Scholar and Vindicator of His Race
If Blyden spent much of his life as a formal teacher; he also regarded himself as a mentor to his race. In this role, he wrote more than two dozen books and pamphlets in which scholarship was skilfully fused with propaganda. He was the first Negro to contribute articles to such leading contemporary quarterlies as Fraser’s Magazine, the Methodist Quarterly Review and the North American Review. His most important work, Christianity, Islam and the Negro Race, first published in 1887, was received with lavish praise by European and American critics, some of whom, however, doubted that the book was written by a Negro.
Blyden’s first literary efforts, begun soon after his arrival in Liberia, were characterized by advocacy of American Negro emigration to the Negro Republic, its defense from unsympathetic attacks, patriotic admonitions to his fellow Liberians, and attempts to vindicate the ability of his race by citing the achievements of outstanding Negroes. These early writings appeared in the Journals of the American societies which supported American Negro emigration to West Africa as well as in the Liberia Herald, a weekly newspaper, then the Republic’s only literary organ, of which he was editor in 1855/ 56. His first pamphlet, A Voice From Bleeding Africa, was published in Monrovia in 1856. It contained a fiery denunciation of slaveholders, a stirring appeal to Negroes everywhere to give whole-hearted support to Liberia, and a brief account of some Negroes who, in his view, had achieved “intellectual and moral greatness”. In the following year, he published his Vindication of the Negro Race, a pamphlet in which he examined and rebutted with cogency the theories which purported to prove Negro inferiority.
Blyden’s first scholarly article, significantly, was entitled “The Negro in Ancient History” and appeared in the January 1869 issue of the Methodist Quarterly Review (New York). He had been inspired to write this article after a visit to the Pyramids of Egypt in 1866 which, together with his own extensive reading on the subject, has convinced him that Negroes had played a prominent part in the early history of Egypt – a thesis which most scholars of African History now accept. From Egypt, Blyden had gone on to visit Palestine and Syria and from his travel experiences and reflections came his first book, From West Africa to Palestine (London, Manchester and Freetown, 1873).
Blyden’s reputation as a scholar and literary figure became firmly established in the 1870’s mainly as a result of the publication of half-a-dozen articles on the theme of the influence of Christianity and Islam on the Negro Race in Fraser’s Magazine, a leading British Quarterly. (These essays were later to form the greater part of his magnum opus, Christianity, Islam and the Negro Race). During this period, Blyden was a regular visitor to England and became well-known in literary and academic circles; among the distinguished acquaintances he made were those of W. E. Gladstone, the British statesman and classical scholar; Herbert Spencer, the sociologist and philosopher; R. Bosworth Smith, historian of Islam and the Arabs; and Dr. William Wright, Professor of Arabic at Cambridge University.
Blyden remained a prolific pamphleteer and essayist, but his only major work after Christianity, Islam and the Negro Race was African Life and Customs (1908) – probably the most important pioneer sociological work on Africa. In this work, he was concerned to show that, contrary to general European belief, there existed “an African Social and Economic System most carefully and elaborately organized, venerable, impregnable, indispensable”. He argued convincingly that the African social system was socialist, co-operative and equitable – an ideal for which Europe was desperately striving as an answer to ills created by excessive individualism and unscrupulous competitiveness.
At his death, Blyden left two un-finished manuscripts – A History of Liberia and Comparative Religion and the African. Unfortunately these were either lost or destroyed.
In addition to being a writer of books pamphlets and essays, Blyden built up a considerable reputation as a journalist. He was fully aware that the newspaper was then the most effective instrument of propaganda, and accordingly helped to found and wrote for many of the contemporary newspapers of English-speaking West Africa. We have already alluded to his work on the Liberia Herald. In 1872 Blyden founded the Negro, a weekly newspaper, in Freetown, Sierra Leone, the aim of which was “to represent and defend the interest of the Negro”. About the same time he helped to found the Ethiopian, a monthly journal devoted to educational matters. In 1874, the year in which the Negro was discontinued, Blyden helped to found, again in Freetown, the West African Reporter, the declared aim of which was to foster unity among English-speaking West Africans. In 1884 he helped to found the Sierra Leone Weekly News, which became one of the most successful newspapers of its time in West Africa. Finally, during a few years’ stay in Lagos in the 1890’s, Blyden was closely associated with the Lagos Weekly Record, another successful newspaper. In all the above publications, Blyden sought to inspire racial solidarity and initiative.
If he was an outstanding litterateur, he also became famous as a lecturer. Dapper and dignified, learned and witty, and possessed of an excellent voice and a flair for oratory, Blyden, at the height of his powers, was in great demand as a lecturer not only in West Africa, but also in Europe and America as the guest of Universities, Churches and learned societies.
Blyden’s impact in the world of ideas was perhaps greater than that of any of his English-speaking Negro contemporaries. To be sure, he was not alone as a brilliant intellect; in the Caribbean, one could cite Sir William Conrad Reeve, the distinguished Barbadian jurist, and among American Negroes: W. S. Scarborough, a notable linguist and classical scholar; George Washington Williams, the outstanding historian of the American Negro; Alexander Crummell, the sophisticated Episcopalian divine; Francis Grimke, the Presbyterian theologian and writer on social problems; Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, primarily men of action but competent with the pen. But these and others were no peers of Blyden as a race philosopher; his nearest equal was the brilliant American Negro, William E. B. Du Bois, who in Blyden’s last years had already begun to make a profound mark in the world of scholarship and ideas. But they were barely contemporaries – almost two generations separated them: Blyden properly belongs to the nineteenth century, Du Bois to the twentieth century.
Blyden’s reputation as an outstanding litterateur and lecturer won him many academic awards and rare honours. He was the recipient of honorary doctorate degrees from several American Universities. In 1878 he was elected an honorary member of the Athenaeum, one of the most exclusive gentlemen’s club of London; in 1880, Fellow of the American Philological Association; in 1882, honorary member of the Society of Science and Letters of Bengal; in 1890, honorary member of the American Society of Comparative Religion; in 1898, Corresponding Member of the newly founded American Negro Academy; in 1901, founding member and a Vice-President of the African Society of London.