Edward Wilmot Blyden: The Father of Pan-Africanism
Throughout the course of Africa’s history, many men and women have championed causes designed to elevate the continent and unite its people, far or near. Some of these people include W.E.B du Bois, Kwame Nkrumah, Malcolm X, and Miriam Makeba.
But many of these Pan-Africanists – leaders and pioneers in their own regard- have drawn much inspiration from the life and writings of their predecessors, including one man: Edward Wilmot Blyden.
Born to freed slaves in the Americas, and rejected in white circles due to his race, Blyden returned to Africa, where he played a crucial role in Liberia’s history, as well as the rest of the continent.
Blyden’s Early Years: Family, Life in Venezuela & Education
Blylden was born on August 3, 1832 in St. Thomas, Danish West Indies (modern-day American Virgin Islands). Though slavery was still ongoing at the time of his birth and much of his early life, his parents, Romeo and Judith Blyden, were freed slaves. Both of his parents claimed that they could trace their ancestry to the Igbo tribe of Nigeria in West Africa. The couple had seven children, of which Blyden was the third.
In 1842, the Blydens moved to Porto-Bello, Venezuela, which turned out to be a life-changing opportunity for young Edward. In the short while that they lived there, he developed an affinity for languages and quickly picked up Spanish. But he also had a more life-changing experience while there, especially concerning the lives of other black people in Venezuela. Coming from a home of freed slaves, he saw firsthand how other freed Black slaves continued to perform the same jobs as the enslaved Black people did. This early discovery had a profound effect on him and would further fuel his interest in the Black liberation movement.
Interactions with Reverend John P. Knox
Three years later, in 1845, Blyden and his family returned to St. Thomas. He enrolled in school, where he underwent a five-year training to become a tailor. His life however took a different turn when he met a Dutch Reformed minister called Reverend John P. Knox. The young man came to take Knox as his mentor, who in turn was highly impressed with Blyden’s intelligence. It’s likely that his decision to become a minister was influenced by his relationship with Knox.
In 1850, Blyden finally received the opportunity to attend theological school. He traveled to the United States with Knox’s wife to start school at Rutgers Theological College in New Jersey. However, his dreams were dashed when the school refused to admit him due to his race. He attempted enrolling in two other schools, but he was rejected for the same reason.
It was there that Knox suggested that Blyden go to Liberia, which was a colony in West Africa that a group called the American Colonization Society (ACS) had established for freed slaves. So, later that year, Blyden set sail for Liberia.
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Life in Liberia
Blyden arrived in Liberia in January of 1851 and took up a teaching job at Alexander High School in Monrovia. There, he taught several subjects, including history, geography, theology, and mathematics.
He later worked as a journalist and served as editor for the Liberia Herald, where he wrote the “A Voice From Bleeding Africa” column, as well as for The Negro and The African World papers.
Blyden also became an ordained minister and throughout his training, received opportunities to travel extensively to Europe, the rest of Africa, and the Middle East.
In 1861, he took up another teaching job at Liberia College, teaching language courses like Latin and Greek. By 1880, he’d been appointed president of the said college, a position he held until 1884.
Political Career in Liberia
Blyden also got into politics and became Liberia’s Secretary of State (1862-1864) and later Secretary of Interior (1880-1882). In those portfolios, he had the opportunity to travel to the United States, where he had talks with several Black communities and churches, urging them to return to Africa and develop the continent.
However, he was met with some criticisms, especially from the Black Americans who had been born there and had no particular ties to Africa. A large number of Blacks in the US were also more dedicated to fighting for their civil rights there than relocating to Africa.
Blyden’s Use of Religion in the Black Liberation Movement
As a minister, Blyden relied extensively on religion to support his claims for Black liberation. He drew similarities between the Jews and the Black Americans, and also supported the Jewish Zionist movement, which called for Jews in the diaspora to return to Palestine, especially after his visit to the Middle East.
Despite him being a Christian minister, he also gave credence to Islam and said he found it more “African” than Christianity, especially since it had been brought to sub-Saharan Africa by the Northern Africans. He then urged Black Americans and Liberians to practice Islam.
Run for Presidency & Self-Exile
While in Liberia, Blyden realized that the country’s political elites’ desire was to keep power within their circles. He spoke strongly against them. His calls for other Black people in the diaspora to return home was also met with disdain amongst the political elite in Liberia and the rest of Africa.
However, that didn’t stop him from contesting in the 1885 presidential election under the ticket of the Republican Party. He lost the election to Hilary R.W. Johnson. Following his defeat, he placed himself under self-exile and moved to Sierra Leone, where he lived until his death in 1912.
Read also: Joseph Jenkins Roberts – the African-American merchant who became Liberia’s first President
Blyden’s Literary Works
Blyden’s calls for Black people in the Americas to return home, as well as his vision to develop the continent, earned him the title as one of Africa’s earliest pioneers of the Pan-African Movement.
His life and literary pieces inspired several other future Pan-Africanists, including George Padmore, Kwame Nkrumah, and Marcus Garvey. Such was his influence that the Trinidadian journalist Padmore named his daughter Blyden, who was born in 1925.
It was in his 1887 book “Christianity, Islam, and the Negro Race” that he encouraged Africans and Black Americans to practice Islam despite him being Christian. His book was heavily criticized, with many people believing it hadn’t been written by an African. In a later edition of the said book, Blyden ensured that his picture was included in the book to convince people that it was an African behind the book.
He wrote several other books before and after 1887. Some of these include, “Call of Providence to the Descendants of Africa and America” (1862), “African Life and Customs” (1908), and “West Africa Before Europe: and Other Addresses” (1901).
Blyden also wrote several essays throughout his career, including “Africa for Africans”, “Liberia as a Means, Not an End”, and “The Negro in the United States.”
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Marriages & Relationships
Blyden married Sarah Yates, whose family was part of Liberia’s elite circles. The Yates family had strong political ties through Sarah’s uncle, Beverly Page Yates, who served as Vice President of Liberia from 1856-1860. The couple had three children together but not much is known about their marriage.
While living in exile, Edward Wilmot Blyden also met Anna Erskine, with whom he was in a relationship until his death. She was Liberian by birth but had settled in Freetown. They had five children together, and many modern-day descendants of Blyden still live in Sierra Leone, with one of the most notable being journalist and politician Sylvia Blyden.
Who is Edward Wilmot Blyden?
Born: August 3 of 1832
Died: February 7 of 1912
Parents: Romeo and Judith Blyden
- Sarah Yates (wife)
- Anna Erskine (partner)