Blyden, Edward Wilmot

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Blyden, Edward Wilmot

August 3, 1832
February 7, 1912

The Liberian nationalist Edward W. Blyden was born on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas. He was the son of free blacksRomeo, a tailor, and Judith, a schoolteacherand was the third of seven children. As early as 1842, while in Porto Bello, Venezuela, he began to develop a facility with language. He also became more acutely aware that the majority of people of African descent in the Americas were slaves, and this affected the future course of his life. Upon returning to St. Thomas, Blyden attended school and completed a five-year apprenticeship as a tailor. He grew interested in becoming a minister after meeting a Dutch Reformed minister, Rev. John P. Knox.

Knox was instrumental in Blyden's decision to come to the United States in 1850 and seek admission to Rutgers Theological College. Blyden was prevented from entering the school, however, because of his race. This experience, coupled with his devotion to further the black struggle, led him to support the African colonization movement. Less than a year after entering the United States, Blyden emigrated to Liberia with the support of members of the American Colonization Society (ACS).

Once in Liberia, Blyden entered school and prepared himself for a leadership role. His education was enhanced by travels to Europe, the Middle East, and throughout Africa. By 1858 he had been ordained a Presbyterian minister and accepted a position as principal of a high school in Liberia. He also served as a government correspondent and editor for the government newspaper, the Liberian Herald, for a year. His most important appointment was from 1880 to 1884 as president of Liberia College, which was overseen by a board of trustees in Boston and New York.

While Blyden was unable to receive all the formal educational training he hoped for, his vision for Liberia and for all people of African descent was defined in his writings. He argued that the African race had made significant contributions to human civilization and that African cultural institutions and customs should be preserved. He expressed the view that Islam had served Africa better than Christianity had, but that there was much for Africa to learn from the West. The essence of Blyden's thoughts was contained in his books Hope for Africa (1861), Christianity, Islam and the Negro Race (1887), and African Life and Customs (1908). A major portion of his writings focused on the colonization of blacks in Liberia. He envisioned that, with the emigration of highly educated blacks, Liberia could reach its full potential and become an example of the capabilities of the African race to the world.

Blyden was a major supporter of the ACS, which had founded Liberia in 1821. This organization was instrumental in his own emergence within Liberia and in the international community. Blyden wrote many articles for the ACS journal, the African Repository, and he regularly corresponded with the group's officials. He also made numerous visits to the United States on behalf of the ACS to urge educated blacks to emigrate. Throughout his lifetime, Blyden held the view that blacks could never be wholly accepted as equals in America. His emigrationist appeals, however, fell primarily on deaf ears, and Blyden and the ACS were on occasion forced to look for emigrants to Liberia in the Caribbean.

Much of Blyden's life was spent in pursuit of political goals. After being appointed Liberia's secretary of state in 1864 (he served until 1866), Blyden used this position to encourage the emigration of "genuine blacks," rather than mulattoes, to Liberia. In 1871 he left the country after narrowly escaping being lynched in an atmosphere of political instability caused by warring factions, and because of his opposition to mulatto rule and control within Liberia. He spent this time in Sierra Leone, returning to Liberia in 1873. After his return, Blyden continued traveling to the United States to advocate emigration. He resumed his role as an educator and was appointed minister of the interior and secretary of education in 1880. He also made an unsuccessful attempt to become Liberia's president in 1885.

After 1885, Blyden focused much of his attention on the issue of West African unity, which had been initiated while he was in Sierra Leone. He used his diplomatic positions in London and Paris to advance this agenda. However, the unity theme was clouded by his belief that European colonialism in Africa could be positive for development. He believed that the climate would prevent Europeans from settling in Africa on a permanent basis.

Prior to his death in Sierra Leone, Blyden was in poor health and received a moderate pension, at the instruction of the colonial secretary, from the governors of Sierra Leone, Lagos, and the Gold Coast. While his emigrationist vision for Liberia did not succeed as he had hoped, his racial fervor made him a symbolic figure for future generations of nationalists.

See also Nationalism in the United States in the Nineteenth Century; Pan-Africanism


Lynch, Holls R. Edward Wilmot Blyden, Pan-Negro Patriot, 1832-1912. London: Oxford University Press, 1967.

Lynch, Holls R., ed. Selected Letters of Edward Wilmot Blyden. Millwood, N.Y.: KTO Press, 1978.

layn saint-louis (1996)

Edward Wilmot Blyden

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Edward Wilmot Blyden

Edward Wilmot Blyden (1832-1912) was a Liberian educator and statesman. More than any other figure, he laid the foundation of West African nationalism and of pan-Africanism.

Edward Blyden was born in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, on Aug. 3, 1832, of free, literate parents. A precocious youth, he early decided to become a clergyman. He went to the United States in May 1850 and sought to enter a theological college but was turned down because of his race. In January 1851 he emigrated to Liberia, a African American colony which had become independent as a republic in 1847.

He continued his formal education at Alexander High School, Monrovia, whose principal he was appointed in 1858. In 1862 he was appointed professor of classics at the newly opened Liberia College, a position he held until 1871. Although Blyden was self-taught beyond high school, he became an able and versatile linguist, classicist, theologian, historian, and sociologist. From 1864 to 1866, in addition to his professorial duties, Blyden acted as secretary of state of Liberia.

From 1871 to 1873 Blyden lived in Freetown, Sierra Leone. There he edited Negro, the first explicitly pan-African journal in West Africa. He also led two important expeditions to Fouta Djallon in the interior. Between 1874 and 1885 Blyden was again based in Liberia, holding various high academic and governmental offices. In 1885 he was an unsuccessful candidate for the Liberian presidency.

After 1885 Blyden divided his time between Liberia and the British colonies of Sierra Leone and Lagos. He served Liberia again in the capacities of ambassador to Britain and France and as a professor and later president of Liberia College. In 1891 and 1894 he spent several months in Lagos and worked there in 1896-1897 as government agent for native affairs.

While in Lagos he wrote regularly for the Lagos Weekly Record, one of the earliest propagators of Nigerian and West African nationalism. In Freetown, Blyden helped to edit the Sierra Leone News, which he had assisted in founding in 1884 "to serve the interest of West Africa … and the race generally." He also had helped found and edit the Freetown West African Reporter (1874-1882), whose declared aim was to forge a bond of unity among English-speaking West Africans. Between 1901 and 1906 Blyden was director of Moslem education; he taught English and "Western subjects" to Moslem youths with the object of building a bridge of communication between the Moslem and Christian communities. He died in Freetown on Feb. 7, 1912.

Writings, Ideas, and Hopes

Although Blyden held many important positions, it is more as a man of ideas than as a man of action that he is historically significant. He saw himself as a champion and defender of his race and in this role produced more than two dozen pamphlets and books, the most important of which are A Voice from Bleeding Africa (1856); Liberia's Offering (1862); The Negro in Ancient History (1869); The West African University (1872); From West Africa to Palestine (1873); Christianity, Islam and the Negro Race (1887), his major work; The Jewish Question (1898); West Africa before Europe (1905); and Africa Life and Customs (1908). His writings displayed conversancy with the main current of ideas as well as originality, and he was often controversial.

Blyden sought to prove that Africa and Africans have a worthy history and culture. He rejected the prevailing notion of the inferiority of the black man but accepted the view that each major race has a special contribution to make to world civilization. He argued that Christianity has had a demoralizing effect on blacks, while Islam has had a unifying and elevating influence.

Blyden's political goals were the establishment of a major modern West African state which would protect and promote the interests of peoples of African descent everywhere. He initially saw Liberia as the nucleus of such a state and sought to extend its influence and jurisdiction by encouraging selective "repatriation" from the Americas. He hoped, also in vain, that Liberia and adjacent Sierra Leone would unite as one nation. He was ambivalent about the establishment of European colonial rule; he thought that it would eventually result in modern independent nations in tropical Africa but was concerned about its damaging psychological impact. As a cultural nationalist, he pointed out that modernization was not incompatible with respect for African customs and institutions. He favored African names and dress and championed the establishment of educational and cultural institutions specifically designed to meet African needs and circumstances.

Further Reading

A full-length biography of Blyden is Hollis R. Lynch, Edward Wilmot Blyden: Pan-Negro Patriot, 1832-1912 (1967). Edith Holden, Blyden of Liberia: An Account of the Life and Labors of Edward Wilmot Blyden (1966), is an important source containing biographical details and excerpts from Blyden's letters and published writings. See also Hollis R. Lynch, ed., Black Spokesman: Selected Published Writings of Edward Wilmot Blyden (1971), the only representative anthology of his writings. □

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