Sierra Leone Telegraph: 3 August 2017
Today, August 3rd 2017 marks the 185th anniversary of the birth of EDWARD WILMOT BLYDEN (3 August 1832 to 7 February 1912).
All over the world from the Caribbean where streets and monuments are named after him – to the USA where whole buildings and libraries have been dedicated to him, and where his written work is archived and studiously examined by scholars.
From Liberia where the most prestigious lecture forum is named the Edward Wilmot Blyden (Photo) Forum, and President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf says one of her greatest compliments was to have been told she is a modern-day embodiment of Blyden – to South Africa, where President Thabo Mbeki generously sprinkles his speeches with mention of, and quotes from this great man.
From Nigeria where this son of a captured Ibo slave, returned in glory and left his indelible mark – to Ethiopia where his written work is closely studied by Rastafarians, the name Edward Blyden evokes admiration, awe and immense respect.
In the encyclopaedia series – “Africa Who’s Who”, published by Nigeria’s Raph Uwechue, the largest number of pages in the entire encyclopaedic series was devoted to Blyden.
Here in Sierra Leone, aside a few mention of him in our primary school classes, not much is known of this internationally revered man whose bust stands so prominently in front of the City Hall in the capital city, Freetown and whose body lies buried here at the Race Course Cemetery.
So, who was Edward Wilmot Blyden and why has he been able to leave such an indelible mark on the pages of history as well as continue to influence events and thoughts long after he has passed on?
According to historical scholars, Blyden was not only one of the most original thinkers of his time; he was undisputedly 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 to the rise of Pan-Africanism and continues to inspire many generations. The term Pan-Africanism was coined after Blyden’s death, but a review of his work reveals that he had the greatest influence on the creation of the ideas which we now associate with Pan Africanism.
His writings are reported to have also influenced the popular lyrics of reggae superstar, Bob Marley.
Edward Blyden’s life is a constant source of new perspectives even long after his death. His biography reveals both a vision of Africa and the personal struggle by which that vision came about. Few men of his era were able to “learn to unlearn” the complex of European constructions and misconstructions of the meaning of Africa.
The same challenges that motivated Blyden to champion the African contribution to humanity are still with us today. Many of his observations are surprisingly fresh and painfully relevant.
Blyden was a prolific writer of letters, and published many articles, sermons, poems and books that make up an extensive legacy to the human race. His legacy can be found in dozens of libraries and museums worldwide.
Edward Wilmot Blyden’s story is remarkable. He was born on August 3, 1832, in the Virgin Islands in the West Indies, a descendant of Ibo slaves from Nigeria. He was an extremely gifted student, and at age of eighteen, attempted to enrol at a theological college in the United States.
Upon realising that their potential student was a black man, the college in North America out rightly rejected him. According to reports, at this time, slavery was still lawful in the USA and his brazen attempt to try to fight the ‘system’ subjected him to many frightening experiences.
A few months after his attempt to enrol was rejected, one white man named Reverend Holden, who recognised the high intellect in Blyden, assisted Blyden to emigrate to Liberia. Blyden thus boarded a ship with the intention of building a new life for himself in Africa.
This young man remained in Liberia 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. It is reported that he lost the Liberian Presidential Elections by just a handful of votes.
Fearing for his safety in light of his immense popularity which competed with the winner of the Presidential Elections, Blyden fled to Sierra Leone.
He was already well known in Sierra Leone, where he had earlier spent two years (1871-73) as Government Agent to the Interior, leading two official expeditions — one to Falaba and another to Futa Jallon. Thus, it was easy for Blyden to become based permanently in Freetown.
Edward Blyden was in many ways a greater intellectual force in Sierra Leone than in Liberia.
However, in Liberia, Sierra Leone and the United States, Edward Wilmot Blyden was not without controversy. Infact, in some ways, the name Edward Blyden is synonymous with controversy.
A brave and outspoken man who lived well before his time, Blyden did not allow the status quo to sway him from saying exactly what was on his mind. He was gifted with amazing oratoral skills which he would readily use to publicly make his points.
Blyden believed that posterity would reward those who spoke with their conscience even if what was said was against powerful forces. Therefore, he traveled far and wide giving lectures and undertaking controversial actions. Naturally, for such a controversial figure who preached ideas that were way ahead of his time, he inspired mixed feelings in many.
Some people hated him with a passion whilst others granted him near-messiah status. He had a deep conviction that men had a responsibility to future generations of the human race to always say and do what their conscience dictated as highlighted in the following words from him during a lecture he delivered to a jam packed church in Washington DC on one of several trips he made back to the USA from Africa:
“There is a talent entrusted to you. It is your duty to call into action the highest forms of your being. It does not matter what your calling may be – whether it be what men call menial or what the world calls honorable – whether it be to speak in the halls of Congress or to sweep out those halls – whether it be to wait upon others or to be waited on— it is the manner of using your faculties that will determine the result- that will determine your true influence in this world and your status in the world to come. Everyone should do his part to advance humanity. Each should exert himself to be a helper in progress. Whatever your condition, you do occupy some room in the world; what are you doing to make return for the room you occupy? There are so many of our people who fail to realize their responsibility, who fail to hear the inspiring call of the past and the prophetic call of the future.”
Here in Sierra Leone, Blyden 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 people in the provinces, 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 captivating influence began to adopt African names and even to emulate traditional African dress. Although earlier pictures of him (two are shown accompanying this feature) sport him with European outfits, in his latter days, he wore only African outfits.
Blyden looked forward to the rise of an independent West African nation and 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 urged the British authorities to involve Muslim Africans 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 on February 7, 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.
In a further reflection of how the respect Blyden commanded cut across race, religion and colour, his monument sitting in front of the Freetown City Council was erected by his European white friends whilst the marble stoned monument at his graveside was erected by his Muslim friends.
Edward Wilmot Blyden is dead but as the Internet Search Engines reveal, thousands and thousands of later generations of black intellectuals, in Africa, America, Europe and beyond, continue to look up to Edward Blyden for inspiration.
EDWARD WILMOT BLYDEN:- Father of Pan Africanism (August 3, 1832 to February 7, 1912)
© Blyden Memorial Library