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Blyden of Liberia

J.D. Hargreaves introduces a prophet of nationalism in the coastal countries of West Africa.

Some prophets reach contemporaries only, others increase their influence after death. Edward Wilmot Blyden, who was born of Negro parents in the Virgin Islands in 1832 and died in Sierra Leone in 1912, was during his lifetime a considerable celebrity within the coastal colonies of West Africa, and among a few overseas specialists in their affairs; but for three or four decades thereafter his name was little known outside a small Afro-American intelligentsia of restricted influence.

The accelerated arrival of African independence in the 1950’s and 1960’s has, however, greatly extended his reputation; hailed as interpreter of the ‘African personality’, pioneer of pan-Africanism and négritude, a possible originator of the potent slogan ‘Africa for the Africans’, Blyden may now be in danger of receiving greater posthumous acclaim than most reputations can easily bear.

Sometimes the enthusiasm is manifestly overdone. Blyden lacked staying-power, on paper as well as in the numerous and varied public offices that he held in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Lagos. As one Liberian critic put it in 1876, ‘he has not the gift of continuance or perseverance’. He never fulfilled his ambitious plan to write a History of Liberia. His numerous essays and orations do not really cohere into an intellectual whole; many represent the reactions of a volatile mind, easily elated and easily depressed, to the changes that this critical period of African history brought to his personal fortunes.

The suavely high-minded cosmopolitanism of his later style, laced with its classical and Biblical quotations, has had lastingly unfortunate effects on Anglo-West African writing. But he can also show real historical consciousness and occasional prophetic insight; the basic interest of his works, as well as their influence on such political leaders as Azikiwe, entitles them not merely to exhumation but to serious historical scrutiny.

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