Politician and Statesman
Although primarily a man of ideas – a mentor and adviser – Blyden also played the roles of politician and agitator. He first held political office in 1864 as Liberia’s Secretary of State – a position he held for two years. In this capacity, he sought to promote West Indian emigration to Liberia. American Negro emigration to Liberia which had reached its peak in the 1850’s had abruptly ceased with the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861 because American Negroes were determined to help the North to defeat the South with the aim of securing the abolition of slavery and their full civil rights. Thus, Blyden turned for emigrants to the West Indies, whose Negroes, particularly those in Jamaica and Barbados, had shown a marked interest in Africa ever since their emancipation. Indeed, from the 1840’s, West Indians went out to West Africa as missionaries and teachers in the employ of European missionary societies, and in the 1850’s, the West Indian Church Association, manned and financed almost wholly by West Indians, began its own mission in the Rio Pongo area – in present day Guinea. Others went out as civil servants, artisans, newspaper editors, lawyers and traders. But thousands of others who wished to emigrate had no means of doing so. It was from among these that the Liberian Government sought emigrants.
The first emigrants were to be selected from Barbados where since the 1840’s several emigration societies, among them the Fatherland Union Company and the Barbados for Liberia, had been formed. Three hundred and forty-six Barbadians were finally selected. They sailed on April 6 and arrived in Liberia on May 10. But this scheme came to an abrupt end because of the inability of the Liberian Government to finance it and the refusal of the American Colonization Society, which had largely borne the expense of the first expedition, to continue its aid. However, the Barbadian emigrants, the most select and highly skilled group to emigrate to Liberia, were to make an important impact on Liberian history. Because of their exemplary industry they were dubbed “Black Irishmen” by American emigrants and one of them, Arthur Barclay, a boy of nine when he arrived in Liberia, became one of Liberia’s most enlightened Presidents (1904- 1912).
The second major task which Blyden set himself as Secretary of State was to terminate a protracted boundary dispute between Liberia and Sierra Leone. Blyden wished to see the poor relationship which existed between the two territories replaced by active co-operation between them; indeed, he hoped that eventually the two would become politically one. However, his efforts failed and the dispute dragged on.
In 1880 Blyden again joined the Liberian Cabinet, this time as Minister of the Interior and Secretary of Education, and once again unsuccessfully attempted to bring the dispute to an end. The dispute was finally settled in 1885 when the British Government forced Liberia to accept its own terms. As Secretary of Education, Blyden drew up a comprehensive scheme for primary education throughout the Republic, but the chronic lack of revenue from which the Liberian Government suffered prevented its implementation.
In 1885 Blyden undertook his most ambitious political action when he contested the Liberian Presidential election. He was truly a reluctant candidate. But he had become convinced that Liberian politicians were selfish and unpatriotic, and that the only hope for an enlightened administration was by his assumption of the Presidency. His platform included an obvious and urgently needed reform: the extension of the Presidential term from two to six or eight years so as to obviate almost constant electioneering, and provide enough time for long-term planning. (This reform eventually took place in 1900 under President Barclay, the term being extended to four years). His plans also included the repeal of restrictive legislation against foreigners, the attraction of foreign investments, and the taking of steps to make the native Africans identify completely with the Liberian state.
But unfortunately for Blyden, he possessed no flair for politics: he was too forthright – he could never pander to the prejudices of the people – too idealistic, and lacking in organizing ability. The scholarly Blyden saw himself in the role of Plato’s philosopher-king, wise and nonpartisan, and expecting no criticisms from citizens who were not nearly so well-qualified as he for the vocation of governing. He was unfortunate, too, in that he could hardly have had a more formidable opponent: Hilary R. W. Johnson, son of Elijah Johnson, one of the most illustrious early leaders of Liberia, and a haughty, hot-tempered, but able and politically astute man. Johnson had already served one term as President, the first Liberian-born to do so, and was seeking re-election. He won easily. Blyden’s defeat ended his active political career in Liberia. However, he saw himself as the Republic’s elder statesman and in his lectures, writings and letters to friends continued to give gratuitous advice as to how best Liberia could progress.
If Blyden was a reluctant political candidate, he essayed the role of agitator at least on two major occasions. The first was in the years 1871/73. Within the Church Missionary Society in Sierra Leone, there existed latent antagonism between the African pastors and the European missionaries: the former felt that the latter showed open contempt for Africans and their culture, and deliberately sought to thwart the declared aim of the Parent Society of London to train Africans to set up their own independent churches. Blyden himself had joined the Sierra Leone mission in August 1871 as a linguist, partly with the object of reforming missionary operations. He had hoped to persuade European missionaries to show greater respect for African customs and institutions, and to accelerate the delegation of ecclesiastical authority to Africans. But Blyden did not have time to settle in his new job: the European missionaries used the unfounded rumour which came from Monrovia to Freetown, that Blyden had committed adultery with the wife of the Liberian President to have him dismissed despite the strong protests of the African pastors.
Blyden’s dismissal strengthened his determination to work for both an independent West African Church and a secular West African University. He founded the Negro and through it charged Europeans with creating unnecessary divisions among Africans by their fierce sectarianism, and with condemning and destroying wholesome African customs and institutions. Blyden argued that it was imperative for Africans to control their own churches and schools – the main agencies of culture. Not only did he expect Africans to support his schemes, he demanded the co-operation of the British Government and Europeans generally because they “owed Africans a great debt for unrequited labour.” But he was to meet with disappointment. Although he had a few staunch supporters, educated Africans did not give him the whole-hearted support he expected. More predictably, the British Government was unsympathetic. Thus, when in 1873 the position of Director of Public Education became vacant, the Colonial Office refused to appoint Blyden, easily the most qualified applicant, for fear of antagonising European officials of the colony. Shortly after, a disillusioned Blyden returned to Liberia, and the agitation, which can be said to mark an incipient nationalism in West Africa, sub-sided.
With the marked growth of imperialism in Africa in the last two decades of the nineteenth century came a correspondingly increased arrogance in the attitude of Europeans towards Africans. A famous instance of this occurred in 1890, when a small party of English missionaries of the Church Missionary Society went out to Nigeria, condemned as unchristian the work which Ajayi Crowther, West Africa’s first African bishop, and his staff had been doing for almost three decades, and dis-missed or suspended the majority of them. West African Christians banded to protest against this high-handed action of the Englishmen which they regarded as “a direct insult and affront to Bishop Crowther, the whole African Church and the Negro Race.” As the most distinguished West African layman, Blyden was invited by the educated elite of Lagos to give moral support during the crisis. In a major pronouncement in Lagos on January 2, 1891, Blyden unequivocally urged African clergymen of all denominations to join in setting up an independent, non-sectarian West African church with Bishop, Crowther at its head. Meetings to implement this idea were held, but a too-ingrained denominationalism prevented the implementation of Blyden’s plan. However, inspired by Blyden’s advice, and disappointed by irresolute clerical leadership, some laymen of Lagos founded, the United Native African Church in August 1891 – a form of African assertion which became characteristic long before the rise of aggressive political nationalism.
As a pan-Negro statesman, two of Blyden’s goals were to promote American Negro emigration to Liberia and to foster West African unity. For American Negro emigration, Blyden sought to use the available avenue of the American Colonization Society which, however, although it remained in existence to the end of the nineteenth century, (since the Civil War) suffered from chronic shortage of funds, even though Blyden himself made five visits to the United States between 1874 and 1895 partly for the purpose of stimulating white financial support for the Society and encouraging Negroes to emigrate to Liberia. Blyden also sought to persuade the United States Government that it was morally obliged to “repatriate” those American Negroes who wished to return to Africa. Towards this end, on a visit in 1880, he had several interviews with top American politicians and officials, including President Rutherford B. Hayes, and his private secretary, Colonel W. K. Rogers. He also met William H. Ewarts, the Secretary of State and Carl Schurz, Secretary of the Interior, who, however, shirked the troublesome issue by claiming that it would be unconstitutional for the Government to sponsor such emigration. Despite this, Blyden was optimistic that the continually deteriorating social condition of the American Negro throughout the nineteenth century would drive them en masse to make an irresistible demand for “repatriation”. Though an exodus never occurred, he remained convinced that Africa could benefit from the leaven of a large number of skilled New World Negroes, but he came more and more to believe that “repatriation” was not for the fainthearted; that it was to be regarded as a “holy mission” undertaken for the highest welfare of the Negro race.
His goal of promoting West African unity he sought to achieve in several ways. He attempted to foster racial solidarity based on pride in Negro history and culture. He championed Islam and Arabic and encouraged their expansion. He sought to promote the territorial expansion of Liberia which, however, possessed neither the resources nor the will to become an imperial agency. This imperial role of pacifying and uniting the diverse tribes of West Africa he next sought, unsuccessfully, to persuade the British to perform – his hope being the creation of one vast English-speaking West African state. What did take place was the partition of West Africa in the late 1880’s and the 1890’s between France, Britain and Germany, and to this he gave his qualified welcome. He was aware that European imperialism was dictated primarily by selfish motives and was in many ways harmful to African society, but he felt that it brought compensatory advantages in the introduction of western education and technical skills, in the breaking down of tribal and linguistic barriers, and in the laying of the groundwork of politically independent West African states, and possibly a federation of these. For Blyden was confident that the West African climate and diseases would not permit large-scale European settlement and, consequently, there was no danger, as clearly existed in temperate Southern Africa, of permanent European domination. Educational and technological progress among West Africans, he believed would lead inevitably to political independence. And in this history has proved him right.