Edward Wilmot Blyden (3 August 1832 – 7 February 1912) was a Sierra Leone Creole and Americo-Liberian educator, writer, diplomat, and politician in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Because Blyden was an intellectual force in both Liberia and Sierra Leone, historians regard him as both a Sierra Leone Creole and an Americo-Liberian.
Early life and education
Blyden was born on 3 August 1832 in Saint Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands (then under Danish rule) to slave parents who were Igbo people from present-day Nigeria.
According to the historian Hollis R. Lynch, in 1845 Blyden met the Reverend John P. Knox, a white American, who became pastor of the St. Thomas Protestant Dutch Reformed Church. Blyden and his family lived near the church, and Knox was impressed with the studious, intelligent boy. He became his mentor, encouraging his considerable aptitude for oratory and literature. Mainly because of his close association with Knox, Edward Wilmot Blyden decided to become a minister, which his parents encouraged. In May 1850, Blyden, accompanied by Reverend Knox’s wife, went to the United States to enroll in Rutgers Theological College, Knox’s alma mater. He was refused admission due to his race. Efforts to enroll him in two other theological colleges also failed. Knox encouraged Blyden to go to Liberia and the colony set up by the American Colonization Society (ACS), where he thought Blyden would be able to use his talents.
Marriage and family
Later that year, Blyden arrived in Liberia and was soon deeply involved in its development. Blyden married Sarah Yates, an Americo-Liberian from the prominent Yates family. She was the niece of the Liberian vice president, Hilary Yates. She had three children with Blyden.
Blyden later in Freetown, Sierra Leone had a long-term relationship with Anna Erskine, an African American from Louisiana. She was the granddaughter of the President of Liberia James Spriggs-Payne. Blyden had five children with Anna Erskine, and his descendants in Sierra Leone are descended from this union. Some of Blyden’s descendants still reside in Freetown, among them Sylvia Blyden, publisher of the Awareness Times.
He died in Freetown, Sierra Leone, on 7 February 1912 and was buried at Racecourse Cemetery in Freetown, Sierra Leone.
From 1855-1856, Blyden edited the Liberia Herald and wrote “A Voice From Bleeding Africa”. He also spent time in other British colonies in West Africa, particularly Nigeria and Sierra Leone, writing for early newspapers in both colonies. He maintained ties with the American Colonization Society and published in their journal, African Depository and Colonial Journal.
As a diplomat, he served as an ambassador for Liberia to Britain and France. He also traveled to the United States, where he spoke to major black congregations about his work in Africa. Blyden believed that Black Americans’ suffering racial discrimination had a role to play in the development of Africa by returning to the continent. He was critical of African Americans who did not associate with Africa.
As a young man, Blyden was appointed the Liberian Secretary of State (1862–1864). He was later appointed Minister of the Interior (1880–1882).
In addition to holding many positions of leadership in politics and diplomacy, he taught classics at Liberia College (1862–1871). He also served as its president (1880–1884), leading the college through a period of expansion. From 1901-06, Blyden directed the education of Muslims at an institution in Sierra Leone.
Edward Wilmot Blyden
As a writer, Blyden is regarded widely as the “father of Pan-Africanism”. His major work, Christianity, Islam and the Negro Race (1887), promoted the idea that Islam, a major religion in sub-Saharan Africa, has a more unifying and fulfilling effect on sub-Saharan Africans than Christianity. Also a major religion in Africa, the latter was introduced mostly by European colonizers and Blyden believed it had a demoralizing effect, although he continued to be a Christian. He thought Islam was more authentically African, although it had been introduced by Arab colonizers. This work was controversial in Great Britain, both for its subject and because many people at first did not believe that a black African had written it. In later printings, Blyden included his photograph as the frontispiece.
Blyden supported the creation of a Jewish state in Israel and praised Theodore Herzl as the creator of “that marvelous movement called Zionism.”
- “The Call of Providence to the Descendants of Africa in America”, A Discourse Delivered to Coloured Congregations in the Cities of New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Harrisburg, during the Summer of 1862, in Liberia’s Offering: Being Addresses, Sermons, etc., New York: John A. Gray, 1862
- Christianity, Islam and the Negro Race, London, W.B. Whittingham & Co., 1887; 2nd Edition 1888; University of Edinburgh Press, 3rd Edition, 1967; reprint of 1888 edition, Baltimore, Maryland: Black Classic Press, 1994 (edition on Googlebooks).
- African Life and Customs, London: C.M. Phillips, 1908; reprint Baltimore, Maryland: Black Classic Press, 1994.
- West Africa Before Europe: and Other Addresses, Delivered in England in 1901 and 1903, London: C.M. Phillips, 1905.
Essays and speeches
- “Africa for the Africans,” African Repository and Colonial Journal, Washington, DC: January 1872.
- “The Call of Providence to the Descendants of Africa in America”, A Discourse Delivered to Coloured Congregations in the Cities of New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Harrisburg, during the Summer of 1862, in Liberia’s Offering: Being Addresses, Sermons, etc., New York: John A. Gray, 1862.
- “The Elements of Permanent Influence”, Discourse Delivered at the 15th St. Presbyterian Church, Washington, D.C., Sunday, 16 February 1890, Washington, DC: R. L. Pendleton (published by request), 1890 (hosted on Virtual Museum of Edward W. Blyden)
- “Liberia as a Means, Not an End”, Liberian Independence Oration: 26 July 1867; African Repository and Colonial Journal, Washington, DC: November 1867.
- “The Negro in Ancient History, Liberia: Past, Present, and Future,” Methodist Quarterly Review, Washington, DC: M’Gill & Witherow Printer.
- “The Origin and Purpose of African Colonization”, A Discourse Delivered at the 66th Anniversary of the American Colonization Society, Washington, D.C., 14 January 1883, Washington, 1883.
- E. W. Blyden M.A., Report on the Falaba Expedition 1872, Addressed to His Excellency Governor J. Pope Hennessy, C.M.G., Published by authority Freetown, Sierra Leone. Printed at Government office, 1872.
- “Liberia at the American Centennial”, Methodist Quarterly Review, July 1877.
- “America in Africa,” Christian Advocate I., 28 July 1898, II 4 August 1898.
- “The Negro in the United States,” A.M.E. Church Review, January 1900.