Edward Wilmot Blyden: A Pioneer Pan-Africanist Visionary Who Inspired the Likes of Marcus Garvey, Kwame Nkrumah & George Padmore
Blyden was born on August 3, 1832 in Sankt Thomas, Danish West Indies (now known as the US Virgin Islands), to Free Black parents who claimed descent from the Igbo of the area of present-day Nigeria. Between 1842 and 1845, the family lived in Porto Bello, Venezuela, where Blyden discovered a facility for languages, becoming fluent in Spanish.
According to the historian, Hollis R. Lynch, in 1845, Blyden met the Reverend John P. Knox, a White American, who became pastor of the St. Thomas’ Protestant Dutch Reformed Church. Blyden and his family lived near the church, and Knox was impressed with the studious, intelligent boy. Knox became his mentor, encouraging Blyden’s considerable aptitude for oration and literature. Mainly because of his close association with Knox, the young Blyden decided to become a minister, which his parents encouraged.
In May 1850, Blyden, accompanied by Reverend Knox’s wife, went to the United States to enroll in Rutgers Theological College, Knox’s alma mater. He was refused admission due to his Race. Efforts to enroll him in two other theological colleges also failed. Knox encouraged Blyden to go to Liberia; the colony set up in the 1830s by the American Colonization Society (ACS) in West Africa, where he thought Blyden would be able to use his talents. Later in 1850, Blyden sailed to Liberia. He soon became deeply involved in its development.
Starting in 1860, Blyden corresponded with William Ewart Gladstone, who would later become a significant Liberal leader and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Gladstone offered Blyden an opportunity to study in England in 1861, but Blyden declined due to his obligations in Liberia.
In Liberia, Blyden soon was working in journalism. From 1855 to 1856, he edited the Liberia Herald and wrote the column “A Voice From Bleeding Africa.” He also spent time in British colonies in West Africa, particularly Nigeria and Sierra Leone, writing for early newspapers in both colonies. He was also serving as editor at The Negro and The African World. He maintained ties with the American Colonization Society and published in their African Repository and Colonial Journal.
In 1861, Blyden became a professor of Greek and Latin at Liberia College. He was selected as president of the college, serving 1880–1884 during a period of expansion.
As a diplomat, Blyden served as an Ambassador for Liberia to Britain and France. He also traveled to the United States, where he spoke to major black churches about his work in Africa. Blyden believed that Black Americans could end their suffering of racial discrimination by returning to Africa and helping to develop it. He was criticized by African Americans who wanted to gain full civil rights in their birth nation of the United States and did not identify with Africa.
In suggesting a redemptive role for African Americans in Africa through what he called Ethiopianism, Blyden likened their suffering in the Diaspora to that of the Jews; he supported the 19th-century Zionist project of Jews returning to Palestine. Later in life, Blyden became involved in Islam and concluded that it was a more African religion than Christianity for African Americans and Americo-Liberians.
Participating in the development of the country, Blyden was appointed the Liberian Secretary of State (1862–64). He was later appointed as Secretary of the Interior (1880–82). Blyden contested the 1885 presidential election for the Republican Party but lost to incumbent Hilary R. W. Johnson.
From 1901–06, Blyden directed the education of Muslims at an institution in Sierra Leone, where he lived in Freetown. This was when he had his relationship with Anna Erskine; they had five children together. He became passionate about Islam during this period, recommending it to African Americans as the major religion most in keeping with their historical roots in Africa.
As a writer, Blyden is regarded widely as the “father of Pan-Africanism” and is noted as one of the first people to articulate a notion of “African Personality” and the uniqueness of the “African race.” His ideas have influenced many twentieth-century figures, including Marcus Garvey, George Padmore and Kwame Nkrumah. His major work, Christianity, Islam and the Negro Race (1887), promoted the idea that practicing Islam was more unifying and fulfilling for Africans than Christianity. He argues that the latter was introduced chiefly by European colonizers. He believed it had a demoralizing effect, although he continued to be a Christian. He thought Islam was more authentically African, as it had been brought to sub-Saharan areas by people from North Africa.
His book was controversial in Great Britain. At first, many people did not believe that a Black African had written it; his promotion of Islam was disputed. In later printings, Blyden included his photograph as the frontispiece.
His book included the following:
‘Let us do away with the sentiment of Race. Let us do away with our African personality and be lost, if possible, in another Race. This is as wise or as philosophical as to say, let us do away with gravitation, with heat and cold and sunshine and rain. Of course, the Race in which these persons would be absorbed is the dominant Race, before which, in cringing self-surrender and ignoble self-suppression, they lie in prostrate admiration.
Due to his belief in Ethiopianism, in the late 19th Century, Blyden publicly supported the creation of a Jewish state in Israel; he praised Theodore Herzl as the creator of “that marvelous movement called Zionism.
Call of Providence to the Descendants of Africa in America”, A Discourse Delivered to Coloured Congregations in the Cities of New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Harrisburg, during the Summer of 1862, in Liberia’s Offering: Being Addresses, Sermons, etc., New York: John A. Gray, 1862.
Christianity, Islam and the Negro Race, London, W. B. Whittingham & Co., 1887; 2nd Edition 1888; University of Edinburgh Press, 3rd Edition, 1967; reprint of 1888 edition, Baltimore, Maryland: Black Classic Press, 1994 (Edition on Googlebooks).
African Life and Customs, London: C. M. Phillips, 1908; reprint Baltimore, Maryland: Black Classic Press, 1994.
West Africa Before Europe: and Other Addresses, Delivered in England in 1901 and 1903, London: C. M. Phillips, 1905.
Source – Wikipedia