Sierra Leone Telegraph: 31 October 2018:
A new book written by Dr. Danell Jones, titled – ‘An African in Imperial London: The Indomitable Life of A.B.C. Merriman-Labor’, is a must read. It paints a vivid account of life in Britain for a young Sierra Leonean writer by the name of Merriman-Labor, who arrived in London in 1904.
A.B.C. Merriman-Labor sadly died in a workhouse infirmary in Lambeth, London on July 14, 1919, aged 42, with his literary dream unrealized in his lifetime. An obituary, written by his uncle, remembers him as “a young man of indomitable spirit.”
In a world dominated by the British Empire, and at a time when many Europeans considered black people inferior, Sierra Leonean writer A. B. C. Merriman-Labor claimed his right to describe the world as he found it.
He looked at the Empire’s great capital and laughed.
In this first biography of Merriman-Labor, Danell Jones describes the tragic spiral that pulled him down the social ladder from writer and barrister to munitions worker; from witty observer of the social order to patient in a state-run hospital for the poor.
In restoring this extraordinary man to the pantheon of African observers of colonialism, she opens a window onto racial attitudes in Edwardian London.
An African in Imperial London is a rich portrait of a great metropolis, writhing its way into a new century of appalling social inequity, world-transforming inventions, and unprecedented demands for civil rights.
- The first biography of A.B.C. Merriman-Labor, a British-educated West African writer who embodied the Pan-African spirit of his age
- An act of recovery to return a forgotten pioneer of West African literature to his rightful place in history
- A unique view of Edwardian London seen through African eyes
- A vivid portrait of civilian life in London during World War I and the often- overlooked contributions of Africans to the war effort
- A book built on archival research that deepens our understanding of the black experience in early-twentieth century London
- A compelling narrative about one man’s indomitable spirit in the face of poverty, censorship, injustice, and a world war.
Outline of the Book
The book introduces A.B.C. Merriman-Labor, a pioneer of West African literature who speaks truth to power using irony and wit. It describes the history of Sierra Leone with its unique blend of African and British influences, the place that shaped Merriman-Labor’s values and worldview.
It contrasts his modest colonial home with 1904 London, the world’s biggest city and the epicenter of a global empire.
Part I: Britons Through Negro Spectacles
Chapter 1: The Voyage Out
After a storm-tossed journey on a Belgian steamer and the fastest train ride of his life, Merriman-Labor arrives in London for the first time. He is alternatively dazzled and horrified by its ingenious technology, widespread poverty, vast population, soaring architecture, and obsession with money.
Chapter 2: Impressions of a Young African in England
Merriman-Labor plunges into London life. He reluctantly enrolls in law school to please his family, attends African Society receptions where he rubs shoulders with British and African luminaries and activists, publishes his first article in a London journal, and relishes lively performances at London’s famous music halls.
In the months to come he experiences the full range of British attitudes toward Africans. He is granted a reader’s ticket to the prestigious British Museum Library, but also endures insults and stones hurled at him in some London neighborhoods.
Chapter 3: The African General Agency
Merriman-Labor launches the African General Agency and Information Bureau, an Afro-centric import/export business and information sharing network. Using his growing network of people of African descent, he coordinates a commemoration of the centenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade in Westminster Abbey which receives national and international attention.
Chapter 4: Be Right and Persist
Just as the Agency begins to enjoy global success, the benchers of Lincoln’s Inn demand he shut it down. Objecting to law students engaging in trade, they strike his name from the books until the company is dissolved. Reluctantly closing the Agency, Merriman-Labor is painfully aware that he is giving up his only reliable source of income.
Part II: Stoney-Hearted Step-Mother
Chapter 5: Five Years with the White Man: What I Saw
To recoup his financial losses, Merriman-Labor commissions a custom-built Telescopigraph (a type of magic lantern) and launches a 10,000-mile lecture tour across Africa.
His witty talks – part travelogue, part reverse ethnology, and part playful spoof of “Africa experts” – enjoy enormous success, attracting large audiences in halls, courthouses, church basements, and school rooms from Senegal to South Africa.
Chapter 6: Home-Truths
On his return to Britain, Merriman-Labor is readmitted to Lincoln’s Inn and later is called to the bar. Still exhilarated by the success of his lecture tour, he expands his African lectures into Britons Through Negro Spectacles, an irreverent portrait of British life.
Unable to find a publisher but convinced the thousands of people who attended his lectures will buy copies, he decides to self-publish.
Despite an active promotional campaign in British and African newspapers, sales lag.
To his dismay, the book is suppressed in South Africa where officials fear it will incite hostility towards whites. Ultimately, Britons Through Negro Spectacles is a commercial failure, leaving Merriman-Labor heavily in debt.
Chapter 7: On Carey Street
With no money to pay expensive London rents, Merriman-Labor escapes for Colwyn Bay, Wales, the home of the African Institute, where he hopes to teach and plan his next step.
It doesn’t take long for him to realize the Institute is barely staying afloat, its finances as bad as his own. He returns to London where he borrows from money lenders to survive. Just as he is on the verge of an important breakthrough with his writing, his creditors file a complaint against him and force him into bankruptcy.
Not only is he publicly humiliated, he must admit to himself that his grand struggle to make his literary name has left him on the brink of destitution.
Ever resilient, once the bankruptcy proceedings are completed, he establishes the Merriman Research Fund with the backing of black philanthropists and travels to Freetown to lecture on the problems of Anglicized Africans and garner additional financial support for his research project.
Part III: Disgrace
Chapter 8: Dulce et Decorum Est
Merriman-Labor encounters indifference and even hostility toward his new lectures in Freetown and cancels his tour. As armies mobilize for war in Europe, he sails back to Britain, humiliated, disappointed, and unsure how he will make a living.
Shortly after he arrives in London, war is declared and the city transforms: officials restrict illumination of streets and buildings, prohibit whistling in public (which might be taken for an air raid warning), limit pub hours, and require people who rent lodgings to register with the local police.
Believing with the rest of Britain that the war will be a short affair, Merriman-Labor comes up with a new business venture and begins promoting his new publication, Merriman’s West African Annual, an essential reference work on British West Africa.
But the war is not over by Christmas, and the chances for seeing his new book into print become increasingly remote.
The grim realities of war come home as thousands of wounded troops arrive at London hospitals, soldiers train in Hyde Park, and German submarines ruthlessly torpedo merchant ships and passenger vessels.
Chapter 9: Mercy Dwells Not Here
During these forbidding years of air raids, food shortages, and casualty lists, Merriman-Labor clings to the belief that African contributions to the war effort will prove their loyalty to the British empire and enable them to demand post-war colonial reforms.
As zeppelins and airplanes bombard London and casualties mount on the Western Front, he takes a job at the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich. Refusing to surrender his dream of a literary career, each morning Merriman-Labor travels to the British Museum Library after his long night shifts at the Arsenal to study and write.
Exhausted by the stress, Merriman-Labor makes a foolish mistake regarding a minor legal matter. He is stunned when the benchers of Lincoln’s Inn investigate the case then disbar him. Disgraced and disillusioned, he casts off his British identity, reinvents himself as Ohlohr Maigi, and retreats into an African London invisible to British eyes.
Chapter 10: The Weariness, The Fever, The Fret
In 1918, a flu epidemic sweeps the globe killing some 50 million people worldwide, including Merriman-Labor’s father and other family members. Although he survives the war and the epidemic unscathed, in the spring of 1919 a London-based African newspaper reports that he has come down with a “chill” and has entered a nursing home. In truth, he has contracted tuberculosis.
When his money for private care runs out, he is transferred to a workhouse infirmary in Lambeth where he dies on July 14, 1919, age 42, his literary dream unrealized in his lifetime. An obituary, written by his uncle, remembers him as “a young man of indomitable spirit.”
An African in Imperial London: The Indomitable Life of A.B.C. Merriman-Labor’ is published by Hurst Publishers (distributed in the US by Oxford University Press).
The book has 320 pages and is catalogued under Biography/Cultural History, ISBN-13: 978-1849049603
Also available for sale at:
Oxford University Press (USA): https://global.oup.com/academic/product/an-african-in-imperial-london-9781849049603?cc=us&lang=en&
It is also available at other online and brick-and-mortar bookstores worldwide.