EDWARD WILMOT BLYDEN (1832-1912) THE FATHER OF PAN-AFRICANISM

Edward Wilmot Blyden was the foremost African intellectual of the 19th century. His brilliant career, in both Liberia and Sierra Leone, spanned the fields of religion, education, journalism, politics, and philosophy. He is best remembered as an African patriot whose writings contributed significantly to the rise of Pan-Africanism.

Edward Blyden was born in the Virgin Islands in the West Indies, a descendant of Ibo slaves from Nigeria. He was a gifted student, and at the age of eighteen, attempted to enroll at a theological college in the United States. But the college would not accept him because he was black, and he experienced many frightful scenes in the U.S. at a time when slavery was still lawful. In 1851, young Blyden emigrated to Liberia with the intention of building a new life in Africa. He would remain there for more than thirty years, rising gradually to the highest levels of Liberian society. During his Liberian career, Blyden was a Presbyterian minister, a newspaper editor, a professor of classics, President of Liberia College, Ambassador to Great Britain, Minister of the Interior, and Secretary of State. In 1885, he was an unsuccessful candidate for the Presidency.

But Edward Blyden was also well known in Sierra Leone, where had spent two years (1871-73) as Government Agent to the Interior, leading two official expeditions — one to Falaba and other other to Futa Jallon. In 1885, after his unsuccessful bid for the presidency of Liberia, Blyden based permanently in Freetown. In fact, Blyden was in many ways a greater intellectual force in Sierra Leone than in Liberia. He stirred controversy and lively debate in the Krio community by opposing the indiscriminate emulation of European culture. He told the Krios that they were “de-Africanised,” scolded them for holding themselves aloof from the upcountry peoples, and advised them to remember always that “you are Africans.” After the 1887 publication of his masterpiece, Christianity, Islam, and the Negro Race, some Krios under Blyden’s influence began to adopt African names and even to emulate traditional African dress.

Edward Blyden was one of the most original thinkers of his time, and although some of his ideas seem archaic today, he was a major force for the defence of Africans and of black civilisation. Blyden looked forward to the rise of an independent West African nation, and he encouraged British colonial efforts as a means of uniting this vast area. At the same time, Blyden regarded Africans as having a unique “personality” and a distinctive culture equal to, but different from, that of Europeans. He urged the British to allow Africans more autonomy in political and church matters, and argued against the imposition of European culture. As early as 1872, Blyden called for an independent West African University to be run solely by Africans, teaching African languages, cultures, and values. Blyden, though a Christian himself, viewed Muslims as more authentically African, and he repeatedly urged the British authorities to involve Muslim Africans in various ways in their colonial enterprise. Blyden taught himself to speak Arabic, and maintained close relations for many years with the Muslim community in Freetown. In his later years,, he was Director of Mohammedan Education in Sierra Leone.

When Edward Wilmot Blyden died in 1912, his funeral was attended by many hundreds of people from throughout the Freetown community, including both Muslims, who bore the coffin, and his fellow Christians. Later generations of black intellectuals, in both Africa and America, have looked to Edward Blyden for inspiration in the areas of Pan-Africanism and cultural nationalism.