Adelaide Casely Hayford’s African Education

Colonial schools in Africa eroded national identity and pride; in Sierra Leone a new way of teaching had to be found.

Adelaide Casely Hayford, c.1920s. History and Art Collection/Alamy Stock Photo
West African activist and educator Adelaide Casely Hayford, c.1920s. History and Art Collection/Alamy Stock Photo

In theory, education was a key benefit bestowed by European colonial governments and missionaries. But it was also increasingly seen – from India to Africa to the West Indies – as detrimental. Norman Manley, later the first prime minister of Jamaica, was fond of quoting a British official who admitted that: ‘The Empire and British rule rest on a carefully nurtured sense of inferiority in the governed.’ The Indian schoolchild, a local journalist complained in 1923, ‘is taught day after day to despise everything Indian and to admire everything British, with the result that he ends up being neither an Indian nor an Englishman, but a sorry ape’. In Sierra Leone, Adelaide Casely Hayford was determined to do something different.

She was born Adelaide Smith in Freetown in 1868. Wealthy Krios – the heavily Westernised coastal elite – were used to sending their children to school in England, but her father, on his retirement in 1872, moved his whole family there. Her earliest memory, she later wrote, was not of Africa but of the sea voyage and arriving in England. They ended up in St Helier in Jersey, where her childhood was ‘glorious … characterized by a spontaneous happiness and joy’.

Aged 12, she and her younger sister started at Jersey Ladies College, where they were the only black pupils. ‘School life still remains a gorgeous memory’, she later wrote:

‘How happy we were in spite of our colour, or perhaps because of it, since we were singled out for extra titbits of love, kindliness, and good will. What did we know of racial prejudice, and an inferiority complex? Nothing! But we knew a lot about the milk of human kindness.’

At 17, Casely Hayford, a gifted musician, went to study at the Stuttgart Conservatory. There, she sometimes felt horribly homesick. ‘Germany had only just begun to acquire Colonies, so I was the first negress they had seen and instantly became Curio No. 1. I suffered from acute self-consciousness not so much because I was black but because I was so conspicuous.’ She later told the story of going into a shop, prompting all of the assistants to flee. ‘Fortunately my sense of humour came to the rescue, and I was able to make a big joke over it, but it did hurt.’

Her father’s dying wish in the late 1890s was that she and her unmarried sister return to Africa. It was a ‘terrible wrench’ leaving Jersey, but arriving in Sierra Leone was worse. The ‘educated Africans’ of Freetown ‘shunned us, snubbed us, ostracised us’. Casely Hayford decided that it was a great mistake to raise black children overseas as ‘they lost touch with their home environment: they find they don’t fit in, and are not happy. England, too, is not their home, so they become more or less homeless.’ Although she was grateful for her life in Europe, ‘it turned us out as black white women’, she later wrote.

Furthermore, little of the family money was left by the time of their father’s death and, after the ending of her short-lived marriage to distinguished Gold Coast nationalist Joseph Casely Hayford, the sisters needed to be self-supporting. Casely Hayford took on pupils for tuition and taught music, which soon led to a ‘Great Scheme’: a Technical School for Girls, inspired in part by her own difficulties in supporting herself and by what she had seen of local girls’ schools. Women’s education in West Africa, she said, was ‘a hundred years behind men’s’, with ‘nothing to fit them for the battles of life’. Her precept was that women had to be economically independent to retain their self-respect; her school would produce girls able to earn their own living.

A street scene in colonial Freetown, Sierra Leone. Meise Botanic Garden, Belgium. CC BY-SA.
A street scene in colonial Freetown, Sierra Leone. Meise Botanic Garden, Belgium. CC BY-SA.

Perhaps most striking was her ambition to ‘hear the young mothers teaching their sons the glory of black citizenship, rather than encouraging them to bewail the fact that they were not white’. Education as it stood, she said, ‘taught us to despise ourselves … our immediate need was an education which would instil into us a love of country, a pride of race, and enthusiasm for the black man’s capabilities’.

Meetings were held to raise funds, but the public was unenthusiastic. ‘Had I been starting a brothel’, she declared, ‘the antagonism could not have been worse.’ But she raised money in the United States and in late 1923 the school opened with 14 pupils.

Casely Hayford would have preferred the pupils ‘instead of blindly copying European fashions’ to be ‘dressed in attractive native garments’, but this idea was firmly rejected by the Krio community. The compromise was a ‘Mother Africa Day’, held quarterly, when the pupils dressed in African clothes and studied African history, folklore, songs and artwork, played African games and performed traditional dances.

One of her biggest clashes came about when the Prince of Wales, on his endless empire tour, came to Sierra Leone in 1925. Casely Hayford, as she put it, ‘begged’ those women invited to meet him to wear traditional dress, ‘to show we are proud of being Africans. They all turned me down.’ In the end, causing something of a stir, she was the only one to attend in traditional buba and lappa.

Adelaide Casely Hayford was one of the first African women to gain prominence in public life and paved the way for others to follow. Although not all her ambitions for the school were realised, nonetheless in 1924 she became the sole black female member of the colony’s Education Board. In this role she continued to campaign for female education to be given equal status with male, for schools to instil ‘some pride of race, love of country, and pride in their own colour’, and for the employment of properly trained and paid African teachers, using African-produced textbooks. As she wrote in a speech delivered by her daughter at an international conference in Geneva in 1931:

‘A school entirely controlled by white people can never promote a national outlook in the mind of the African child’.


Matthew Parker is the author of One Fine Day: Britain’s Empire on the Brink (Abacus Books, 2023).