Reprinted from Sierra Leone Studies, NS, No 17, June 1963


A History of Sierra Leone, 1962. By Christopher Fyfe.

O.U.P.  84s

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Moreover, despite the now customary genuflexion to the Vice-Chancellor of Ibadan in the preface, Mr. Fyfe says relatively little about the Creoles outside Freetown. Mere lists of local boys made good elsewhere (at Lagos and Accra, p. 459-461) are fair enough in a parish history, but in skimping on the Creoles abroad, Mr. Fyfe is betraying his major thesis of the importance of the Creoles. The Niger Mission, staffed almost entirely by Creoles from the 1860s to the 1880s, rates no more than scattered single sentences, yet in both the British and Freetown press it was given regular attention as the symbol of Creole achievement throughout West Africa. No doubt the decision to write under the title of a national history forced some geographical limitation: the demand for national histories could become the blight of serious historical study in West Africa, and in this case, the national (and possibly the contemporary Creole) interest demands that the Creole contribution to the Sierra Leone hinterland be stressed, if necessary at the expense of Creole activities further afield.

Because the account is limited, in depth of analysis and geographically, this part of Mr. Fyfe's book occasionally draws near to being mere parish history--at the level of distinction, indeed, of, say, the Victoria County History of Britain--but as parish history lacking the widest significance and interest. Nevertheless the fact remains that, if he has not chosen always to provide the analysis himself, Mr. Fyfe has presented the next generation of writers on Freetown and West Africa with a multitude of details on which to base their analyses.

The main sources for this period (and the next) are as follows: (a) a score or so of printed personal accounts of Freetown and the hinterland, (b) printed accounts of organizations that operated in Sierra Leone, especially missionary societies, (c) government publication--British Bluebooks in large numbers, an increasing number of Freetown publications in the later decades, (d) the Freetown press, by the 1880s invaluable, (e) MSS. of missionary societies (in 1961, CMS issued a catalogue of its magnificent collection on Sierra Leone which runs to 200,000 pages of MSS.: the other societies' archives are less well known and the American societies have been largely ignored by British writers), (f) MSS. of government--Mr. Fyfe lists the classes available in the P.R.O. but not those available in the Sierra Leone Archives: since the latter are not fully catalogued and not easily available yet (though full cataloguing is about to begin), it is fortunate that many of the records are duplicated in the P.R.O.: all told, there must be several hundred thousand pages of government MSS.

Mr. Fyfe has made special use of the Freetown press and of the government archives. He has sampled the C.M.S. archives, but these and other mission archives would probably provide the best starting point for later investigators. However, Mr. Fyfe has clearly gone over a large proportion of the source-material for this period with a tooth-comb. As indicated above, Mr. Fyfe's treatment calls for further analysis, rather than further fact-finding.


The last period of this book is in two ways, an anticlimax. Though to reach p. 620 necessarily calls for some effort, at least one reader was disappointed to find the narrative halt there, and halt so abruptly. Moreover, the content of this part represents an anti-climax in Creole history. Mr. Fyfe paints it as almost a tragedy--the shabby desertion by the inflated Imperialists of their faithful Creole servants.

The reviewer is not convinced, for the first time in the book, of the soundness of Mr. Fyfe's judgment. Halting at 1900, we have to take on trust the assertion that Creoles never again were given posts of high responsibility. The history of the West African Medical Service has been presented so often as the damning evidence that doubts arise. Certainly Creoles continued to serve West Africa. For instance, Dr. Adeniyi Jones was a leading member of the Nigerian Leg. Co. from 1923 to 1938; Canon S. S. Williams of Regent, still alive and active, served in the Niger Delta from  1907 to 1938, eventually becoming Archdeacon. It is true that the middle of the twentieth century finds the Creoles removed from both politics and missions in Nigeria, but in each case it has largely been a voluntary abdication, in favour of Nigerian. It would moreover be interesting to know how many individuals de-creolized themselves, by adopting vernacular names, and how many Freetown families have branches now naturalized in Ghana or Nigeria.

It seems more reasonable to relate the decline of the Creoles to positive developments in West Africa after 1880, rather than to ascribe it, as Mr. Fyfe tends to do, merely to a new phase of imperialist mentality. If the British lost confidence in the Creoles as the agents of advance, it was partly because they equally lost confidence in white missionaries. Mr. Fyfe is inclined to make the Creole fall more dramatic by dating it to the '90s. But as early as 1881 the Niger Mission had its first scandal. The C.M.S. turned sharply on its Creole disciples mainly because this and later scandals were used by the anti-mission element in Britain to reduce public support to missions. While the missions were being to some extent discredited as agents of social change (although this was probably as unfair as the C.M.S. disillusionment with the Creoles of the Niger and Freetown), official imperial activity was being extended, secular agencies were being created, and the aim of African progress was being redescribed in the new magic word, "Development". Development required trained and experienced specialists, trained particularly in technology and science, and experienced in an industrial society, and it required them in increasing numbers. Creoledom could provide neither the numbers, nor the experience, nor the trained men. (Fourah Bay College was limited to theology and arts for another half century.) Fortunately for West Africa, this new assault of global civilization coincided with the scientific conquest of tropical diseases: white specialists began to arrive, and survive, in West Africa in the increasing numbers required. Hill Station was opened in 1904. Boorish and negrophobic often, these foreign engineers, railwaymen, agriculturalists, doctors, teachers etc., eventually provoked much of the resentment which raised up territorial nationalist movements: but like the Creoles before them, they were not superseded till they had edged West Africa irrevocably forward in the stream of global technical progress. Hill Station was ugly but necessary. That the Creoles gained a strong sense of injustice from their supersession is undeniable, and it may well be that in many cases the process was not carried through with tact, let along justice. Nevertheless it is sheer nostalgia to imagine that West Africa would have been a better place if the situation of the 1870s had been carried forward into the twentieth century, that is, if the invasion of white specialists had never taken place and the whole sub-continent had passed under the guidance and tutelage of a few score Creole pastors, lawyers, doctors, and higher civil servants--pious, sincere, and educated at Fourah Bay College though most of them might have been.

It is striking that even in one of the few preserves left them, the Niger Delta Pastorate, the Creoles were eventually totally superseded--in the 1920s and 1930s, not by white men, of course, but by Nigerians. The extent to which the Creoles grew out of their own role is not sufficiently stressed by Mr. Fyfe. In the 1840s and 1850s, those sons of Freetown who returned to Abeokuta or the Niger spoke Yoruba or Ibo with fair fluency: in the 1870s and 1880s those who returned had only a smattering of the languages: by 1900, Creole pastors going to the Niger had no more knowledge of the languages than white missionary recruits. During the nineteenth century, the Creole community progressively lost contact with its African past, and as it did, its capacity to serve as a mediating influence between the global culture and African traditions declined.

The charge that the Creoles were "black Europeans" came not only from the whites whom Mr. Fyfe justly criticizes for their lack of sympathy, but also from the emerging educated Úlite of Nigeria and Gold Coast. It would be unfair to this
Úlite to consider the anti-Creole feeling manifest as late as the 1950s simply as a reflection of the prejudices of the white rulers. It was in p art at least the justified feeling that anything the Creoles could do for African advancement, an Úlite springing more directly out of tribal society, Akan-, Yoruba-, or Ibo-speaking and only one remove from the ancestral gods and family customs, could do better. Something of this was symbolized in Nigerian politics when Herbert Macaulay, son of a grammar school principal, grandson of Bishop Crowther, was succeeded by Nnamdi Azikiwe, son of an Ibo clerk, grandson of a village African, or in Ghana when the path from Caseley Hayford led to Kwame Nkrumah. Here again the supersession of the Creoles seems neither regrettable nor due to white jealousy. Yet, though the Creoles were superseded, "creolization" continued in the sense that the forms of modern life beaten out in mid-twentieth-century West Africa are inevitably not so far different from those worked out by the Creoles at an earlier date. The tide of feeling is still flowing the other way, but the day will surely come when the national historians of West Africa will recognize what their countries owe to nineteenth-century Freetown.

The last episode in Mr. Fyfe's book is the 1898 Protectorate rising and the subsequent Chalmers Report. Mr. Fyfe regards Chamberlain's rejection of the latter and support of Governor Cardew as the decisive blow to the Creoles. It is instructive to compare Mr. Fyfe's account of these events with Mr. Hargreaves' (Cambridge Historical Journal, 1956, curiously not cited by Mr. Fyfe): the differences turn out to be little more than those of emphasis, and we must note that this is one of the few episodes in modern West African history which has now been examined in the light of the highest scholarship.

However, the major significance of the rising lay surely not in the conduct of the post-mortem, but in the fact that in 1898 several hundred Creoles were massacred, without any serious resistance on their part, by people among whom they had lived for years, in complete ignorance apparently of the hatred in which they were held and of the plotting against them that went on under their noses., How could it be any longer maintained that this community was a mediating one when it was so obviously and so completely out of touch with African tribal society? Once again the cry of "black Europeans" had been raised, again not by whites; and again, in fairness, some element of truth in it must be conceded.

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There are serious faults in the presentation of Mr. Fyfe's material. Since we believe that a first-class publisher is in a position to coerce its author on these matters, we shall put the blame squarely on the shoulders of the Oxford University Press. O.U.P. has not lived up to its highest standards in this work. A quite incomprehensible omission is a map of Freetown--this in a book which is largely a history of Freetown. Should the book reach a

second edition, if nothing further is done, at least a map of Freetown must be included. The two maps of Sierra Leone are adequate, but the scale-indicator on one of them has been mis-drawn. The book has no illustrations although Freetown and the Creoles have a longer history of pictorial representation than probably any other community in tropical Africa. For a book without illustrations, the price seems excessive.

The presentation of the text is extraordinary. It is in the form of a continuous narrative, broken only by type-gaps between sections. Chapter divisions appear to be often arbitrary. Neither pages nor sections nor chapters have any headings, and as a result, it is extremely difficult to find any point in the narrative (except via the index, which is good). What advantage is gained by presenting a history in the same style as that of a modern novel eludes this reviewer.

Worse still from the point of view of the scholar, the economy campaign against footnotes has been given a new frightfulness. Not only are the footnotes gathered together at the back, but reference is made to them, no longer by numbers in the text, but by the unnumbered lines of print. In order to relate a line of text to its appropriate "footnote", it is necessary to count the lines of print on the page down to the line in question. However, this only applies on pages where all the lines are printed. On many pages in the book, there are section gaps which have to be allowed for. Page 1 is a splendid example: because of the gap at the head, the first line of print counts as line 6: hence the footnote to line 16 actually relates to line 10 of the print...

Apart from a few slips (e.g. Sibthorpe's History is not given the date of the first edition), the bibliography is good. However, another economy measure raises another grumble. As the only contributor to the Studies whose name slips through, this reviewer is clearly the right person to protest against the method of abbreviating references to articles in journals, whereby the author's name disappears altogether. This discourtesy is indefensible: it means for instance that names like Sayers, Easmon, Wright, and Fenton, are missing from the footnotes. Further, the abbreviation is a curse to anyone familiar with the literature who is making a passing evaluation of part of the account, since we remember the literature in terms of the author's name, not in terms of dates and page numbers. This form of abbreviation is a mistake.

To conclude faulting O.U.P. There is some evidence that, presumably for commercial reasons, this work has been forced into the mould of a "national" history. This book is primarily a work of scholarly reference on the history of Freetown and the Creoles from 1780. Its title is doubly misleading, and its presentation as a simple narrative account of a new nation, while it may make it look more "popular", unfortunately also makes it more difficult to use for those who are most likely to consult it and who can best appreciate its very great merits.

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Mr. Fyfe's style is curious but not displeasing. Dry and laconic, it spurns all purple patches. Nevertheless the reader is occasionally excited with a nice turn of thought or phrase, e.g."...a reforming governor (a character newly-arrived governors often liked to adopt)" or, "Freetown people tend to take to their hearts a governor who takes their daughters to his bosom." Mr. Fyfe's method is to build up his picture like a mosaic, from an accumulation of tiny pieces. There is no doubt that in the end a picture does emerge, and a picture which owes some of its delicacy of tone to the restraint of the artist. Yet at times, before the picture emerges, how one longs for a few broad strokes!

This method does not make the book easy to read, or to summarize. It does distinguish it, however, from some recent works on West African history whose every page screams forth a message but whose factual basis is slight. Compared with these, it is a refreshing change to meet Mr. Fyfe's long cool draught. Praise of these other works has required the introduction of a new set of standards for African history--apparently on the lines of Dr. Johnson's patronizing approach to the dog that walked on its hind legs--but Mr. Fyfe's work earns respect merely by the recognized standards of international scholarship. The "History of Sierra Leone is not without a message--not even without a whiff of prejudice in its partiality for things Creole--but nothing tampers with the scholarship.

Among the great many statements of fact in the book, the reviewer has detected a handful which are dubious or incorrect. Roman Catholic mission activities in the seventeenth century were surely more spasmodic than the sentence about them (p. 5) suggests. Davies, p. 257, states that there was more than one white wife (p. 10) in the Sherbro around 1700. George, not Stephen, Caulker translated into Bullom (p. 133, also a misprint). Blyden and the Fula language (p. 385)--is there any evidence that Blyden did more than promise to learn the language? T. E. Alvarez, Vice-Principal of Fourah Bay and founder of the Falabe mission, was a lay-man (p. 531). The Vai script is not only studied by linguists today (p. 251)--a few Vai families still employ it in correspondence.

Mr. Fyfe's book outclasses in scholarship all previous histories of Sierra Leone, and a year which has produced both this work and Mr. Newbury's on the Slave Coast augurs well for the future of scholarly investigation of West African history. The "History of Sierra Leone" has limitations, some of which seem to be built in. Its textual presentation, however, could easily be improved in a subsequent edition. Its theme--"reconciling the Creoles with their history" in Mr. Hargreaves' penetrating phrase--is a worthy one, and is presented movingly. A History of Sierra Leone will surely come to be regarded as an essential work for the African historian: and in this (whether or not he sees eye to eye with Mr. Fyfe all the way) any Sierra Leonean can take great pride.

P.E.M. Hair