EDWARD WILMOT BLYDEN: PAN-NEGRO PATRIOT FROM THE CARIBBEAN

Reading Time: 18 minutes

Intellectuals from the Caribbean have played a dominant part in the articulation of pan-Negro and pan African ideologies – which can briefly be described as the conviction of the oneness of the problems and goals of people of Negro origin everywhere, and the need for active co-operation. The list of English-speaking Caribbean pan-Negro and pan-African patriots would include John B. Russwurm, the Jamaican born Governor of Maryland (1832-1851), an American Negro colony in West Africa later incorporated into Liberia; Robert Campbell, another Jamaican, whose book, A Pilgrimage to My Motherland ( 1861 ), described his visit in 1859 /60 to what is now Western Nigeria, and who later settled in Lagos, now the federal capital of Nigeria; J. Albert Thorne, a Barbadian medical doctor, who at the turn of the century strenuously advocated New World Negro emigration to the Congo; Henry Sylvester-Williams, the Trinidad-born barrister-at-law, who convened the first ever Pan-African conference in London in July 1900; Marcus Garvey, the Jamaican-born “Black Moses,” whose impressive “Back to Africa” movement of the 1920’s, with its headquarters in Harlem, New York, acted as a powerful stimulant to African nationalism; and George Padmore of Trinidad, the foremost twentieth century theoretician of Pan-Africanism (Pan-Africanism or Communism? 1956) and one of the main organizers of its conferences (Manchester 1945, and Accra 1958). The outstanding omission from this list – and the subject of this article – is Edward Wilmot Blyden (1832-1912), the foremost pan-Negro patriot in the nineteenth century.

Blyden was born in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands and as a youth lived also in Venezuela and the United States, but reacted against the discrimination and disabilities which New-World Negroes suffered, by emigrating to Liberia at the age of eighteen and dedicating his life to the advancement of his race. He became convinced that the only way for the Negro race to gain respect was for its members to build dynamic new states in Africa, and he believed that this could be done through large-scale emigration of American Negroes who would bring with them the technological skills of western society. He saw Liberia, the American Negro colony founded in 1822 and politically independent since 1847, as the nucleus of a West African state which he hoped would grow in size and strength with support from New World Negroes.

Blyden himself was to have an active career in Liberia: High School Principal, 1858-1861; Professor of Classics, 1862-1871; Secretary of State, 1864-1866; ambassador to Britain, 1877-78, and again in 1892, and to Britain and France in 1905; President of Liberia College, 1880- 1884; and Minister of the Interior, 1880-1882. And even when he was out of office, he made his knowledge and experience available to the Republic. But his activities were not confined to Liberia. He worked as well for the British West African colonies: during 1872/73 and 1896/ 97, he was adviser on African affairs to the Sierra Leone and Lagos Governments respectively; and from 1901 to 1906 was Director of Muslim Education in Sierra Leone. But it is primarily as a literary figure and man of ideas that Blyden made his greatest impact. He employed his scholarship to vindicate his maligned race, and in the process gained the reputation of being the most outstanding English-speaking Negro literary figure of the nineteenth century. This article will examine his career as educator, scholar and vindicator of his race, politician and statesman, and diplomat.

Educator

Blyden strongly believed that, contrary to much contemporary practice, any aspirant to Negro leadership should be well educated. He himself had been precocious and assiduous from early youth. In Liberia, he continued his education at Alexander High School, Monrovia, where he trained to be a teacher and clergyman. In 1858 he was ordained a Presbyterian Minister and in the same year became Principal of his alma mater, a position he held for three years.

In 1861 he was appointed Professor of Classics in the newly founded Liberia College – the first secular English-speaking institution of higher learning in tropical Africa. Blyden hoped that the College would attract scholars from all parts of the Negro world and that in time, it would become a premier University. One of the primary purposes of the College in his view, was to undertake the study and dissemination of knowledge about Negro history and culture; and ultimately, in Blyden’s own words, to promote racial “self-respect, a proper appreciation of our powers, and those of other people.” Blyden remained as a Professor at Liberia College until 1871, but his grandiose plans for it did not materialize because it suffered from chronic shortage of funds and because his colleagues were not imbued with his own ardent pan-Negro patriotism.

After a two years’ stay 1871/73 in Sierra Leone, Blyden returned to Liberia and resumed the Principalship of Alexander High School, but relinquished this in 1877 after he was appointed Liberia’s ambassador to Britain.

In 1880, Blyden achieved one of his major ambitions when he was appointed President of Liberia College. As President, he hoped to implement his plans for making the College a pan-Negro agency; in his inaugural address he had expressed the view that the College was “a machine, an instrument to assist in carrying forward our regular work, devised not only for intellectual ends but for social purposes, for religious duty, for patriotic ends, for racial development”. He was at pains to emphasize that the College was not a Liberian institution, but a pan-Negro institution in Liberia. He appealed to West Africans as well as American Negroes (during trips to the United States in 1880 and 1882) to support the College. Himself an Arabist, he intended to institute a chair of Arabic and West African languages. He encouraged African chiefs and ulamas (Muslim scholars) to visit the College and attend its ceremonies. To interest Liberians generally, he inaugurated a series of public lectures, the first of which he himself delivered on “Toussaint L’ Ouverture, the Emancipator of Haiti.”

And yet Blyden’s attempt to establish Liberia College as a fine academic institution failed. This was so partly because the College depended almost completely for its funds on American trustees who did not always find Blyden’s out-spoken pro-Negro views palatable, partly because of Blyden’s own deficiency of character. Although undoubtedly the most brilliant West African of his time, he was a difficult man with whom to work; he regarded himself as the “Providential Agent” of the Negro race, and was intolerant of the views and ideas of others. In June 1884 after protracted wrangling with two American Negro members of his staff, Blyden resigned, and once again Liberia College lapsed into the academic torpor which characterized its existence. In 1900, Blyden hopefully returned to Liberia College, now reorganized and deriving most of its funds from the Liberian Government itself. But he was forced to leave after six months because he taught his students the then unorthodox view that (contrary to the teachings of European Christians), polygamy and Islam as time-tested African institutions were to be preferred by Africans to monogamy and Christianity.

Blyden was also associated with efforts to establish institutions of higher learning in the British colonies of Sierra Leone and Lagos. In 1872/73 he agitated in Sierra Leone for the establishment of a West African University to be controlled by Negros themselves: he expected that, initially at least, most of the teachers and administrators would come from the New World. This scheme did not materialize but the agitation of Blyden and his supporters did lead directly to the conversion in 1876 of Fourah Bay College from an Anglican institution for the training of teachers and missionaries, into a College of Durham University. Blyden made his final attempt to win African co-operation for the establishment of a West African University in 1896/7 in Lagos. He convened several meetings of the educated elite, several of whom were wealthy traders. But this effort too, did not get beyond the drawing up of elaborate plans. Blyden himself, however, did succeed in establishing in Lagos, under Government auspices, the first school in West Africa where English and other “western” subjects were taught to Muslim children – his aim being to foster communication and co-operation between Muslims and Christians, traditionally mutually antagonistic groups. He continued this work in Sierra Leone where from 1901 to 1906 he was Director of Muslim Education.