Ambassador and Diplomat

From the start of his career, Blyden regarded himself as an ambassador of the Negro race and later acted on several occasions in that capacity for the Liberian Government. In 186 l he was appointed Liberian Commissioner to Britain and the United States for the purpose of gaining financial support for the newly established Liberia College. In the following year he was one of three Liberian commissioners who visited the United States to invite “oppressed” American Negroes to emigrate to an independent Negro Republic in their own “fatherland”. However, his first major diplomatic appointment came in 1877 when President James S. Payne named him as Liberia’s Ambassador to Britain. But Africa’s first resident ambassador to a foreign country assumed his appointment in rather inauspicious circumstances: the Liberian legislature regarded a foreign embassy for the country as an unnecessary luxury and refused to vote money for it. But Blyden strongly felt that it was essential for the self-respect and dignity of the Negro race that Liberia, as one of only two independent African countries, (the other being Ethiopia) should become an active member of the world community of nations. He thus persuaded the President to appoint him directly even though this meant that he would receive neither a salary nor an allowance from the Liberian Government. As an unsalaried and first African ambassador to Europe, Blyden was unique in modern diplomatic history.

Blyden had little money of his own but could rely on the help of British friends. He had visited the country six times previously and was well-known in the highest London circles. He also received considerable help from Edward S. Morris, a wealthy white American Quaker businessman with economic interests in Liberia. Morris acted for some time as Blyden’s secretary to the mild consternation of Londoners who observed a relationship that was probably then unique.

Blyden remained as Liberia’s ambassador to the Court of St. James until the end of 1878, and although he achieved no major diplomatic feat, he had, as a much sought-after intellectual, helped to enhance the prestige of his race. He had also striven, with some measure of success, to create sympathy for and interest in Liberia among influential Britishers.

In 1892 Blyden returned to Britain as Liberia’s ambassador, this time with the approval of the Liberian Legislature. At this time, the territorial integrity and even the sovereignty of the weak Negro Republic was seriously threatened by the aggressive imperialism of the European nations. Blyden’s diplomatic objective seemed to have been to get a commitment, or at least a tacit agreement from the British Government, that it would neither be a party to nor countenance the dismemberment of Liberia. Blyden spent four months in London but there is no record of any correspondence between him and the British Government during this period.

In 1905 Blyden, then an elderly statesman of 73, was called upon for the last time to be of diplomatic service to Liberia. He was appointed by President Arthur Barclay as Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to Britain and France with the special mission of negotiating a settlement of Liberia’s dispute with France over its northern boundary with the French colonies of Guinea and Ivory Coast. Liberians believed that the French were planning to seize the Republic’s potentially rich hinterland.

After discussions with the British Foreign Office in late May, Blyden proceeded to Paris but found it difficult to engage the French Government in serious discussions. He finally left Paris in mid-September with his mission unaccomplished. The boundary dispute was finally settled in September 1907; as in the case of that with the British, to the serious disadvantage of Liberia.

But if he had failed to achieve his diplomatic objective, he ha, been a great social success, and characteristically had used the opportunity to disseminate information about Liberia and West Africa. He had exchanged courtesies and visits with foreign ambassadors, and held interviews with Oriental magnates. He had been a magnet attracting to him Negro and African visitors to Paris, among them Portia Washington, daughter of the American Negro leader, Booker T. Washington.