 Lyndia Randall) in 2000, when they were in London for the conference that Lester Lewis organised 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.’
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, organised 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 an association. Is there any organisation with such a wide reach anywhere in the world of today – 111 years later? Isn’t the absence of such an organisation, 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 themselves. Williams influenced Dr W.E.B. Du Bois to participate in the 1900 conference. His famous ‘Address to the Nations’, with its prophetic statement that ‘the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the colour line’, came to be regarded as the defining statement of that conference.
Sylvester Williams 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 practise as a barrister in South Africa from 1903 to 1905. He was the first black man to do so, and he practised around the same time as Mahatma Gandhi was also practising law in South Africa. Williams’s experience in South Africa must have politicised him a lot, for 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 practised as a lawyer until he died in 1912.
Although he was fired by the same Pan-African ideals as Sylvester Williams, Edward Blyden was a priest and educationist by profession. It was his writings as a sociologist, historian and philosopher that impressed George Padmore. Blyden extolled the ‘African personality’ in an unabashed manner at a time – the mid-19th and early 20th centuries – when the prevailing view of Africa in Europe and America (except within a few knowledgeable circles) was not far removed from the well-publicised words of the ‘influential’ British philosopher, and historian, David Hume, namely that: ‘I am apt to suspect the negroes (Hume wrote in an essay entitled ‘Of National Characters’) to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was a civilised nation of any other complexion than white, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation. No ingenious manufactures amongst them, no arts, no sciences…Such a uniform and constant difference could not happen, in so many countries and ages, if nature had not made an original distinction betwixt these breeds of men. Not to mention our colonies, there are Negro slaves dispersed all over Europe, of which none ever discovered any symptoms of ingenuity; tho’ low (white) people, without education, will start up amongst us, and distinguish themselves in every profession.’
George Padmore, who was very well read as a young man, may have come across this racist statement of Hume’s and, as many educated blacks of his time did, felt it to be a repugnant viewpoint. But how was it to be countered? That is where he would have found the published works of Edward Blyden enormously liberating. Although Blyden held many important diplomatic and educational positions, it is more as a man of ideas than as a man of action that he is of immense importance to Africanists. He was a champion and defender of his race and in this role, produced more than two dozen pamphlets and books, the most important of which are ‘A Voice from Bleeding Africa’ (1856); ‘The Negro in Ancient History’ (1869); ‘The West African University’(1872); ‘Christianity, Islam and the Negro Race’ (1887) and his major work: ‘West Africa before Europe’ (1905). He also published African Life and Customs in 1908.
In his works, Blyden argued that Africa and Africans have a worthy history and culture. He rejected the prevailing notion of the inferiority of the black man and propagated the view that each major race had a ‘special contribution’ to make to world civilisation.
He boldly pointed out – although he was a Christian minister – that Christianity had had a ‘demoralising’ effect on blacks, in contrast to Islam, which, he claimed, had had ‘a unifying and elevating influence’ on them. (George Padmore’s father in fact converted to Islam from Christianity and may well have been influenced in his decision by Blyden.)
Blyden’s political goal – which Padmore adopted as his own and tried to implement with President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana – was the establishment of a major, single, modern West African state, which would protect and promote the interests of peoples of African descent everywhere.
Blyden saw Liberia – then with the rare distinction of being an independent African state – as the ‘nucleus’ of such a Pan-African state, with Sierra Leone and Nigeria following not far behind. But in order to offer a credible project of African nationhood, Blyden first had to establish the equality of the African as a man like any other, which meant demolishing the prevailing view of the ‘Caucasian race’ (as exemplified by David Hume) that the African was an inherently inferior being.
In a book entitled ‘Liberia’s Offering’, published in 1862, Blyden eloquently deployed his vast knowledge of the Bible to indict Europeans who considered themselves ‘civilised’, but who either refused to learn about the true nature of Africa, or distorted it to fit into an ignorant mindset that was the product of the crudest and most ‘ancient xenophobia’.
The continent of Africa (Blyden argued) occupied an important geographical position, lying as it did between two great oceans – the highways of the principal portions of commerce. Yet, to the majority of ‘civilised and enlightened’ men, Africa was hardly ever made a subject of earnest thought. Various interests of more immediate concern crowded out thoughts of a land that was spoken of only when instances of degradation, ignorance, and superstition were referred to.
The other portion of the ‘civilised world’, who thought and spoke of Africa, were themselves ‘divided in their views and feelings with regard to that land, and in the motives which actuate them to be at all interested.’ Some only regarded it as a place for a lucrative trade in palm-oil, cam-wood or ivory: all their interests in the land were of a commercial nature. Others, ‘with souls more sordid and hearts more avaricious, who are never once troubled by any sentiment of humanity, are interested in Africa only as a scene for plunder and carnage.’
‘From these people,’ Blyden pointed out, ‘Africa has had the most frequent and the most constant visits, during the last three centuries. They have spread all along the coast of that peninsula – formerly the abode of peace and plenty, of industry and love – arrows, firebrands, and death. In their pursuit of blood – not of beasts but human gore – they have scattered desolation, and misery, and degradation into all parts of the land whither they have had access; so that not infrequently has it occurred that some unfortunate and lonely sufferer, standing amid a scene of desolation, having escaped the cruel chase of the slaver, whose ruthless hands have borne away his relatives and acquaintances, has earnestly cursed civilisation, and has solemnly prayed, as he has stood surveying the melancholy relics of his home, that an insurmountable and impenetrable barrier – some wall of mountain height – might be erected between his country and all “civilized” nations.’
Only a few, very few, ‘civilised’ people ‘regarded Africa as a land inhabited by human beings, children of the same common Father, travellers to the same judgement-seat of Christ, and heirs of the same awesome immortality.’ These few had laboured ‘to accelerate the day when Ethiopia shall stretch out her hands unto God,’ Blyden wrote.
He also drew attention to Africa’s ‘adversaries’ – those who had no sympathy to bestow upon the African. The African’s complexion and hair furnished to them conclusive reasons why the African should be excluded from their benevolence (such as it was). ‘And such persons’, Blyden continued, ‘may be found in “enlightened” countries, professing Christianity, and priding themselves on their civilisation and culture. But do not such feelings prove them to be connected rather closely with those remote ages when the extent of one’s clan or tribe or district formed the limit of all his benevolent operations? Does not their conduct constantly remind those who meet them of their intimate relations with the barbarous past?’
There were still others who believed, or affected to believe, that Africans were ‘doomed to degradation and servitude’. Yet some of these persons also professed to believe in ‘the regenerating and elevating power of the Gospel’. They would ‘declaim long and loudly, upon the efficiency of Christianity to redeem and dignify man – to spread, wherever it goes, light and liberty, and the blessings of an exalted civilisation. But, in their minds, Africa seems to form an exception.’
Employing Christian theology at its eloquent best, Blyden asserted: ‘Glorious truth…is confined neither to countries nor races. It knows no limits. Who will dare to affirm that Africa will remain in her gloom, when the glory of the Lord shall have filled the whole earth?’
Blyden prophesied: ‘Oh! the darkness of many generations seems scattered; and I rejoice in the assurance that the land of slaves shall be the home of freedom!’
Men talked ‘selfishly and scornfully of the long-continued barbarism and degradation of Africa, as if civilisation were indigenous to any country; as if the soil and climate of some countries could give existence, and vitality, and growth to the arts and sciences. If this were the case, we should despair of Africa’s ever rising from its abject condition. But all the teachings of general and particular history, all individual and national experience, are opposed to such an idea. For there was nothing in race or blood, in colour or hair, that imparted susceptibility of improvement to one people over another.
‘Knowledge which lies at the basis of all human progress, came from heaven. It must be acquired; it is not innate. The intellectual plough and rake must be used, and the good seed introduced. Knowledge must be imparted. As one man learns it from another, so nation learns it from nation.’
If civilisation were inborn in the Caucasian, as some affirmed, if it was indigenous to all the countries inhabited by the Caucasians, should not every land which Caucasians inhabited be in a high state of civilisation? Blyden asked. But many Caucasian countries were far from such a state: ‘Look at the regions of Siberia, of Lapland. Look at the peasantry of many of the countries of Europe…Why are they so far down in the scale of civilisation? Why did not their Caucasian nature, if it did not urge them onward to higher attainments, keep them in the same leading positions as other nations?’
Blyden cried out: ‘Shall we here tell you of the sufferings which the slave trade has entailed upon them? Shall we tell you of their sorrows in the countries of their captivity? The barbarities which the Christian nations of Europe and of America have inflicted, and are now inflicting upon the Negro, would fill volumes, and they should be written with tears instead of ink, and on sack-cloth instead of parchment.
‘We refer not merely to those physical annoyances and diabolical tortures, and debasing usages, to which, in the countries of their exile, they have been subjected, but also to those deeper wrongs whose tendency has been to dwarf the soul [and] emasculate the mind.’
Can you imagine young George Padmore, forced in a British colonial school to read the works of Hume and others, coming across this positive and refreshing exposition of Africa’s position in the world, and its future, by Blyden? Can anyone wonder why Padmore chose to call his only offspring after a man who answered so many of the questions in his mind?
As it happens, I saw George Padmore on the day he left Ghana for the last time. I was at Accra airport on some business or other when I ran into him as he was entering the immigration area on that day in September 1959.
I greeted him with a smile and was taken completely aback when he told me, out of the blue, ‘Cameron, I know you boys will do it!’
I was puzzled.
‘Do what?’ I wanted to ask him. But in an instant, he had disappeared into the ‘Passengers Only’ area.
It was not until I stood in front of the dais on which Nelson Mandela was sworn in as the first black president of South Africa at the Union Building in Pretoria on 10 May 1994 that I understood what Padmore had meant when he had told me, ‘I know you boys will do it.’
Throughout the years, I had, from my base in Accra and London, fought in spirit – and with my pen – in solidarity with my brothers fighting to free themselves in white-ruled Africa. South Africa was the last to go, and I had got an invitation from the African National Congress to join it in celebrating the occasion.
I wept buckets of tears that day.
How can tears be sweet? Ha – my tears that day tasted of honey, no less!
BIOGRAPHICAL NOTES: EDWARD WILMOT BLYDEN
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-Africanism’.
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 emigrated to Liberia, an African American colony which had become independent as a republic in 1847. He continued his formal education at Alexander High School, Monrovia, and later became the institution’s principal in 1858.’
In 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. From 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 Africa. After 1885, Blyden divided his time between Liberia and the British colonies of Sierra Leone and ‘Lagos’. (This city didn’t become part of, as well as capital of ‘Nigeria’, until the arrival of Lord Lugard at the beginning of the 20th century.)
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 also helped to found and edit there, the Freetown West African Reporter (1874-1882), whose 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. As noted before, 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 7 February1912, at the age of 82. He still has surviving family members in Sierra Leone, who commemorate his anniversary each year.