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From Sierra Leone Studies, no. 13, June 1960

West Indians in West Africa
By ABIOSEH NICOL



The West Indies constitute a group of islands near the American coast in the Atlantic Ocean; the largest among them are the islands of Trinidad and Jamaica. They were discovered in the fifteenth century. The original inhabitants were Caribs who, except in a few islands, have almost completely died out. Various European nations settled in them and West Africans were among those brought out to work on the sugar plantations. After three hundred years or more, slavery was abolished. Later, Indians, Chinese, Portuguese, Maltese and Lebanese settled in the islands. In the first half of the nineteenth century however the population was composed of people of pure or mixed European and African descent. The term "West Indian" was then largely restricted to those of pure European descent. In Africa, however, the term was applied to all from the West Indies and indeed chiefly to men of colour, the white West Indian being generally classed with Europeans.

The movement of West Indians to West Africa chiefly followed the streams of colonization, commerce, Christian missions, and soldiers. Later, there were barristers, civil servants and skilled artisans.

The first decade of the nineteenth century saw the Maroons being brought as colonists to Sierra Leone. Originally they were mostly Fantis and Ashantis captured in Ghana (then the Gold Coast) and taken to the West Indies. Some of them escaped to the mountains in Jamaica occasionally intermarrying with the local Indians. Their name was probably derived from "Cimarron" (mountain-top) rather than from their skin colour. They fought the British Government for a long time in Jamaica; some were brought to Sierra Leone where they lived in Freetown in an area extending from the Cotton Tree westwards to Wilberforce Village on the mountains. They gave themselves military titles as Captains and Majors. The Maroon Church in Westmoreland Street and a few descendants are all that are left of them.

In the next few years, other groups of West Indians were brought over to the new colony of Sierra Leone as for example some insurgents from Barbados who had been involved in the 1816 Revolution at the parishes of St. Philip, St. John and St. George.

The West India Regiment was one of the chief links between the West Indies and Africa. They were raised towards the end of the eighteenth century and fought for the British in the American Revolutionary Wars.1 They were taken to Jamaica at the end of this and the white soldiers were given allotments. The blacks could not be given any because of the state of slavery then existing. They were thus taken to some of the other islands as a body and were later called the West India Regiment. The First West India Regiment was chiefly from Jamaica whilst the Second was from Barbados. The soldiers were Negroes but their officers were white British and white West Indian. They served in the West Indies in wars with the French fighting small ferocious battles in Dominica, Martinique and Guadeloupe. After peace was established between Britain and France in 1815, they started their long and distinguished connection with West Africa which lasted for just over a century.

Before then, soldiers in West Africa were mostly British, although there were also a few Africans. Both British and Africans had not proved very satisfactory. The British soldiers sickened easily and also asked for the then excessive salary of a shilling a day. The African soldiers tended either not to obey orders at all, or to obey them too literally. On one occasion they locked up for a night in jail their Commanding Officer who returned to barracks after midnight, because they had been told to arrest anyone found loitering after that hour. It was not too surprising that the Government began to look elsewhere for soldiers.

The West India Regiment served in every war in West Africa in which the British were engaged. They were in the Ashanti Wars in Ghana in 1823-4 and the the later campaigns. In 1825, a recruiting company was formed in Sierra Leone and was stationed at Bunce Island for a time, enlisting local people. In 1858, Queen Victoria dressed them in the zouave uniform she had admired in the French Zouave regiments. In 1861-2 they were in wars around Abeokuta in Nigeria. A few years later in 1865 some of them returned home to put down the Morant Bay Outbreak in the West Indies--a rebellion amongst their own kinsfolk. Their battle honours include Ashanti 1873-4, West Africa 1887-92-3-4 and Sierra Leone 1898.


1 History of the First West India Regiment--A. B. Ellis, London 1890


The soldiers were very loyal to the British Government and identified themselves almost completely with Britain. "I think we beat you at Waterloo," one of them said to an astonished Frenchman. They had a reputation for being useful at porterage. They bore hardship well and they accepted a salary of ninepence a day.

Two of them received Victoria Crosses for great bravery: Private Samuel Hodge who on May 30th, 1866, stormed and tore down a wooden stockade under heavy fire at Tubarcolong on the River Gambia, during battle with a local chief; and in 1892, Sergeant Gordon for interposing himself and receiving a bullet meant for his officer, during a battle near a town Toniataba against a chief Suleman, who had defied the British.

Although the commissioned officers were nearly all white British, there were two notable exceptions in the black Sierra Leoneans Major Horton and Major Davies, C.M.G., who were Edinburgh trained surgeons attached to this regiment during the second half of the nineteenth century.1



The middle-aged of the present generation of Freetown inhabitants will probably best remember the West India Regiment through its military band and dance orchestra--features of town society which continued well into the first half of the twentieth century.

In 1851, there was a move in the Barbados Church society through Bishop Parry to celebrate the third jubilee of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (the active missionary body in the West Indies) by founding a West India Church Association for the furtherance of the Gospel in Western Africa in connection with the S.P.G. as Trustees of Codrington College. They voted a sum of money for the education of missionaries and also towards the endowment of a bishopric in Sierra Leone. 2, 3

One of the most active was the Revd. Richard Rawle, Principal of Codrington College, Barbados, and later the first Bishop of Trinidad. Rawle was a Cambridge graduate, a Fellow of Trinity, who had offered himself for service overseas after holding a college living at Cheadle. Codrington College, to which he was appointed Principal, had been founded by a white West Indian for the training of clergy


1 Sierra Leone Doctors by M. C. F. Easmon--Sierra Leone Studies New Series No. 6 p. 81.
2 Missions to the Heathen, No. XXIX--A General Account of the West Indian Church Association--S.P.C.K. London 1855
3 Fifty Years in Western Africa--A. H. Barrow. S.P.C.K. London 1900


and the laity for the West Indies. Later with Fourah Bay College, Sierra Leone, it was to be one of the only two overseas Colleges which granted a full British degree--that of Durham University. In its early days it was restricted to white students. The Principal's Lodge looked out on to the Atlantic in the direction of Africa, and Rawle conceived the idea of sending out Afro-West Indians as evangelists to their motherland. He persuaded the trustees and staff to accept coloured students. Room was prepared for them at his own lodge and their expenses were borne by endowment. By 1855, John Duport a young man from St. Kitts had been sufficiently trained to accompany Leacock the pioneer of the Mission on their African adventure. The Revd. Hamble James Leacock was Vicar of St. Leonard's Chapel, Barbados, a white man and native of Barbados aged about sixty years. He offered himself courageously to save his fellow clergy who might have families and dependants from offering themselves.

The Mission up to the time of the departure of Duport and Leacock was undecided as to its sphere of


activity in West Africa. The Gold Coast was considered as there had been an S.P.G. Mission there before. Fernando Po and Quittah were also considered but the final choice was the Rio Pongas region where the Republic of Guinea now stands.1 The two missionaries arrived in Freetown in November 1855 after a short stay in England. Leacock was very impressed with Freetown--the wide streets, the comfortable houses with pillared piazzas and the shady fruit trees in the gardens. He met an old friend in the town's postmistress. After a few weeks in Freetown, they set off for their station. After some initial difficulty in the Rio Pongas they were befriended by an old mulatto, Chief Wilkinson, who had been educated in England and who gave them some help towards establishing their first school at Fallangia. In the first year they were greatly helped in the territory by educated African Chiefs and traders in the interior--the Wilkinson family, Chief Faber, Chief Gomez and his sister Mrs.


1 Possibly their choice was influenced by the knowledge that the Susus on that river understood English. Also there seem to have been political reasons; in 1860 the Governor of Senegal wrote to his Minister in France: "...the English seem to have their eyes on this river...The English Government...continues its work of assimilation by founding schools in the district. Three years ago four missionaries were established at Falinguiah (sic), a few leagues from the left bank near the sea." Archives d'A.O.F., Dakar MS. 1 G 26 and 4 F 3. SLS Editor



Lightburn a wealthy African lady who had been previously married to an American.

The climate proved too much for Leacock and after five months he returned to Sierra Leone where he died in 1856 and was buried in the Circular Road Cemetery, Freetown. There is a memorial tablet to him in St. George's Cathedral by the organ alcove.

Duport continued vigorously and soon built a church. Leacock was succeeded by Samuel Higgs of Nassau, Bahamas, who soon died. Later an English clergyman William Latimer Neville of Brompton joined Duport. A stream of others followed; some stayed, others were forced by ill health to return, and others died. Duport a pillar of strength and a great soldier of Christ laboured tirelessly for eighteen years, dying in England in 1873 where he had gone for medical treatment. He was buried at St. James' Cemetery, Liverpool.



Gradually most of the succeeding missionaries were recruited from coloured West Indians as was the original intention; they were joined by Sierra Leoneans trained at Fourah Bay College like D.G. Williams, D. Brown, S. Hughes and S. Cole. Some of the local chiefs gave their children to be trained as catechists and school masters. The Mission--known as the Rio Pongas Mission remained, however, essentially West Indian. Some of them returned home to the West Indies at the end but others settled in Sierra Leone producing Creole families. There are names still familiar as the Revd. J. B. McEwen who arrived in 1871 and the Revd. C. W. Farquhar in 1890. The latter came out to be headmaster of the boys' boarding school founded at Isles de Los. He had been master of the Mico Model School at St. John's, Antigua, before being ordained deacon and coming out to Africa. Here in West Africa he later became an Archdeacon and started an educational dynasty through his daughters Mrs. Conton, M.B.E., a retired mistress of the Annie Walsh Memorial School and Mrs. Arthur Stuart for years a Mistress at the Freetown Secondary School for Girls. Through the former we have in the third generation W. F. Conton, Principal of the Accra High School, Ghana, a former lecturer of Fourah Bay College and newly appointed Principal of Bo School, Sierra Leone; and Elizabeth Conton (Mrs. Nwokedi) a mistress at the International School, Freetown. Through Mrs. Stuart we have Melvine Stuart a Lady Education Officer, Sierra Leone, and Lettie Stuart a former dean and lecturer of Fourah Bay College, at present Principal of the Freetown Secondary School for Girls and the first woman from West Africa to graduate with honours from Oxford or Cambridge.

The Rio Pongas Mission was under the diocese of Sierra Leone until the 1930's when with the Gambia it was made into a separate diocese under John Daly. Its influence would have been greater if Britain had not neglected its opportunity to establish sovereignty in the Pongas territory in the nineteenth century to the advantage of France. As it is, the new republic of Guinea, in which it is now situated, owes a debt to this West Indian Mission for establishing the first successful educational establishments there so long ago.

A similar venture started from Jamaica in 1840-1.1 The Jamaica Mission Presbytery at Hampden met


and decided to send missionaries to Africa. They were to be Jamaicans of Negro stock and British missionaries resident in Jamaica who were thus used to a tropical climate. The parent church in Scotland felt the idea was premature and presumptuous. But Jamaica persisted and in 1846 a party of missionaries sailed for West Africa consisting of the Revd. Hope Waddell (by whose name the Mission is now largely remembered), Samuel Edgerley a catechist and printer, and two coloured Jamaicans Andrew Chisholm and Edward Miller. There was also in the party, George, an African who had been taken to Jamaica as a slave in his youth. On March 18th, 1846, George sighted again the country of his birth and cried "I see land, I see smoke, they burn bush!" The others crowded the ship's railings and at last saw the continent to which their Mission was to contribute so much. In Calabar in Eastern Nigeria and in the surrounding country they established schools, hospitals, churches and training colleges. Their great foundation--the Hope Waddell Institute until quite recently always had West Indians on the staff as did the surrounding schools. Sir Francis Ibiam, a Nigerian physician, originally trained at this institute is now its Principal.

For long the Law and the Police Force have attracted West Indians (both white and coloured) to West Africa. About a hundred years ago, John Carr a West Indian Negro lawyer started a career of twenty years in Sierra Leone ending as Chief Justice. Across the century, in this decade Sir John Verity a West Indian was the first Chief Justice of the great Federation of Nigeria and on retirement, a Reviser of its Laws; and in the new dominion of Ghana the first


1 Calabar, D. M. McFarlan, Nelson, London 1946.


Commissioner of Police was a Trinidadian, the late Michael Collens. Between these and at present there have been and are a small and constant group of legal officers, judges and police officers from the Caribbean holding the impartial sway of law and justice in West Africa.

In the 1890's and early 1900's the opening of the railways in Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Ghana brought a large number of West Indians to Africa as technicians and train guards. Some of the executive or junior administrative positions in the Civil Service also of these territories were largely held by Sierra Leoneans and West Indians until the 1920's when secondary school education began to be adequately


developed in Ghana and Nigeria to supply the need for local staff. Some Afro-West Indians reached the highest point of the administration and acted as Governors of Sierra Leone on a few occasions in the middle of the nineteenth1 century. In journalism too West Indians made considerable contributions. T. J. Dephon-Thompson, a Sierra Leonean who owned and edited the Sierra Leone Daily Mail for years, married Anne Frederick, the daughter of the Rev. J. R. Frederick, the West Indian pastor of Zion Church, Freetown, and was succeeded by his gifted son who died tragically after a few years as owner and editor. The paper passed into the hands of the London Daily Mirror Group who preserved the family continuity with Mrs. D. Marcus-Jones (née Dephon-Thompson) the founder's daughter as a senior member of the staff until her recent retirement. The Clinton family made a similar contribution in Nigeria.

There were two West Indians who in this century and the last made an outstanding contribution. They were Edward Wilmot Blyden and George Padmore.

Dr. Blyden's Memorial in stone is a drinking fountain surmounted by a sad stern  face on a bust in Water Street, Freetown; but during his lifetime he was regarded as the chief interpreter of Africa to Europe. He was born in St.  Thomas's, a small West Indian island, (then Danish, now American) in 1830. He left home for good at seventeen and went to America. He was advised to emigrate to the newly-founded colony of Liberia in West Africa. He did so and from then onwards regarded himself as a West African. He attended the high school established by the Presbyterian Board of Missions


1 See for example Fyfe, C. H. |" A Royal Visit in 1860 " Sierra Leone Studies New Series No. 12. p. 259, 1960.


and after graduation became a teacher. He was eventually made principal in 1859. He wrote a letter to Gladstone the following year which created a favourable impression in some circles in Britain and particularly on Lord Brougham. The news reached West Africa and encouraged Blyden to leave for England. The young men of Monrovia asked him in their name to present to Lord Brougham an ebony walking stick mounted in ivory and gold as a mark of their appreciation for his services to the Negro race. This was the first of a series of visits Blyden was to make to Europe, America, the Middle East and other parts of Africa, during which he achieved much distinction and fame. He served Liberia for some time as Secretary of State and then as Minister to the Court of St. James. He lived in Sierra Leone also for varying periods. Under commission from the British Government he made a long and difficult journey into the interior of Sierra Leone and signed treaties and agreements with the chiefs. He presented valuable reports to the Colonial Office on his return from this mission. Perhaps his chief contribution to Freetown was the work he did among the Muslim Community in Foulah Town and Fourah Bay as Director of Education for them. He raised their educational standards and fought their cause with the Government.

He was a prolific pamphleteer and speaker. His chief work was Christianity, Islam and the Negro Race (London, 1887) which was widely read and the publication of which was due to a generous advance by Ernst Vohsen who was then German Consul in Sierra Leone. The sale of the first edition was so rapid that Blyden was able to refund the advance a few weeks after publication. His other works included The West African University (1872), From West Africa to Palestine, West Africa before Europe, African Life and Customs, The Three Needs of Liberia (London 1908) and The Problems before Liberia (a lecture delivered in the Senate Chamber of Monrovia) (London 1909). Some of these have been discussed at length recently.1

After his career as Director of Mohammedan Education in both Lagos, Nigeria, and in Sierra Leone,


Blyden retired to Liberia in 1906 where he played the role of elder statesman. He was much influenced by the Muslim religion and by African customs in the


1 "Changing Image of Sierra Leone colony in the Works of E. W. Blyden", by H. S. Wilson, Sierra Leone Studies, New Series No. 11 p. 136.


closing years of his life. He died in 1911, lamented in three continents. He was one of a band of West Indians who settled in Liberia and Sierra Leone and whose influence spread far beyond the boundaries of their adopted country.

George Padmore, lately deceased in Ghana, had a career in this century which bears some similarity to that of Blyden. They were both born in the West Indies and spent their adolescence there. They left home for good in early manhood. Their first port of call was the United States where in both cases they found their educational opportunities limited. Later in life they became widely known in international circles as spokesmen for pan-African nationalism.

George Padmore, whose real name was Malcolm Nurse, was born of middle-class Negro parents in Trinidad in 1903. He received his university education at Fisk University, a Negro institution in the Southern States of America. Exposure to racial prejudice in both the West Indies and the United States acted as fuel to the revolutionary embers already present and smouldering in him. He joined the Communist Party in the States and after some time there he went to Russia where his ability soon won him the headship of the African Bureau of the Comintern with the rank of Colonel in the Russian Army. He organized from Moscow the spread of Communism throughout Africa which he visited under the guise of doing anthropological research.

He broke with the Communists in the 1930's and after a few years on the Continent finally settled down in London. His flair for organization found an outlet in arranging Pan-African Congresses and in writing books and pamphlets on European Imperialism and African Nationalism. His house in London was a rendezvous for Africans and colonials who had a practical or intellectual interest in politics. I met him during this period on one or two occasions and knew him slightly. He was always dapper and always working on another book. His knowledge of Africa was encyclopaedic although naturally strongly biased against  the European Colonial powers. He studied local conditions in every territory with passionate interest.



During his London period he met and knew Dr. Kwame Nkrumah well. When the latter came to power as Prime Minister of Ghana, he invited Padmore to become his Adviser on African Affairs and much of Ghana's leading role in All-African movements and conferences in the past five years was due to his great organizing powers. His death in 1959 removed one of the few figures whose vision embraced the continent.

Another West Indian of great contemporary importance is Professor Arthur Lewis, an eminent St. Lucian. He studied at London University and rose rapidly in the academic world to be Professor of Economics at Manchester University. At the same time, he was one of the leading experts in the Colonial field for the British Labour Party when they were in power after the war. After Ghana gained her independence, he was invited by Nkrumah to be his Economic Adviser. He spent two years doing this on leave of absence from his Chair at Manchester. At the end of this period, he was translated to a similar Chair at the University College of the West Indies before succeeding to the Principalship of that institution last year.

Like Scotland and Ireland, the West Indies is a small country with a comparatively high standard of education. Thus it has always produced more professionally trained people and skilled artisans than it can absorb. In earlier years, not now perhaps, those with African ancestry, probably found added difficulty in gaining recognition and employment. For such and other West Indians, an outlet has always been found in West Africa, which, time and again, has proved mutually rich and rewarding.





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