An African in Imperial London by Danell Jones
I have always had a fascination with Africa, especially the South and Eastern Countries of this huge Continent. But my knowledge of West Africa has been all but nonexistent.
Danell Jones is a writer and scholar. Her work has appeared in a number of British Journals. She has a PhD in Literature from Columbia University and is the author of The Virginia Woolf Writers Workshop and Desert Elegy.
This biography of Augustus Merriman-Labor has taught me so much about the creation of Sierra Leone and the life of the African men and women who lived in London during the Edwardian period.
Merriman was born in Sierra Leone in 1877. In his eyes Sierra Leone ‘was a shining example of African exceptionalism’. As Europeans colonized African nations in the 19th Century, he was proud that Sierra Leone had never been a conquered country. He thought the British had created an African settlement – a place of safety and tranquility. He believed Sierra Leone was an exception to the rest of Africa.
Sierra Leone was established as a colony where formally enslaved people could live in freedom. It was a social experiment made up of four different groups of people. They came from Nova Scotia, Britain, the Maroons from Jamaica and released slaves after the abolition of slavery. Of course there were also the indigenous people.
Merriman’s Great Grandparents were part of the rescued slaves and suffered a harrowing journey to their new homeland. They settled in the capital, Freetown. Sierra Leone was built on freedom and equality but by 1877 when Merriman was born it was full of racial hostility. From his early teenage years Merriman began championing the African Cause and began writing for various journals. He longed to be an accepted African writer and in 1903 joined The London – based Society of Authors. Although he wanted to write he was encouraged to go to London to study medicine or Law.
In 1904 Merriman arrived in London and from there his rocky journey begins. While studying Law, he starts writing amusing, but realistic, articles and books on how he saw Britain through African eyes. He gave lectures both in Britain and back in Africa. He started companies for trading between Sierra Leone and Britain cutting out the middle man. Everything seemed to go well for a few years until the old establishment interfered.
He was debarred from the Law Society for not declaring correctly his trading activities and his books stopped selling. He found himself isolated and having to work long hours in the dangerous munitions factory during the First World War.
In this book, there is no mention of him having any close relationships. This may be lack of knowledge on the author’s part or it might be the reality.
The book is a story of a man full of hope and pride wanting Britain to be the land where the African was free to succeed. Instead he died in a poor house alone and disillusioned. He returned to his African name Ohlohr Maigi as he turned his back on all things British.
I found this book fascinating. It is a story of hardship caused by the political and social antipathy towards the African. Merriman’s belief in the British way of life is almost constant until it was dashed most cruelly during his final years.