Reprinted from Sierra Leone Studies, June 1955 - editor

   The Life and Times of John Ezzidio


(The Methodist Missionary Society have most kindly allowed me to make use of their records, invaluable for any account of Ezzidio. What I have learnt from them has been supplemented by information drawn from the Sierra Leone archives, from the Colonial Office records at the Public Record Office, and from the authorities mentioned in the text.)

THERE must be many who have never heard the name of John Ezzidio, the first African to sit on the Legislative Council in Sierra Leone. Even those who have, may be glad to know more of him, and. of the astonishing development of the Creole 1 community during his lifetime. Ezzidio was born in the Nupe Country of what is now Nigeria. The story of his early life was set down by the late Rev. Charles Marke (whose father, George Marke, of Wellington, was also a Nupe) in his Wesleyan Methodism in Sierra Leone—how as a child Ezzidio was kidnapped and taken to the Yoruba Country where in his teens he was sold, and packed with 568 others on board the brig Henriquita for sale in Brazil; how the ship was intercepted by H.M.S. Sybille, brought to Freetown in October, 1827, condemned by the Anglo-Brazilian Court of Mixed Commission for carrying slaves contrary to law, and the surviving 542 were liberated. The men among them were enlisted into the regiments stationed on Tower Hill or distributed in the Colony villages. The women were married off to suitable applicants; those unapplied for, or those with children, were sent to the villages. A few of the children were sent to village schools but most, including Ezzidio, were apprenticed to masters or mistresses in Freetown. Marke tells us his master was a French shopkeeper, Monsieur Beyaust The

1 Strictly speaking. John Ezzidio was not a creole. The word “Creole”,which has different meanings in different parts of the world, was first used in Sierra Leone for children born in the Colony; it may have derived from Brazil where it meant the children of those imported from Africa. Mrs. Melville, in her Residence at Sierra Lcone, distinguished “creoles” as the children of recaptured slave parents, but Dr. Robert Clarke, and witnesses before the Parliamentary Committee, reporting on the West Coast of Africa in 1842, used it as a synonym for Colony-born without specifying parentage. (Dr. R. Clarke, Sierra Leone, 1843, p. 33 ; Parliamentary Papers, 1842, xi, 388 ; and 1842, xii 386.) This wider definition, amplified later to include those not merely born in , but assimilated into the Colony, has come to be generally accepted.


name unfortunately does not appear in the lists of recaptives and disposals which survive, often recorded very carelessly, in the Sierra Leone archives; if it did we could tell from the apprentice’s description beside it, Ezzidio’s African name. Whatever it was, he soon lost it. His master called him Isadore, which via a phonetically transcribed “Ezzido” became “Ezzidio”.

As well as a name he acquired, and retained through life, some of the Frenchman’s polished, but to English eyes rather affected, mannerisms. However much they may have suited his master, they combined oddly with Ezzidio’s stalwart body and vigorous, forthright style of expression, giving him what one of his enemies once maliciously called, the look of a “dancing bear”. What was of more practical use, he quickly picked up business methods. When Beyaust died, he was taken on first by a European firm as assistant, then by a European merchant to manage a flourishing shop. He must have learnt to read and write in his spare time. Though his handwriting was never well-formed, and his grammar occasionally faulty, he learnt to express himself well on paper, not only in business letters but, a more difficult task, to private correspondents, as letters surviving in the archives of the Methodist Missionary Society in London testify. With quickness in learning he combined strict personal economy, so that he was soon able to leave his employer and start his own business with his savings. Remarkab1e as it is that a boy brought helpless, penniless, and friendless into a strange country should within a decade or so of landing be established in his own business. Ezzidio was only following very successfully the example many of his contemporaries were setting. Some started as servants or shopboys as he did. Others earned a little by fishing or cutting firewood. With their tiny capital they began trading in the streets, building up their pennies into pounds. As the soil of the colony has never supported its inhabitants, and as government grudged the least expenditure to encourage the villagers to grow more than cassava or green vegetables, food had to be imported from up country. So the street-trader would buy a canoe and some bales of cotton with his small savings, go up the river, and return with rice and palm oil to sell at a profit. As his capital increased he could buy a larger selection of trade goods, and perhaps pay an agent to take them up the rivers.


The whole West Coast Trade was built up on agencies. The wholesale firms in England sold through European agents in Freetown, who supplied the petty traders with goods for their agents to take up country. Credit was usually given, often to the advantage of the smaller agent. When the European middleman died, perhaps in the yellow fever epidemics of 1829 or 1839, or from the recurring malarial fever medical science could do nothing to check, his accounts often disappeared with him, and his distant principal bore the loss. Few Europeans with any enterprise or capital traded in Freetown at all, so it was comparatively easy for hard-working small traders, living simply, with few expenses, to cut out their rivals. Ezzidio’s name first appears on an official document in 1839, when he was given a grant by the Governor and Council of a plot of land in Soldier Street. As there were no banks in the Colony, nor any industrial enterprise to invest in, small capitalists had to put their earnings into house property. They built houses, either to live in, and advertise their new splendour and credit, or to let. Where there was a large, constantly changing, official population, and few official houses, a good house could usually find a tenant, and though rents were lower in the 1830’s and ‘40s than in the 1820s, they were high enough to furnish an adequate return for investment. Emmanuel Cline, for example, a recaptive from the Hausa country, spent over £600 buying good houses in Freetown between 1839 and 1845; in 1846 he bought the land at Fourah Bay which still bears his name, Cline Town, then unbuilt-on, to divide up and sell as small building lots. William Henry Pratt, an Ibo, who like Ezzidio turned from keeping shop for others to trading on his own, bought up the lots on the north side of Oxford Street, between George and Trelawney Streets for £300, and built there a large house and shop. Ezzidio did the same. In 1841 he bought for £100 a property in a conspicuous part of George Street (nearly at the corner of Water Street, opposite the west door of St. George’s) from the Jarretts, a Maroon family, who had been granted it soon after they arrived in the Colony from Jamaica in 1800. It was (and indeed still is) typical of Freetown, with its wealth so grounded in house property, that the rising class should quickly buy out the owners of the best houses.

Ezzidio had little pictures of his house, a front view and a side view, with St. George’s stuck between them, printed on his stationery (reproduced at the end of this article). The Cathedral,


as it became in 1852, is shown as it was before it was enlarged and embellished early in this century. The house was burnt down in 1896, and the site was long vacant, but in the last year or two it has been built on again. The recaptives who found in Sierra Leone economic opportunities of a kind they had never known in their tribal homeland, also found a new religion to sustain them. Missionaries of the Church and Wesleyan1 Missionary Societies, or independent churches-Methodist, Baptist, and Huntingdonian- run by the settled Nova Scotian and Maroon inhabitants, offered them a gospel which took no account of their origins, and addressed them as individuals. Protestant Christianity, with its emphasis on personal conversion and responsibility, appealed to those cut off by their new circumstances from the communal life of tribal custom. Methodist church government (which even the CMS partly adopted in Sierra Leone ), where laymen play so large a part, offered the newly-rich trader a chance of social leadership. His talents might be rewarded not only by commercial success but with office as a local preacher, supplementing the work of missionary or pastor, or as a class-leader responsible for the moral welfare of a small group within the congregation. By making use of such laymen the churches spread their influence through the whole community in a way the missionaries working by themselves could never have done.

So, it is not surprising that Ezzidio, who joined the Wesleyan Methodist Society in 1835, should have become successively exhorter, class-leader, and local preacher. But it would be misapprehending the convictions of the missionaries who appointed him to suppose them moved by purely worldly reasons. Candidates for office had first to give acceptable signs of genuine conversion. Marke testifies to the sincere religious feelings that made Ezzidio a powerful and fervent preacher, and so permeated his life that he would often withdraw upstairs from his shop during business hours to pray for guidance. His talents, spiritual and temporal, attracted the special attention of the Rev. Thomas Dove, General Superintendent of the Wesleyan Mission from 1837 to 1846. Dove knew something of business himself; when a splendid stone building at King Tom (to day the Prince of Wales School), which had cost £7,000 to build, came into the market he persuaded his Committee in London to buy it for a

1To-day, Methodist Missionary Society.


Training Institution, for 300 guineas. In 1842 he took Ezzidio home with him to England to introduce him to wholesale firms in London and Manchester, and enable him to deal direct with the English market without a middleman. Between them they inspired enough confidence to persuade several firms to risk the novelty of dealing with an African, and within a few years Ezzidio was importing annually goods worth £3,000 or £4,000 to sell from his shop in George Street.

 One of his advertisements survives in a Freetown newspaper, the New Era, of the 23rd June, 18591, to show us what he sold. As well as trade goods, “too numerous to mention,” for traders to barter up country for produce, he advertised clothing, haberdashery, groceries, and ironmongery. The black suits and patent leather boots, muslin dresses, ladies hats arid silk bonnets, the hams, mixed biscuits and tea, the cases of port and sherry he sold, show how the standard of living was rising, and the community learning to appreciate the comforts money can buy. Corresponding direct with wholesale firms, Ezzidio competed on equal terms with his European rivals in Freetown. His local connections even helped him to supplant them. Though not a regular government contractor, he supplied in 1850, woollen shirts for the boatmen employed by the Mixed Court (where only twenty- three years earlier he had been liberated). Visitors to the Colony were astonished at the success of an African firm employing only Africans. One of the clerks, W. T. Dove (called perhaps after Ezzidio’s benefactor) was to become himself a prominent merchant, and the progenitor of a family distinguished in Sierra Leone and the Gold Coast.

By a Charter from the Crown granted in 1799, Freetown was a corporate municipality with its own mayor and aldermen.2 During the first half of the century the powers vested in the Town Council gradually passed to officials, so that by Ezzidio’s time municipal office was purely decorative, without duties or any privilege beyond the title. Every September the Governors Council would choose a mayor and aldermen from among the more respectable shopkeepers, normally Europeans, occasionally Nova Scotians or Maroons. In 1844 Governor Fcrgusson, a West Tndian army doctor (the only

1An odd copy, bound up in the volume CO 267/276 at the Public Record Office.
2The Charter, recently repaired, is on view at the City Council Offices.


governor of Sierra Leone , so far, of African descent) had Ezzidio appointed alderman, and in the following year, Mayor of Freetown. Thus the sudden rise in the recaptives social status was officially recognized.

But soon after his term of office the municipality was allowed to disappear. The choice of office-bearers became more and more perfunctory. The council chose no mayor at all in 1849 or 1850, in 1851 the Harbour Master, Thomas MacFoy, and after that no one. There is no evidence that the neglect was deliberate. No governor mentioned the demise of the Corporation in a dispatch to the Secretary of State, nor was it mentioned in the Council, nor was there any public outcry at the loss of this purely titular privilege. For over forty years Freetown remained a Corporate City only in name, until the municipality was restored in a new form.

As the members of the Governor’s Council were all officially appointed as advisors, not as representing the community, the inhabitants of the Colony had no legally constituted representatives. When they wanted to express their views they got up petitions for the governor to send to the Secretary of State. Ezzidio’s signature appears on many. Governors tended to dislike petitions (unless they were in favour of official policy), equating them with disloyalty, but the Colonial Office welcomed them as a check on a distant governor. For until 1852 when the African Steamship Company (later absorbed by Elder Dempster) started a regular steam service along the coast, dispatches to and from the governor depended on the irregular movements of naval and merchant sailing ships. Sometimes it took the Colonial Office months to get a reply to a question. But petitioning was an unsatisfactory method of voicing opinion. Normally it implied opposition, so that a people grown used to it grew instinctively to regard government as an institution to be opposed. In Sierra Leone, as elsewhere in the Colonies, the government in London neglected the chance of training up a people in friendly partnership with their administrators, shutting their eyes to Burke’s picture of the state as a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection.”

Denied partnership, the community sought at least representa-

1Reflections on the Revolution in France.



-tion. In 1851 a House and Land Tax, their first direct taxation, was introduced, justifying them in demanding” no taxation without representation “. A group of European merchants started a Mercantile Association in the 1850’s, a sort of Chamber of Commerce, which included Ezzidio and the leading Africans. But Governor Hill, an old soldier, out of sympathy with such aspirations, refused to allow their claims to represent the community officially. Governor Blackall who succeeded him in 1862, had himself been a Member of Parliament, and was readier to recommend constitutional changes to the Secretary of State. So in the following year a new constitution was introduced, dividing the Governor’s Council into separate Executive and Legislative Councils, and allowing for unofficial representation on the latter. Governor Blackall wanted the merchant community to elect a representative, rather than choose one himself. Hoping they would take one of the Europeans, he arranged for the Mercantile Association, which had faded away, to be revived to conduct the election. At the meeting, held on the 8th December, 1863, there were present fourteen Europeans, one Afro-West-Indian, and twenty-four Africans (the majority recaptives). Two candidates, one European, John Levi, the other African, John Ezzidio, were proposed. The voting was by secret ballot, but the result, twenty-three votes for Ezzidio, thirteen For Levi, suggests they divided by colour.

So Ezzidio was invested with a responsibility and a dignity (which included the proud title the Honourable “) none of his country men had held before. The first to be thus elected, he was also the last. The Colonial Office disapproved of such elections, fearing that the mercantile body might claim he was their delegate, answerable to them, removable if he displeased them. Future governors until 1924 chose Ezzidio’s successors themselves, lest a claim to even a vestige of responsible government be admitted.

Despite this, Ezzidio always regarded himself as a delegate. More than once he had the reading of a Bill postponed until he had consulted the business community. He also seems to have been reluctant to give his opinions in the Legislative Council without having first talked them over with his friends. Coming late to public life, already in his ‘fifties, conscious perhaps of a lack of political experience and education, he played a less forceful part there than his enterprise and success in business might have seemed to foreshadow. Yet his unobtrusiveness showed he was conscious



of his responsibilities, and justified the trust an unwilling government placed in him. He was no demagogue seeking public glory in fiery speeches, nor did he misuse his position for personal advantage. Ready to raise others’ grievances, he initiated little himself; often the minutes record only that he was present at a meeting. His position made him, as it was said, “an oracle” to the people. Yet his head was not turned. Like many of that generation of self-made merchants, Ezzidio was ready to share generously the advantages he had received and earned. His house was always open to visitors, his verandah was an unofficial “labour exchange”, where he let unemployed labourers congregate. Nor did he begrudge time and money spent on the Church whose superintendent had so helped him. He ran the Sunday School at the Bathurst Street Chapel (a site to-day occupied by a school), and was a chapel trustee as well as a preacher and class-leader. He contributed liberally to mission funds, and raised money among his English business correspondents towards building Buxton Church. When the Wesleyan Misionary Society celebrated its jubilee in 1864, his was the largest contribution, fifty guineas, to the Jubilee Fund. His great dream was to replace the little Bathurst Street Chapel by a large Wesley Church, rivalling the Cathedral. Money was raised, and in 1856 a site bought for £700 on the corner of Trelawney and Oxford Streets, and vested in lay trustees, Ezzidio being one. The building contract was given to Charles Hazelborg, an Afro-West-Indian builder settled in Freetown, who undertook to finish it in eighteen months. Local sub contractors were engaged—Peter Hughes to demolish the buildings on the site. G.O. Patnelli to provide scaffolding, Edward Howson carpentering but the work advanced slowly. Though Ezzidio went to England in 1860 to raise more money, nothing could speed up the contractor. By 1869 Hazelborg was bankrupt, and Wesley Church, and the Wilberforce Memorial Hall (which he had also contracted to build) were still roofless shells.

During the years Ezzidio was endeavouring to get Wesley Church finished he had, in addition to his private business and, after 1863, his seat on the Legislative Council, the added responsibility of generally overseeing the Wesleyan Mission . After Dove left, a succession of European missionaries came out and then returned, or died, after a short stay, leaving the experienced laymen to carry -


on. He was helped by Ins friend William Smith, the son of an English father and a Fanti mother, who from 1833 to 1871 was successively clerk and Registrar to the Court of Mixed Commission, where his father had been judge. A devout Methodist. like Ezzidio, he helped to bear the burden of the mission. Both tried to lighten the missionaries tasks, often taking them into their homes. One missionary, the Rev. Robert Dillon, married Smith’s sister-in-law, Margaret Macaulay, and took her back to England.

Realizing that the mission was suffering from lack of systematic supervision, Ezzidio wrote to London to ask the Secretary, with whom he was on friendly terms, to send out a permanent general superintendent. This timely, sensible request was to blight his happy career. For the Rev. Benjamin Tregaskis, who came out in 1864 to take charge, though an outstanding organizer was a ruthless dictator. Devoted single mindedly to the work of his mission, he was determined that none should share in it except under his explicit orders. One of the tragedies of European leadership in Africa is that genuine devotion to the task of training up Africans in self reliance often revolts in angry resentment when self-reliance is asserted. So Tregaskis, expending all his energies to build up a living Methodist Church in Sierra Leone, stamped implacably on every sign of independent life within it.

It is only fair to Tregaskis to emphasize that he and Ezzidio differed fundamentally over their conception of Methodism. Tregaskis had grown up in England under the shadow of an established church whose pretensions he resented and felt his sacred duty to oppose. Ezzidio knew nothing of this conflict. Church and Wesleyan missionaries in Sierra Leone normally tended to work in harmony. The German missionaries employed by the C.M.S. in the early days knew little of English denominational differences; the tradition of co-operation they inaugurated persisted with only occasional breaches. Dove, in particular. sought the friendship of his Anglican brethren. Ezzidio, loyal Methodist though he was, thought nothing of putting an Anglican cathedral on his stationery. On two occasions he introduced petitions from the Bishop into the Legislative Council. Liberal in contributing to his own Church, he also contributed to the funds of the  CMS.,

1For a more interesting account, and a charming photograph, of Willian Smith, see The Life and Times of Adelaide Casely-Hayford, published in West Africa Review, October, 1953. -


the Huntingdonians, and the United Methodist Free Church in the Colony.

In 1861 the C.M.S. began to relinquish control of their mission, substituting for it a Native Pastorate Church ministered to by African clergy under a European (not necessarily missionary) bishop. Many non-Anglicans, including Ezzidio, welcomed the change as a proof of European confidence in African ability. Without thinking of denominational rivalry they supported morally and financially what seemed on its way to becoming a genuine African Church. As local contributions barely sufficed to pay pastors’ stipends and maintain village churches and parsonages, the Legislative Council voted £200 in 1863, raised in 1867 to £500, as an annual grant to the Native Pastorate. Ezzidio, who contributed regularly himself to Anglican funds, voted for it gladly. But Tregaskis, with his hatred of the Established Church, his resentment that any but he should represent his mission, could only understand Ezzidio’s vote as treason. He determined to break him, deliberately turned all his friends against him, and out of pure spite suspended work on Wesley Church permanently. Ezzidio went to England again in 1867 to raise money for the unfinished church, but found Tregaskis had turned his friends on the Mission Committee against him too. Whatever affection they felt for their outstanding lay leader, they dared not oppose the ferocious superintendent. To his distresses in the Church were added business worries. He lost £1,500 in a venture down the Coast. One of his clerks embezzled another £1,500. Fretting over his losses he fell ill, and the doctors had to send him to the Banana Islands for a rest-cure.

 Such losses were common among his successful contemporaries. Generous and trusting, grown rich themselves through the confidence their employers placed in them, they trusted too much in others. The agency system they profited by as agents endangered them as principals. I. B. Pratt, for example, born in the Ife country and recaptured at about the same time as Ezzidio, built up by trading a fortune reckoned at £20,000, but when he died in 1880, he left only £2,500.

Recovered, Ezzidio went again to England in 1870, but by now his health was undermined. On his return he had to be carried off the boat. Tregaskis announced that he was dying. But he recovered sufficiently to attend the Legislative Council regularly, and to vote in November, 1871, for the estimates for the coming year,


which included the annual grant to the Native Pastorate. This defiant stand for his principles was his last. In December he was too ill to leave his house. He had to give up public business, and in October, 1872, he died.

Looking back over the forty-five years Ezzidio spent in the Colony, one cannot but marvel at the transformation he and his contemporaries made. Not all the credit was theirs. Had the Navy not captured the Henriquita, Ezzidio would have ended his days on a Brazilian plantation; had Dove not helped him he might never have been more than a petty trader. But as opportunities offered he took them, his industry and generosity justifying his benefactors’ hopes in a way far beyond what could ever have been foreseen. Who in 1827 could have dreamt of guessing that a naked boy being herded with his companions up the steps at King Jimmy into the Kings Yard, would one day be called “the Honourable “, and walk out in top hat and black suit to sit down in the Council Chamber with the Governor? Ezzidio himself never forgot his origins. ‘Without pride, he was also without false shame. “This neck,” he said, at a meeting of the Anti-Slavery Society in Freetown in 1870, “ which you see wearing a tie to-day, was invested at one time with a chain.”

Wesley Church, which he intended as his monument, remained unfinished at his death, but a decade later, when Tregaskis had gone, work started on it again, and it was opened in 1886. But his greater monument in the church he so devotedly served was the legacy of interdenominational friendship which has in the long run prevailed. His monument in the state was his work on the Legislative Council, where unspectacularly he rose to the responsibilities of his position, not using it for his own aggrandisement, or to serve private faction or malice, but proving to a barely appreciative government that he and his fellows were worthy of the confidence they were slowly and grudgingly granted.